My Mother Never Smoked

My Mother Never Smoked

MAD MEN’S Betty Draper: smoking just might be her best friend.

No, my mother never smoked, but she downed a few cocktails. And though, in retrospect, she was certainly in her right, when I was very young, I didn’t like it. Oh, she was never drunk—just a little giddy, more volatile and lively. Those times when I didn’t like it, she had friends over and sometimes someone played the piano and my mother stood up and sang. She had a beautiful voice. She was just having fun—but for me, during those few hours, she was different. After all she was supposed to always be my mother. And somewhere in my brain, I had decided that when I was not the center of her attention—well, I just didn’t like it.


You might remember that my father died when I was 3 and my life was my mother—and my two brothers—one older, one younger. We were a team, a whole, a perfect inner circle. And we thrived that way. And yes, people say all the time that children are resilient—but children are a lot better off if they can expect certain behaviors and get them—consistently. Why throw something in their way that is difficult to adjust to? Growing up is challenge enough. Being able to expect loving behaviors from mothers and fathers provides security and peace—a better garden for children to grow in. My mother ALWAYS provided that.

So when I mention the resilience question, I’m not talking about my mother having a drink or two. My mother never asked us to be resilient. Losing our father when we were 6, 3 and 3 months was more than enough—she lived her life making sure of that.


But back to smoking. My two aunts smoked and I grew up thinking smoking was rather glamorous. Did I even know that word when I was 8 or 9? But I did ponder their smoking enough that when they took me places, I put a bunch of toothpicks in my patent leather purse. Then when they lit up in the front seat of the car, I sat in the back, smoking my toothpick. I wonder if they ever noticed! And if I had the occasional pack of candy cigarettes with the bright pink tips in my purse—I was in heaven. But I remember my aunts more for their love and kindness–they were an extension of my mother. They were absolutely wonderful people who inspired me to write, read, think.


But the smoking thing was there. In high school I bummed a cigarette and burned a hole in my brand new Garland skirt. I didn’t know what I was doing. I bummed a few more in college, a few from my sister-in laws and then that was that. But now we come to Betty Draper, a mother, a smoker, a main character on MAD MEN–a series that chronicles the sixties. While watching MAD MEN you laugh and cry—because as a Boomer you are looking back at the way things were—and they weren’t always that great. Betty Draper has three children. Betty smokes constantly. If Mathew Weiner, the series creator and writer, were to take Betty with him into the present day, she’s got to have some major respiratory condition. But looking at her now, she’s suffering from hollowness.

In the last week’s episode, Betty makes a decision to really be a mom—to go with Bobby on a field trip to a farm. She even puts her cigarette down long enough to sip some warm milk right from a cow teat. But when Bobby, not realizing his mother is to share his bag lunch, trades her sandwich for some gum drops–the day ends. She lights up a cigarette and turns away. Bobby tells his stepfather that night, “I wish it was yesterday.” His dream of being with his mother fades away. And it always will.

Betty is of the mind that children are resilient and fails to shield them from any negative in her own life. The African American woman who sits with the children and helps them with their homework seems kinder, more able to understand their needs. But Betty’s insecurities are palpable. If she felt good about herself, she might truly communicate with her children and show a stronger desire to raise them. And again, what would Mathew Weiner write about Bobby in 20 years? He might be okay, but he might drink a lot—like his father, or like his mother, need something that satisfies his lack of kissing and hugging and UNDERSTANDING. It’s truly Betty’s fault. She calls herself a mom but as one critic put it: smoking is her best friend.


Researchers more and more are seeing the children are resilient statement as a fallacy. Darcia Navaez PhD writes: Among researchers, it (resilience) usually means that the person is doing better than expected for the situation they are in; e.g., coping despite neglect. In child development it means that the person is not a clinical problem or a criminal or a drop out, even though they did not get their basic needs met in some fashion. I contrast resiliency with thriving. Thriving means that your needs were met during sensitive periods and that you have what you need for wellbeing.


So again, my brothers and I THRIVED. Bobby Draper is being forced to do as well as he can. Navaez writes that there are four basic causes that have come together to form this resilience standard.

  1. Some parents did not receive optimal care growing up; they raised themselves. And so caring for and raising their own children doesn’t give them much pleasure. They don’t THRIVE doing it, so to speak.
  2. Popular culture encourages self-centeredness. Self-sacrifice is little heard of and rationalized away—Navaez’s example: let that kid cry himself to sleep. It won’t hurt him. My mother’s life was all about sacrifice.
  3. Current culture often obscures our genetic drives. We let something we read or what someone else says blot out our deep maternal and paternal instincts and drives—like going to that crying child and soothing him.
  4. Our culture continues to overburden families. Caregiving is often last on the list after working multiple jobs and having outside-the-home activities. (Betty Draper has help in her house and she doesn’t have to work. What does she do all day?) And parents just keep telling themselves their children are resilient and will be okay. They won’t.


My mother worked—in our home. We learned to accept that for certain hours of the day she typed in our dining room. We learned how to help out—making sandwiches, doing the dishes and other small cleaning chores. As we grew, we put up storm windows and mowed the lawn and raked leaves and I always cleaned the house. There were days when we fell back into kid-like behavior and Mom wasn’t happy: found us all laughing at cartoons on a Saturday morning (two of us were in college) while she came stomping up the back steps with loads of groceries. You see, my mom was human too.

Not as many moms smoke today–that’s really good news. And it would be even better news if they put away their cell phones and sat on the floor with their children. Even busy mothers who have to work, who have outside-the-house responsibilities can share time with their children: helping with homework, playing games, reading to them, like my mom did, doing fun projects. Or on a busy day, when life is more hectic than usual, just pulling each one into a warm lap and whispering I LOVE YOU. I TRULY LOVE YOU. That will help them thrive.

Thanks to Google Images

6 thoughts on “My Mother Never Smoked

  1. Beth,
    I LOVE THIS POST! I work full time, while trying to manage two chronic illnesses, finish school and raise a lively daughter. I am constantly worried that I don’t do enough for her, that I’m not there enough, that I’m not a good enough mother. That my extreme exhaustion causes me to sometimes just sit with her and hug her instead of doing something.
    I also help care for my family members who suffer some health issues and my 95 year old grandmother, who while still independent, needs assistance with grocery shopping, medical concerns etc… And of course I also try to keep the house clean, the car running, food in the fridge; bills paid… you know “life” stuff.
    I don’t think my mother was a bad mother. She was a stay at home mom until I was 14 years old and she did help with homework, talent shows, class elections and other school related projects. She encouraged us to believe in ourselves and use our imaginations. She helped us set up a summer fun fair every year and we raised money for the American Diabetes Association. She helped us go to summer camp on scholarships. However, my parents were divorced when I was 15, a year after she went back to work and several years after they started having serious problems. I never knew the extent of their problems and all I saw was my family, split into two different lives. I have the BD memories, Before Divorce and the AD memories, After Divorce. They are very different. BD is my childhood, wasn’t easy, I had diabetes as did my sister, I was the oldest of 5 kids, we didn’t have much and I struggled in school to make friends and fit in. However, going home was always a relief. I knew my mom would be there in her denim, wraparound skirt, sweeping the kitchen floors and we’d go inside, throw our school bags down, get a snack and be off to play outside. My mom always let us play outside before doing homework because otherwise we may not get outside before it grew dark especially in the fall and winter hours. So while school wasn’t the best place for me, home was safe, home was easy, home was freedom.
    That was BD though.
    The times after the divorce were nothing like that. I was a teenager now, kids were crueler, my mom’s head was somewhere else, understandable now but back then I didn’t get it. I lost my safe place, I felt like I’d lost the one place I could go and be myself and still be loved.
    It was a hard time and I know that now. I appreciate the fact that my mother made our childhood so special and warm. I knew as a kid that she loved me.
    I try very hard to let my daughter know how much I love her. That no matter how dire my physical condition may be sometimes, I still want to be with her, I still want to share things with her. Sometimes we take drives because that’s all I have the energy for, we listen to music, we look at the different houses, we talk about what we’d do if we could travel anywhere in the world. We talk about the future and how to make it better, what kind of job she’d like someday, I stress the importance of being able to take care of yourself, of getting a good career someday, of going to college and building a life for yourself. See, as she gets older, I am inevitably going to get sicker. I won’t be around to see her children, I won’t be here to help guide her through those life changes that make you become an adult.
    I always want her to know that I loved her. That I thought about her future, that I wanted the best for her and most of all that she was the greatest part of my life.
    Thank you Beth, for sharing this post, for making us working moms feel better about ourselves and most of all for upholding the belief that we make a difference in our children’s lives that the love we give matters most.

  2. Natalie,
    I know you are doing all that you can do. And I appreciate your enthusiasm for my work and am grateful for it. Don’t be too hard on yourself. In life we often have to tell ourselves, ONE DAY AT A TIME. I really think you would enjoy reading FROM THREE FEET OFF THE GROUND, my daughter’s book. Click on the suggestion to SIT ON THE FLOOR in my post above, and read the review. Maybe someone who loves you could give it to you for Mother’s Day. Always, Beth

  3. Thank you for the wonderful suggestion Beth. I think I would enjoy the book very much!

  4. It has been a busy time, and I missed this very insightful Boomer Highway. But today I was fortunate enough to find it, and I must say it is one of the finer ones. Having grown up in the same home with my sister, Beth, these words resonate with me. Mom did not smoke, but was teased by her children about her bourbon on the rocks at 5:00PM. In our earlier years, this was not a daily occurrence, but in Mom’s retirement years it more or less hailed the end of the day. But it was always social with Mom, and so these are my remembrances. But smoking was never a something suggested to any of us, despite the fact my Mom’s two sisters did smoke in front of us without qualm. But in those days, no one knew the severity of the habit. But then, this is really about resiliency, and how we as kids are able to rebound from less than perfect circumstances. And I think Boomer Highway hits it out of the park when it mentions to hold your children in your lap and tell them that I LOVE YOU. Because that fills in many of the blanks for all of us, and with a healthy household fostered by that love, children can find the springs to bounce back from adversity of any kind. We all were able to, after losing our father at a very early age. Only that love from our mother could have led all of us to successful, happy lives we are now so privileged to lead.

  5. Bill, what can I say to answer your beautiful tribute to mom. YOU hit it out of the park. Thanks, Beth

  6. Pingback: Do Children Have to Be Resilient Part 2 | Boomer Highway

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