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Why It Matters That ‘The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’ is a Less-Than-Marvelous Mom

Rachel Brosnahan as Miriam "Midge" Maisel with baby Esther and older son Ethan in a scene from Amazon's 'The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.' The kids are seated at the kitchen table as Midge stands talking to Ethan. She is a white woman with bobbed reddish-brownish hair and wearing a grey, belted, 1950's style dress with a pink collar and bow at her neck.

Miriam “Midge” Maisel, the titular character of Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, does a lot well. She’s hilarious, hence her professional comedy career. She stands up for herself and others. She has impeccable taste in fashion and knows the importance of a “sitting outfit” vs a “standing outfit.”

However, Midge (Rachel Brosnahan) is less good at people.

Her divorce from Joel Maisel (Michael Zegen) is the catalyst for the rest of the series. In the current season’s flash-forwards, we learn that she gets married four more times, but none of them have lasted. We learn that her friendship with her long-time friend and manager, Susie Meyerson (Alex Borstein), eventually implodes.

And most notably, we see the impact of her shoddy parenting on her two children, Ethan and Esther.

Seen, but not heard

Mrs. Maisel holds her two children
(Prime Video)

Throughout the seasons, Midge’s kids have been a sight gag. Mostly, they silently watch TV. When they make noise at all, it’s always weird and for comedy relief. They follow silently as either Midge or Joel drop them off with other people to be cared for. Or sleep silently as their mother drags them up and down a hallway. Their maternal grandparents, Rose and Abe (Marin Hinkle and Tony Shaloub), mostly ignore them, while their paternal grandparents Moishe and Shirley (Kevin Pollak and Caroline Aaron), smother them and talk over them so much they can’t speak.

Ethan and Esther Maisel are a perfect depiction of “Children should be seen and not heard.”

While Mad Men, another period show set in the late 1950s/early 60s, progressively incorporated Don and Betty Draper’s children into storylines where they actually got to speak and have personalities (especially Kiernan Shipka’s Sally Draper, because Shipka was great), the Maisel children have spent four seasons being props rather than characters—they’re just obstacles standing between their parents and complete freedom.

Miriam Maisel: poster child for 1950s societal roles

Michael Zegen as Joel, Matteo Pascale as Ethan, and Rachel Brosnahan as Midge in Amazon's 'The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.' This is a 1950s/60s period piece. They're standing on a merry-go-round and Ethan is on a horse as his parents stand on either side. Joel is a white, Jewish man with slicked back hair wearing a grey suit. Ethan is a white toddler with curly, dark hair wearing a navy blue suit jacket and shorts. Midge is a white, Jewish woman with chin-length, curled hair wearing a red dress with long sleeves.
(Prime Video)

Midge is the ideal, upper-class, 1950s housewife: conventionally attractive, dresses well, has all the Emily Post etiquette down, and is really good at sticking to the feminine social script.

She married and had two children with Joel, while managing to hold onto her excellent figure. She’s a good cook and doesn’t work, because her husband is supporting them. And when the show begins, she’s actively supporting his dream of being a stand-up comedian. She goes so far as to bring her amazing brisket to bribe the comedy club owner into giving Joel a better time slot.

Midge chafes under her prescribed societal role

Michael Zegen as Joel, and Rachel Brosnahan as Midge in Amazon's 'The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.' This is a 1950s/60s period piece. They're sitting at a table in a comedy club. Joel is a white, Jewish man with slicked back hair wearing a black turtleneck and holding a lit cigarette. He's holding his head in his cigarette hand as he sits with his eyes closed, frustrated with something. Midge is a white, Jewish woman with chin-length, curled hair with a scarf tied in it wearing a black shirt with three-quarter sleeves, a chunky, brown necklace, and a gold bracelet. Her elbow is on the table as she props her chin up with her hand and looks out into the distance, disappointed.
(Prime Video)

Both Midge and Joel seek freedom from their prescribed societal roles by pursuing comedy.

Midge is clever, funny, and opinionated. She polishes Joel’s jokes and makes them better. She has always been brash and in-your-face, albeit in a socially acceptable way. She colors in the lines, but tends to use loud, unorthodox colors.

Midge doesn’t want to live inside the box and it’s sad that she doesn’t realize this about herself at first. Midge is so good at being the 1950s feminine ideal that it doesn’t occur to her to think about wanting anything else.

When Midge tells her parents that Joel cheated and that she chooses divorce, her parents try to convince her to make it work. Not because they care about her happiness (they blame her for the trouble in her marriage!), but because the social script dictates that women have to bend over backwards to make marriage work. A divorced woman was “tarnished goods” at that time.

Somewhere in all of that, Midge and Joel have two children to whom they are barely paying attention.

Growing up Maisel and Weissman

(left-right) Caroline Aaron as Shirley Maisel, Kevin Pollak as Moishe Maisel, Michael Zegan as Joel Maisel, Rachel Brosnahan as Midge Maisel, Marin Hinkle as Rose Weissman and Tony Shaloub as Abe Weissman in a scene from Amazon's 'The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.' They are all seated in chairs at an indoor reception. The parents are seated in the front row, each couple on opposite sides of an aisle. Joel and Midge are seated one row behind them on opposite sides of the aisle.
(Prime Video)

The Weissmans and Maisels each have interests that extend beyond marriage and children. But, they are also of a generation that lived through a World War and prioritizes what they see as “the greater good” over “self actualization.” Family is a huge part of this, but that means supporting children materially and financially—not necessarily emotionally.

As parents, the Weissmans and Maisels alternate between being insufferably involved in their children’s lives and being completely detached, even when Midge or Joel are experiencing serious hardships. They show love through financial support or unsolicited advice.

While they love Joel and Miriam, they don’t understand them. To them, things like “fulfillment,” and “happiness” are things you pursue only after you’ve fulfilled your societal obligations to everyone else. So, when they see their children “acting out” by blowing up their “picture-perfect” life, they don’t know what to do with that.

You parent how you’ve been parented

Tony Shaloub as Abe and Marin Hinkle as Rose in a scene from Amazon's 'The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.' They are in Paris, and Abe, wearing a beret along with his trench coat and dark suit, follows after Rose, who's wearing a green hat and coat with brown gloves and shoes and carrying a wicker tote bag with a baguette in it through a farmer's market.
(Prime Video)

We see what it must have been like to be raised by these people through their interactions with their grandchildren. In the way they ignore Ethan and Esther most of the time, or forget their birthdays. In the way they usually only speak with the children to correct behavior.

But, there’s a similarity in how Midge and Abe parent. Each is willing to try an outlandish solution recommended by professionals, or present unsolicited advice as fact, but neither is equipped to actually talk with their child and explore what might be going on for them.

If this is how Midge was parented, is it any wonder she grew up to repeat those patterns?

Midge’s impact on her children

Ben Rosenfield as Adult Ethan and Rachel Brosnahan as Midge in a scene from Amazon's 'The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.' They are standing outside on a kibbutz with a landed helicopter in the background. They are both looking off into the distance. Ethan is a white Jewish young man with curly, unkempt, brown hair, a beard, and wearing a dirty, white, short-sleeved buttondown. Midge is now 20 years older, and is wearing an orange turban, and an orange wrap along with big sunglasses.
(Prime Video)

Despite having chosen a career path that fulfills her in a way her parents were only able to later in their lives, the consequences of Midge’s terrible parenting are clear now that we’ve met Esther (Alexandra Socha) and Ethan (Ben Rosenfield) as adults.

23-year-old Esther has clearly inherited Midge’s fast talking, Abe’s math and science prowess, and both of their neuroses. In a therapy session, Esther reveals that, despite her clear genius, she doesn’t believe that any success in her chosen field will be enough to impress her infuriating mother.

Lior Zaltzman at Kveller gives a great break-down of a scene set in the 1980s when middle-aged Midge visits Ethan on a kibbutz in Israel. Midge and Ethan’s relationship is strained to the point that Ethan didn’t bother telling his mother that he’s getting married. Meanwhile, Midge looks down on his choice to volunteer at the kibbutz and his studies at rabbinical school. Oh, and Ethan’s fiancée doesn’t like Midge one bit.

Despite Midge herself having chosen a non-traditional career, she sure is judgmental about her children’s choices.

Not everyone wants “it all”

Composite image showing Rachel Brosnahan as Midge Maisel as a young woman (left) and 20 years older (right) on Amazon's 'The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.' On the left, Midge is wearing a red sailor-style hat, a red neck scarf, and a red dress. She is a white woman with curled, chin-length, dark brown hair. On the right, Brosnahan is wearing make-up to age her up. Her brown hair is now parted on the side, still curled and up to her chin. She's wearing a glittery, salmon pink top with a lavalier attached to it.
(Prime Video)

Midge becoming a successful comedian at the expense of her personal relationships can seem like a negative message. After all, certain versions of feminism tell us that we “can have it all,” right? First of all, no. You can’t have it all. At least, not all at the same time with the same degree of focus.

But, not everyone wants it all. Some people want one thing or the other. Yet even in the 21st Century, if a woman says she doesn’t want kids, people will talk about her “changing her mind” or “not really meaning it.” People with uteruses have to jump through hoops to get hysterectomies, regardless of their health issues, because “what if you change your mind?”

Midge is a mom because she has to be, not because she wants to be, and it shows. Her journey depicts the consequences of parenting when you don’t really want to be doing it.

Sure, she kept her children alive, but she also caused unnecessary harm simply because she didn’t think to to buck the societal script until after her marriage was over. Now, two damaged people who didn’t ask to be born are paying the price for Midge’s choices.

Yet the point isn’t, “Well, she should be a better mother and stop being selfish!” The point is, “She shouldn’t have had to deal with the pressure of becoming a mother in the first place.”

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel gives us Mei as the anti-Midge

Stephanie Hsu as Mei in a scene from Amazon's 'The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.' She's a young, Chinese woman with her black hair back in a bun and bangs across her forehead. She's wearing a patterned, purple dress with a high neckline. She looks concerned as she walks down a hospital hallway.
(Prime Video)

This season blessed us with a wonderful final performance from Stephanie Hsu as Mei, Joel’s almost-second-wife. Mei chooses becoming a doctor over being the next Mrs. Maisel and chooses herself over a being the mother of Joel’s child. While no one uses the word outright, Mei implies that she had an abortion.

Perhaps it’s because she’s the daughter of immigrants who live on the outside of societal norms to begin with, but Mei has learned to be true to herself and leave motherhood to those who want it as badly as she wants to be a doctor. She breaks up with Joel and moves to Chicago to pursue her dream, making the choice that Midge wasn’t capable of making earlier in her life.

The final season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel juxtaposes two women who prioritize a fulfilling career over being wives and mothers. By showing us both the consequences of making that choice later in life and the freedom that comes with making that choice earlier, this show makes it clear that if you’re going to be a parent, it should be something you want to do with your whole heart.

(featured image: Prime Video)

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Teresa Jusino (she/her) is a native New Yorker and a proud Puerto Rican, Jewish, bisexual woman with ADHD. She's been writing professionally since 2010 and was a former Mary Sue assistant editor from 2015-18. Teresa's returned to play in the TMS sandbox as a freelancer. When not writing about pop culture, she's writing screenplays and is the creator of your future favorite genre show. Teresa lives in L.A. with her brilliant wife. Her other great loves include: Star Trek, The Last of Us, anything by Brian K. Vaughan, and her Level 5 android Paladin named Lal.