Mother’s Day is one of the more loaded holidays on the calendar. It’s lovely to celebrate your mom if she’s still alive and if you have a good relationship with her, and it’s lovely to be celebrated if you are a mom. But that’s a lot of conditionals, especially for the millions of adult women who are child-free. Whether you’re not a mother by choice or through circumstances beyond your control, the media isn’t exactly your pal this time of year. In fact, though I initially envisioned this piece as a list of films about adult women who are happily child-free, I quickly realized I might as well go unicorn hunting. Unattached women of any sort don’t fit into Hollywood’s idea of a happy ending.
Television does better by the ladies in this department, as in so many others. Sure, self-possessed, child-free women are still few and far between. As much as “Parks and Recreation” was generally a feminist paradise, April Ludgate’s change of heart regarding motherhood seemed an unnecessary betrayal of her character, and Leslie Knope’s triplets seemed tacked-on as a plot point. The distinctly un-nurturing Murphy Brown opted for single mamahood eventually (though that was revolutionary in its own right), and even Miranda Hobbes of “Sex and the City” couldn’t go through with her abortion. Christina Yang of “Grey’s Anatomy” did, and her fiery red-haired husband never let her forget it. And while some may mourn the cancellation of “The Mindy Show,” it’s possible we were spared some really heinous Mindy-as-mom plotlines.
The 1970s, that hotbed of ERA activism, may be the best decade to date for child-free women on television. Let’s start with that patron saint of career gals everywhere, Mary Richards of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” Played by Moore, who until then had been known as Dick Van Dyke’s long-legged, longer-suffering wife on his eponymous TV show, Richards was a tam-o’-shanter-tossing beacon of female self-realization. The show began when her happily-ever-after ended with a fella and she was forced to–gasp– find a job. Over the years she focused on her friendships and blossoming TV career; she dated intermittently but was blissfully child-free through the series’ conclusion. “The Mary Tyler Moore” show also spawned Rhoda Morgenstern, the appealingly wry Valerie Harper character first introduced as MTM’s neighbor. A New York Jew with an impressive array of head scarfs, Rhoda bemoaned her lifestyle when living in Minneapolis with Mary but came into her own once she moved back to Manhattan (and got her own series). Though she was married for one season, she never had children of her own, and never seemed to mind. (A brief foray into stepmotherhood did not suit her.) And we must acknowledge Emily Hartley of “The Bob Newhart Show.” Played by the inimitable Suzanne Pleshette, she was the witheringly sarcastic yet supportive school-teacher wife of witheringly sarcastic yet supportive Chicago psychiatrist Robert (Newhart). The couple enjoyed that rarest of things in Hollywoodland: a mature, contentedly child-free marriage.
No one’s going to argue that the Reagan eighties were grand for women in media but they did bring us Jessica Fletcher of “Murder, She Wrote,” one of television’s longest-running prime-time series. Angela Lansbury starred as the retired English teacher and widow who was far too busy as a mystery writer and amateur detective to fret over her lack of offspring. The irony, of course? She was everyone’s dream grandmother. The nineties brought us Elaine Benes (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) of “Seinfeld.” No mere gal Friday, Elaine treated her male co-stars as partners in (narcissistic) crime, and her disinterest in motherhood seemed more than a byproduct of her singlehood: Her code for worthy suitors was “sponge-worthy.” That decade also brought us Chief Inspector Jane Tennison of “Prime Suspect.” Played by Helen Mirren, that grand dame of everything, she was an English police detective with unparalleled investigative instincts, a love of brown liquor, and a rocky relationship with, well, everyone. She had her fair share of partners but, when push came to shove, followed through on a scheduled abortion and went on to solve more crimes without much ado. While she may not be the cheerful of child-free TV role models, she’s definitely the most badass.
Gloriously libidinous Grace Hanadarko (Holly Hunter) of “Saving Grace” was another deliberately child-free police detective. During that series’ uneven three seasons (2007-2010), one thing didn’t change: the Oklahoma cop with an angel on her shoulder never changed her tune about becoming a mom. There’s also bad-ass attorney Diane Lockhart of “The Good Wife.” Her choice not to have kids is a non-issue even now that’s secured a Carville-Matalin brand of martial bliss. (The series doesn’t dwell too much on her relationship, either.)
But the greatest TV non-mom of all time is Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) of “Sex and the City.” In addition to Carrie’s never-ending quest for the perfect shoe and a Big love, one of the show’s chief arcs was built around her dawning realization that she did not want to become a mother. The topic first arose in Season 1 when she confronted her ambivalence about parenthood during a pregnancy scare, and, along with Samantha, she didn’t cry “biological clock” even when Steve knocked up Miranda (with one testicle and a lazy ovary!) and Charlotte became obsessed with her empty nest. In “A Woman’s Right to Shoes,” Carrie even confronted a smug mum. Forced to remove her $485 Manolo Blahnik heels during friend Kyra’s baby shower, Carrie ended up shoeless when another guest walked off her pair. Kyra offered to pay for them only to balk at the cost.
Kyra: “I’m sorry, I just think that’s crazy to spend that much money on shoes.”
Carrie: “You know how much Manolos are. You used to wear Manolos.”
Kyra: “Sure. Before I had a real life. But Chuck and I have responsibilities now. Kids, houses. $485. Like, wow.”
Carrie: “I have a real life.”
Kyra: “No offense, Carrie, but I really don’t think we should have to pay for your extravagant life style. I mean it was your choice to buy shoes that expensive.”
Carrie: “Yes, but it wasn’t my choice to take them off.”
Carrie’s solution was brilliant. She sent Kyra an invite to her shower, and the only item on the registry was a pair of those lost Manolos. While you need not be a mum to consider $485 a ridiculous amount to pay for footwear, this remains a seminal moment of television–the child-free woman’s version of Norma Rae standing with her “UNION” sign. Whether you like the medium or not, TV mainstreams social change. (Consider how “Will & Grace” helped establish gay people in the public eye.) This Sunday, in addition to honoring mothers, let’s tip our hats to the many women who don’t have children. May they find airtime as well.
This was originally published in Word and Film.