Apologies To Freud

The psychopathology of everyday life

Mothers and Daughters: Stepmothers and Mother Nature

Stepfamilies are complicated.

In this week’s Episode of Mad Men (512 “Commissions and Fees”) all eyes are on Lane Pryce. His desperate act—hanging himself in his office after Don Draper demands his immediate resignation following the discovery of a forged check—represents a dark turn for the show. When Joan Harris discovers the body, we see Don looking on in agony, and we can only imagine his guilt. But Don is not responsible; Lane chose to end his own life—and to do so in a very angry and very public way.  His suicide stands as an angry communication to the wife and partners he feels have disappointed him.

And since everyone who owns a television seems to be blogging about Lane’s tragedy, my focus will be on Sally Draper and her complicated mother/daughter/stepmother triangle.

For months we have watched Sally vent about her mother Betty to her stepmom Megan; she complains of being misunderstood and ill treated in a contemptuous, lip-curling way—as only a Tween girl can. When Betty mentions an upcoming family ski trip, Sally stomps her little white go- go boot and refuses to go. So, Betty sends her to Don’s, where she spends the day with her stepmother. At a ladies’ lunch they engage in girl talk, and you can almost hear her adolescent brain spinning, “My mother is sooooo annoying! Megan, is so much cooler.” Sally emulates her fashion choices, and seeks her advice on everything from boyfriends to dealing with Betty.

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For most of the season it has appeared that the almost- teen prefers Megan over her mother--until the intervention of another maternal presence, Mother Nature: when Sally begins to menstruate while on a date with Glen Bishop at the Museum of Natural History, she panics. So she flees — not to Megan, but to Betty; in fact she hops straight into a cab and doesn’t stop running until she arrives at the Frances doorstep in Westchester County.

What is going on between Sally and Megan, Sally and Betty, and Megan and Betty? “These are complicated relationships,” says Wednesday Martin, PhD., cultural anthropologist and Author of Stepmonster: a new look at how stepmothers think and why they act the way they do (2008 Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). “Research and clinical data indicate that relationships between teen girls and their stepmothers are the most challenging in the stepfamily system.”   

The stepfamily drama makes sense when you think about it; Sally’s identity is emerging. Like any adolescent she is trying to figure out how to act and whom to be. This involves separating psychologically from her parents, and especially her mother. While always a complicated and difficult process, separation and identity development are particularly fraught when there are multiple persons and households involved. 

Clearly the mother/daughter/stepmother triangle has not been easy for the Draper family to navigate. In the penultimate episode this season, when Sally runs home to Betty we see a dynamic that is common in re-partnership with children post divorce: while stepmom is a person you can talk to and go to, sometimes for things that are too uncomfortable to discuss with parents (sex, drugs, etc), there is a delicate balance and there are strong feelings of loyalty. Children still love their parents first and foremost. 

So, though it seems confusing that Sally disparages her mother in the presence of her stepmother, before running to her mom in the throes of an adolescent crisis, it makes sense psychologically. Sally probably feels like she has to choose: it is Don and his new wife Megan, or Betty. Liking one means you cannot like the other, in fantasy. This presents a “loyalty bind,” according to Martin: “Kids often feel they can only like one parent at a time post divorce. So one household is good and the other is bad. Then they switch. It can be dizzying for the adults involved, and tremendously confusing for the child. Sally Draper first turns her stepmother into the good object, rejecting her mother. But she runs to Betty at menstruation because Betty is her mother. She always will be. Kids almost always love their parents more deeply than they do stepparents. Step-parents are not parents; for Sally, like children everywhere, her mother will always be her mother.”

Betty and Sally’s mother daughter relationship is clearly fraught—it is an ambivalent roller coaster of love–hate, compassion, and provocation like no other. No one pushes Sally’s buttons like her mother. Yet, she is there in Sally’s moment of need. The writers got that one right.

Stephanie Newman, PhD, is the author of Mad Men on the Couch: Analyzing the Minds of the Men and Women of the hit TV show, which can be purchased from Barnes & Noble, Indie Bound, and Amazon.

Stephanie Newman, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst, as well as the author of Mad Men on the Couch.

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