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What Donna Reed Can Teach Us About Motherhood

If we can’t even define what a woman is these days, who is to say Mother’s Day won’t end up as something you only see celebrated in reruns?


“She is the strength of our nation, our community, and our family. The most beautiful word in the English language — mother.” So ended a speech Mary Stone gave about her mother on “The Donna Reed Show,” season one, episode four, which aired back in the fall of 1958. It was a different time. The mothers in the audience sobbed, the whole town buzzed about how wonderful Donna was, and a newspaper reporter showed up at the house to take photographs for a heartwarming story. There was nothing remotely controversial about this celebration of motherhood, something as American as baseball and apple pie.

Fast forward to 2023. According to Arizona Informer, corporations across America, including Hallmark, Kay Jewelers, and DoorDash, just to name a small sampling, are allowing their customers to opt out of Mother’s Day emails. While intended as a courtesy for those who have lost mothers, such heightened sensitivity could move us closer to eliminating Mother’s Day from the calendar entirely.

“That could never happen!” you might say. Don’t be too sure. Even though many Americans remember growing up with “The Donna Reed Show,” things have changed so drastically since the late ’50s, the Stones may as well have been living in the Stone Age. The dress and pearls Donna wore while serving breakfast are as antiquated as the rotary phone she answers in the opening credits. If we can’t even define what a woman is these days, who is to say Mother’s Day won’t end up as something you only see celebrated in reruns?

[READ: 15 Enduring Mother’s Day Gifts That Won’t Die In A Vase]

I grew up watching Nick at Nite and its “Better Living Through Television” ads. Old classics like “The Donna Reed Show” have long been derided because “nobody lived like that!” — and it’s true, few people did! This is old television — it wasn’t meant to be realistic and depressing, it was meant to entertain and teach little lessons. Maybe I was brainwashed, but I’ve always believed taking a cue from these shows can improve our lives in little ways.

So what does this episode of “The Donna Reed Show” teach us about motherhood, and how can it help us to live better? Mary’s essay describes the “sublime sacrifices” mothers make every day, “that the world will never know about because there is no poet around to record them,” like tending to a crying child during the night. She describes a mother’s love as a love that “asks no questions, no demands, just giving is enough.” This is as true today as it was in 1958, but somewhere along the way, our culture became more self-centered, and we’ve pushed this mentality on mothers.

Instead of encouraging all these little sacrifices, we’ve questioned why anyone would want to make them. And because these sacrifices go unnoticed, we urge women to find something more “fulfilling” than just motherhood, whether it’s employment, activism, or even just “influencing” so they can be seen and recognized. Have raises, promotions, or just likes become more valued than the thanks of a grateful family?

“Running a house, raising kids, serving on committees, working at the hospital … and you still find time to cheer your husband up with a cup of coffee!” Even Mac, the laundry man, is singing Donna’s praises when he arrives at the Stones’ house the next morning to collect the washing. Donna appears to be able to do it all! But it’s not really all those things that impress Mac. As he explains to her husband, “You see Doc, in my business, I see women at their worst — in the morning. But whenever I deliver cleaning to Mrs. Stone — that wonderful smile — I dance through my route the rest of the day!” It is her attitude that sets Donna apart and makes her a role model for all the other mothers in Hilldale and in the real world today. 

Donna is cheerful and full of good humor as she attends to her household and motherly duties. Even when her husband becomes annoyed about all the attention the speech receives, she doesn’t roll her eyes or complain. She just does her best to make him realize that he is appreciated too.

This is probably the part of the show most foreign to modern viewers. Where are the complaints? Where is the frustration about having to wash another round of dishes? Why isn’t Donna counting down to wine o’clock? Being a mother has always been hard work, but social media seems to have amplified all that is difficult about motherhood and made the aggravations a fundamental part of it. It is utterly refreshing to see a mom on TV completing her household tasks well, raising well-mannered children, and not complaining about any of it.

Few can argue that our nation is stronger now than it was in 1958. Surveys and studies show that for children and teenagers in particular, things are pretty bleak. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 42 percent of high school students in 2021 felt persistently sad or hopeless, and 30 percent of high school girls seriously contemplated suicide. The average teen spends nearly nine hours a day on screens (and they are not watching Donna Reed).

Rather than “opt-out” of Mother’s Day, perhaps we should reaffirm our belief that mothers are the “strength of our nation” and commit to acting that way. Mothers, it does indeed take self-sacrifice, hard work, and lots of good humor to raise the next generation. If you need some inspiration, stay off social media and try binge-watching “The Donna Reed Show” (streaming free on the Roku Channel). You don’t need to wear a dress and pearls while serving breakfast, but a wonderful smile might make the laundry man dance through his route — or at least brighten your family’s day.

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