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Mommies Dearest: Though they’re fictional, TV’s moms reflect changing roles of motherhood

Teri Hatcher stars as Susan Mayer, a mom who is faced with the challenges of a blended family, on “Desperate Housewives.”
In “The New Adventures of Old Christine,” Julia-Louis Dreyfus plays a divorced mother who dates and runs her own business.

The moms on Wisteria Lane - Lynette (Felicity Huffman), Bree (Marcia Cross), and Susan (Teri Hatcher) - are neurotic, unfaithful, conniving and probably on antidepressants.

And TV’s longest-running mom, Marge Simpson, is a talented cook, a recovering gambling addict and a budding artist and novelist all rolled into one animated character.

Though they’re fictional, TV’s moms reflect changing roles of motherhood.

In the 1950s, television moms like June Cleaver and Harriet Nelson were ideal homemakers. They cooked, cleaned and looked perfectly polished in dresses and pearls - every day.

“We’ve moved so far away from that ’50s model ... the vast majority of families can’t afford to have the mother stay at home,” said Barbara Gottfried, professor of Women’s Studies at Boston University. “I think times have changed. I don’t think that most people want to be June Cleaver anymore.”

As the women’s movement gained momentum in the 1960s, more progressive moms like Laura Petrie (a dancer before she had a baby) and Lucille Carmichael (TV’s first single mom) shook things up by wearing pants, challenging their husbands and seeking a life outside the home.

In 1969 the first blended family, “The Brady Bunch,” showed up. Both widowed, Mike and Carol slept in the same bed and each had three children of their own.

The ’70s saw liberated moms like “One Day at a Time’s” Ann Romano, a divorcee raising two teen daughters; and Alice Hyatt, an outspoken single waitress working at Mel’s Diner to pay the rent and raise her son, Tommy.

Women on the quest to “have it all” dominated the ’80s as television got more daring with moms like Elyse Keaton (architect, “Family Ties”) and Clair Huxtable (lawyer, “The Cosby Show”) climbing the corporate ladder, shoulder pads and all.

“I think TV is very reflective of realities ... that is, most women have to work these days. It’s a privileged luxury to stay at home,” Gottfried said.

“Kate and Allie” also broke new ground in the ’80s as two single mothers, Susan Saint James and Jane Curtin, move in together to share financial and child-rearing duties. If that broke new ground, then Tony Danza as career-tracked Angela Bower’s housekeeper on “Who’s the Boss?” blazed new trails.

In the late ’80s Roseanne Conner showed us the less-glamorous side of mothering as this blue-collar, foul-mouthed mom was rough around the edges but would lay down and die for her kids.

And “Married With Children’s” Peg Bundy was the the antimom. Katey Sagal’s Peg - who favored manicures over mothering - had a promiscuous daughter, a hornball son, and a husband with a penchant for nudie bars.

The ’90s saw “Home Improvement’s” Jill Taylor leave the workforce to stay home to raise children and later return to school to pursue a psychology degree.

But perhaps the biggest “we’ve come a long way” moment was the firestorm of criticism then-Vice President Dan Quayle laid on Candace Bergen’s “Murphy Brown” for having a child out of wedlock. In 1992 Quayle said the Murphy Brown character “mocks the importance of fathers.”

Murphy, a powerful television journalist faced with an unplanned pregnancy, chose to raise the child on her own. A decision many women have successfully made.

Offbeat moms took over after the millennium, with Lorelai Gilmore leading the pack. More friend than parent to daughter Rory, the result of a teenage pregnancy, Lorelai is a single mom living in a tiny New England town.

And “Malcolm in the Middle’s” Lois brings chaotic and dysfunctional to a new level, and lives to tell about it. Finally, a house where Mom actually yells at the kids - a far cry from June Cleaver’s world.

“They’re portraying life in a different world in a different era,” said Frances Price, 49, of Jamaica Plain about “Leave it to Beaver.” “It’s just a different reality now.”

Gottfried agrees.

“What you see a lot of, it seems to me, is lots and lots of working moms and not too many stay-at-home moms,” she said.

By Dana Barbuto, with contribution by Kyle Sutton