Home Alone on Mad Men

NYPD is on the scene after Grandma Ida's visit to the Draper home.

NYPD is on the scene after Grandma Ida’s visit to the Draper home (amctv.com).

“It’s 10pm. Do you know where your children are?” When I was growing up in New York, Fox 5 used to pose that question every night at ten. If we were all watching TV together, my mother liked to respond, “Yes, they’re right here.”

Similarly, I always like to know where my toddler is and who she’s with, but it seems that Don Draper isn’t quite as picky about his own brood. On a recent episode of Mad Men, Don is working through the weekend, and he’s left his three children with their stepmother, Megan. Of course, Megan has theater plans, and so, when Don still hasn’t returned home that evening, she offers fourteen-year-old Sally clothes in exchange for her babysitting services.

That breezy transfer of authority might be a sign of the times as much as anything, but 1968 Manhattan wasn’t some farm town or even a particularly safe city. Saul Bellow’s novel about an old man in New York City, Mr. Sammler’s Planet, was published in 1970. It chronicled the decline of a great city and the morality that had upheld its sense of civilization. As Anatole Broyard wrote in the New York Times review of the novel, “What could be more natural in New York City than to be surrounded by crime?”

That crime–and a general sense of upheaval–is alluded to in other Mad Men episodes. Megan is surprised another actress from her show walked over from the West Side because of recent shootings in Central Park. Abe is stabbed by strangers, and a window in the home he shares with Peggy is shattered when a kid in their transitional neighborhood uses a rock for target practice. Of course, television brings the intensity of Chicago’s Democratic convention protests into everyone’s living room.

All of this is to say, it seems somewhat surprising to leave three minors home alone in Manhattan in 1968. I can’t imagine leaving my two-year-old with a fourteen-year-old babysitter. To be sure, Sally isn’t a stranger. She’s watching her two brothers in their father’s apartment. But she’s a teenager, not yet wise about the world and definitely not confident or mature enough to assert herself.

On an ordinary night, that might not be an issue, but on this particular night, a woman claiming to be Don’s old nanny lets herself into the Park Avenue apartment. Her behavior is strange, but Sally doesn’t know enough about her father’s past to catch this woman in a lie. She does reach a point of being sufficiently creeped out by this surprise visitor that she calls the police, but “Grandma Ida,” as she calls herself, grabs the phone and tells the cops it’s all a joke. Thankfully, Grandma Ida leaves–albeit with many Draper family valuables–but not before threatening Sally that she had better be asleep by the time Ida returns.

Thankfully, Ida doesn’t return, but she doesn’t have to. She’s already scared Sally and me, the mother of a wonderfully trusting toddler.

So much has changed about how we raise and care for our children since the 1960s. If we dip back into the late 1950s, the contrast is even starker. On Call the Midwife, set in 1958 London, for example, mothers regularly leave their babies in carriages outside their apartment buildings. If a parent did the same thing in a large city now, someone would call Child Protective Services.

By extension, when I was growing up in the New York suburbs, our babysitters were often favorite camp counselors who were high school students. I myself started babysitting for neighbors as a twelve-year-old. And yet, I have never hired a babysitter who wasn’t already college age (at the very least), and I don’t know any other parents who have.

The mothers in our building regularly share information about good local babysitters, and the women (because they’re all women) we recommend and discuss are all 20-somethings. Those babysitters still have the energy to chase dynamic toddlers, but very valuably, they also have the sort of judgment that only comes with life experience. G-d forbid we had an intruder, I would expect the babysitters we’ve hired to know how to handle themselves and keep my daughter safe.

So what explains the shift toward older babysitters? While it might be tempting to decry it as a symptom of helicopter parenting, the show’s ending wasn’t written as a modern condemnation. Don finally arrives home to find Megan, ex-wife Betty, and New York City cops in his apartment, along with his children. Betty is horrified that her children were left home alone. Megan apologizes to Don, saying that this is a reminder that Sally’s still just a kid. And Don admits to Sally that it was his fault; he left the back door open.

1968 was a volatile and bloody year. This small incident illustrates that shift, demonstrating in part why parenting has become increasingly protective, as the larger world has grown decreasingly familiar and more menacing. One of Broyard’s final comments about Mr. Sammler’s Planet applies to the rapidly changing world portrayed on Mad Men as well: “The book is not only [Sammler’s] swan song, but civilization’s as we once knew it.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: