They were among the most beloved moms on TV, demonstrating the chaos – and hilarity – of family life.
As the matriarchs of their households, actresses Katey Sagal, Catherine O’Hara, Tracee Ellis Ross, Julie Bowen and Mandy Moore made many understand – and cope with – the sometimes thankless role of mother.
After decades of TV shows depicting perfect moms – reveling in their housework and doting on their children – perhaps the greatest game changer was Sagal’s sassy bouffant-haired Peg Bundy, the raunchy star of long-running show, Married . . . With Children.
The antithesis of the ideal mom popularized by those 1950s sitcoms, Peg refused to do housework, squandered the family budget, rarely cooked and regularly put down her husband.
Her biggest redeeming factor was the fact she clearly cared deeply for her family.
Having launched her show business career as a singer/songwriter, Sagal worked with Bob Dylan, Bette Midler, Etta James and Olivia Newton-John.
She continues her musical career to this day, while her TV roles provided a steady income in which to raise her three kids.
“I believe that I’m a better mom because I am a working mom. Because my life outside of my family life is just as satisfying and I feel that this is the situation with a lot of women,” Sagal, now 69, told Senior Planet while she was promoting TV series Rebel in 2021, portraying a lawyer inspired by Erin Brockovich.
“I think I would not have been a role model for my children – two daughters and one son – had I not been true to myself by being in the arts, in the creative field,” says the thrice-wed actress.
“If you talked to my children, they’d say I missed a few too many school outings and I wasn’t necessarily the carpool mom, because I had to be at work. But hopefully they were proud to have had a mom who modeled that life.”
The exact opposite of Peg Bundy – but very reflective of its era – Julie Bowen’s Claire Dunphy in Modern Family echoed many modern moms who gave up their careers to become full-time moms, re-entering the workforce once her kids were older.
Told through the lens of Claire and screen hubby Phil, the couple yearned to have an honest relationship with their three kids but Claire hid her own wild teenage years to protect her kids from repeating the same mistakes.
The epitome of the helicopter mom, Claire was intense and competitive. And whilst nobody would accuse her of being the “fun” mom, she could be counted upon to take care of her extended “modern family”, deftly highlighting the pains and joys of modern motherhood.
After Modern Family went off the air in 2020 after 11 seasons, Bowen finally had time to care for her own three sons.
She admits parenting is tough, “I actually drive carpool in the clothes I slept in because it’s impossible to get three children out the door with lunches packed, so I change after carpool!” says Bowen, 53, who continues to work regularly – but without the intense spotlight which Modern Family shone on all its cast.
“Its so hard and I don’t have endless stores of patience. I wish I did. Somebody wonderfully, perhaps Reese Witherspoon, I’m not sure who said it, but it was attributed to her, ‘If you don’t yell at your kids, you’re not seeing them enough’, and that made me feel a little better. I took it to heart because if I’m with my kids all day every day, there’s yelling!” she laughs.
Schitt’s Creek fans never looked to the matriarch of the Rose family for examples of how to be a good mother. We watched Catherine O’Hara’s portrayal of former soap opera star Moira Rose because we couldn’t stop laughing.
A hilarious comedy about a family who go from extreme wealth to bankruptcy, the six season series paired the Canadian/American actress with long-time collaborator Eugene Levy as her husband.
With the Rose family cooped up together in a run-down motel in Schitt’s Creek, O’Hara became very close with the actors who played her two adult TV children, Annie Murphy and Dan Levy, even going as far as saying she envied her character for getting to spend so much time with her TV children. “I’m always wondering where my own kids are,” quips O’Hara, 69, who played Macaulay Culkin’s mom in Home Alone and its sequel.
Married 30 years to production designer Bo Welch – whom she met on the set of Beetlejuice – the couple have two adult sons who have followed in the family footsteps, Matthew as an actor/writer and Luke as an award-winning pianist.
“They’re very funny, and we encourage it,” she says.
Tracee Ellis Ross
Tracee Ellis Ross played a very different mom as Black-ish’s powerful Dr. Rainbow Johnson.
Rainbow is not only a successful anesthesiologist, but she’s a mom-of-five, working hard to ensure her kids have a better life than she did growing up. Maintaining a steady and nurturing presence for her children, she’s also funny, smart and stylish.
Ross – who is the real life daughter of another successful mom, legendary singer Diana Ross – has no regrets about not being a mother in her own life.
Indeed, she spoke recently about perimenopause on the Glennon Doyle podcast, and how she looks at being childless, “with curiosity instead of heartbreak.”
“The heartbreak does come up, and I get to hold that gently and lovingly and then remind myself, ‘I woke up every morning of my life and I’ve tried to do my best, so I must be where I’m supposed to be’,” said Ross, 50, who demonstrated a strong Black woman in her acclaimed role in the popular comedy series, which ran for eight seasons before ending last year.
For This is Us star Mandy Moore, 39, playing mother-of-triplets Rebecca Pearson through the ages was just a warm-up for becoming a first time mother in her real life.
“Being a mom has certainly made me aware of how challenging and rewarding motherhood is. It truly takes a village,” says the actress singer, who has two infant sons with rocker husband Taylor Goldsmith.
As Rebecca Pearson – whom she portrayed from ages ranging from mid-20s to late 60s to 80 – audiences watched as she struggled with the challenges of raising triplets, playing to each of her children’s strengths and raising them to know that family always came first.
America’s TV moms today are quite different from those of years ago, and reflect the changing nature of motherhood and society. So tell us – who are your favorite TV moms? Let us know in the comments!
Photo by Jon Tyson for Unsplash
The other Clair – Huxtable.
I loved the moms on “Ozzie and Harriet,” “Father Knows Best,” and “The Donna Reed Show.”
Dale Evans. I wanted to be adopted by Roy Rogers and Dales Evans. I read that they adopted a number of children AND that every child got their own horse! It sounded a whole lot better than my homelife.
When I saw the title of your article I thought you were going to refer to Father Knows Best, Leave it to Beaver and similar shows (though the stars aren’t still around).
Being a child of the 70’s, one of my favorite TV moms was Florida Evans played by the fabulous Esther Rolle. She was a wife, mother of three, and BFF to her neighbor. Although the Evans family was poor and lived in the “ghetto” they were rich in the love they shared. Even during the most trying of times, Florida never allowed her family’s circumstances to define or destroy them. Her gentle and calm spirit plus voice would help point her family and others to beauty even in the midst of a storm.