Revisiting a Childhood Classic as a Mom

Revisiting a Childhood Classic as a Mom

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the debut of the television classic, Little House of the Prairie. I absolutely loved this show! I always identified with Laura more than any other character. She wasn’t a goody-two-shoes like her older sister. She wrestled with moral decisions. I wore my hair like hers for years and even had similar buck teeth. My real hero on the show, however, was Pa. He could figure out nearly anything. Never dug an irrigation system for a farm? Pa could figure it out without Google or YouTube. From mining to bricklaying to being a wheelwright, Pa seemed to be able to do anything. Pa was also exceedingly patient with his kids and he wore his giant heart on his sleeve.

When I heard about the 50th anniversary celebrations, I began to rewatch the show for the first time since having kids. Today, the character that most stands out to me is one I never noticed as a child: Ma. That I never noticed her is certainly a product of my own upbringing in a culture that glorifies the feats of men while ignoring contributions of women, as well as the show’s emphasis on Pa and Laura as the main characters (because of the culture that glorifies men…). After rewatching the first season, here are a few things that we moms can learn and/or appreciate by focusing on Caroline Ingalls:

The Rock of the Family

In the pilot episode, the Ingalls family leaves “the big woods” (and Caroline’s parents and siblings) and builds a “little house on the prairie” out on the middle of nowhere (aka Kansas). The episode focuses on their trek and their first year of building the house and starting the farm. Just as they are settling in, some “government men” show up to tell Pa that due to a new treaty, the land he settled on was no longer his. They had to leave immediately.

Given common depictions of women as hysterical, one might think Ma fell apart with this news. But, her reaction was stoic. She didn’t even say, “I told you not to build on this stupid prairie!” She took it in stride and began to plan for their move to god-knows-where. I can look around at the many women in my life and see examples of this behavior. When bad things happen, it’s often the women who make the plans, figure out the options, and forge ahead. Maybe it’s because as women, we’re used to things not working out how we had hoped. Or maybe it’s because we’re just badass.

Even Ma Struggled with Parenting Decisions

In episode 12, perfect little Mary breaks the rules! But, of course, it’s because she wants to win … a dictionary. She stays up past her bedtime to study for an exam, and so as not to wake anyone, she goes out to the barn with a gas-lit lamp, falls asleep, kicks over the lamp and sets the barn on fire! Pa was out of town, so Mary, Laura and Ma put out the fire and uncharacteristically, Ma lost her mind. She screamed at Mary the words every mother has screamed at her kids, “How many times have I told you…” She then forbade Mary from taking the exam because she didn’t deserve the dictionary after nearly burning down the barn with her and their animals inside. I mean, who can blame Ma for going a little nuts; I’ve gone bananas when I can’t find the right Tupperware lid. The next day, however, Ma was ashamed of her behavior. She talked with the reverend and considered going back on the punishment. He advised her that if she did, her kids would not know when she was really serious about disciplining them.

We moms are truly so hard ourselves. We want to raise kids who know right from wrong. We want them to be happy. Sometimes we have to put the hammer down, and of course, we’d all like to always do so with patience and kindness, and to never lose it with our kids. We’d also all like unlimited vacation time and calorie-free delicious desserts, but these are unlikely as it is to parent without making some mistakes.

I appreciated that Ma struggled with her decision and that she asked for advice. Maybe we’d feel less guilty as moms if we shared more of our struggles and relied on others for advice and counsel?

The Community Builder

The show has many examples of Ma as community builder. She helped Harriet Oleson forgive her husband when Mrs. Oleson was considering leaving him. She saw women through their child births and took in kids when their family was in crisis. She routinely consulted with Ms. Beadle (the teacher) about her kids and the needs of the school. She ensured the family went to church and tried to forge a compromise when the congregation split over a bell. She played matchmaker with Mr. Edwards and “the widow Snider.” She even convinced a fellow “women’s guild” member to “allow” her husband to pitch on the Walnut Grove baseball team after people had — gasp — gambled on the game!

So many of the moms I know are the ones in their family to build community. They volunteer at their kids’ schools, not because they have nothing else to do or because they love bake sales and putting on auctions (although some do I suppose), but because they believe it’s important to build relationships with other parents and with teachers. Moms plan play dates so their kids build relationships, but also to strengthen their own. Moms throw birthday parties not just to make their kids happy, but so they can meet and get to know their kids’ friends, and their kids’ friends’ parents. These so-called “weak ties” are critical to strong communities and strong families.

I am a little ashamed of how I overlooked Ma’s role in my favorite show and how much I glorified Pa at her expense. This too is very true to life. As moms, our work is often overlooked and underappreciated, so it’s up to us to recognize one another’s amazing contributions to our families and our communities.

J. Celeste Lay
J. Celeste Lay was born in New Orleans but moved around as a kid until finally growing up in Kentucky. After college and grad school, she returned to New Orleans in 2004 to become a professor at Tulane, where she teaches and researches U.S. politics and policy. Celeste and her New Jersey-born husband have two daughters, Lucy and Kimberly. She is delighted to be long past the baby and toddler stage with her kids and can genuinely say that parenting has gotten more fun every year. As the kids develop their own unique identities and personalities, her parenting has become less about meeting basic needs and more about learning who they are and how she can be helpful in ensuring they become kind, strong, independent women. In her free time, Celeste can be found at her kids’ dance competitions, but she also enjoys reality competition shows, scrapbooking, and travel.


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