Elyse Keaton From 'Family Ties' Is A Mom Who Takes Up Her Space
"I bet we've been together, for a million years. And I bet we'll be together for a million more." The opening lines of the Family Ties theme song are so ingrained in my own memory that I sing them to my little girls as I rock them to sleep. As I sing, I can see the opening montage of the Keaton family, from the early dating days of Elyse and Steven, to their wedding day, to the arrival of their three kids. But watching Elyse Keaton from Family Ties as a mom now is even more emotional. Before, I saw a warm mom and a family that gave me all the feels. Now, I see a woman struggling to keep her own passions and life on the table while still being the mom and wife she wants to be. I see me.
Family Ties was a big deal when it debuted in 1982. It took on the political landscape, walking viewers through the change of '70s hippie flowers into the conservative plaid of the '80s, and it tackled some big issues that hadn't really yet seen the light on primetime sitcoms. Storylines like a family friend trying to seduce the Keaton's teenage daughter; their son Alex P. Keaton taking amphetamines to stay up late to study; and a feminist working mom who has to balance her career, her passions, and her family.
I know. That last one doesn't sound all that impressive until you think about the roles mothers played on television up until that point. Sure, there are some groundbreaking moments in sitcoms up until 1982 — Marian Cunningham on Happy Days telling her husband to "sit on it!" is great — but most TV moms were there to bake cookies and be a warm, reassuring shoulder to cry on. Rarely were they loud, honest, and unabashedly themselves. Elyse Keaton was.
She was the first TV mom I saw take up her space without apologies.
Elyse Keaton was the first TV mom I saw who kissed the kids and husband goodbye as they went off to school while she worked — from home! — as an architect. She was the first TV mom I saw who had a career, who organized rallies for her community, and who spent Thanksgiving in jail for a protest. She was the first TV mom I saw take up her space without apologies.
In one episode, Elyse is overwhelmed and stressed with her commitments. She needs to celebrate an award that her husband Steven won, take her daughters to a yoga class, finish some drawings for a bid the next morning, and help a friend in her Women's Support Group. She is every woman going through a cluster of conflicts. It's not that she intentionally overcommits herself — it just happens.
She is her own woman, full of mistakes and heart and fire, but she's also a mother and she takes her role seriously.
As a kid, it probably never occurred to me what this meant for Elyse and her life. It was just another adult storyline peppered into the lives of the Keaton children, but as a mom? Now I can see that she's not exhausted from mom and wife duties — she's overcommitted with her passions and her work. And Steven's sulking over not having enough time together is enough to make me boil over with rage. It's every mom's story. It's my story.
When I was younger, I felt most inspired and motivated by Mary Richards, played by Mary Tyler Moore, on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. She was an independent career woman with an incredible apartment (that shag carpet tho), a best friend next door, and opportunities to prove herself over and over. I so desperately wanted to be her — to be that independent woman with such a purpose, such a fulfilling life I could be proud of.
But I was also inspired by TV moms like June Cleaver and Laura Petrie. And when I was ready for children, I struggled. I wanted it all. I wanted days of baking cookies with my kids and spreadsheets and important, purposeful work I could be proud of. I thought it was impossible — and then I rewatched Family Ties. All of those things I wanted — the home office, the blossoming career, the purpose in life, the children and baking days — she had them. And she was weaving them all together. Sometimes it looked like a big mess, sometimes it looked like a perfectly delicate scene — but it was all hers. She took up her space. She was a woman who had it all.
The storyline that resonates the most with me as a mom? In an early Season 1 episode, Elyse learns that a family friend, Uncle Arthur, has tried to seduce Mallory. Her mama bear instincts know no bounds as she lashes out at him, shouting what happened at Steven during a live telethon.
Of course it's an exaggerated storyline solved in less than 30 minutes — a real issue similar to this one would require a lot more anguish and work. But the point is that Elyse, as the mom, is more than just the happy, quiet woman in the corner of the kitchen — she's loud, she's unapologetic, and, yes, she takes up her damn space.
But she takes up her space in a way that is real and genuine. She is her own woman, full of mistakes and heart and fire, but she's also a mother and she takes her role seriously. She apologizes to her children for being grumpy, and talks to them like they are adults. When she's unsure of how to fire a friend she's hired as an assistant, she listens to her children's advice. When she's trying to solve an issue with Steven, she involves the kids — they help her prepare, she talks to them about why it's important to work out disagreements — she's doing the groundwork to make sure they know what a healthy relationship looks like, and why they matter.
She is a human being, and it's hard to find a character on TV today that is as real. So many of them look like perfection, like flawless parents who are there to buff out their children's bumps and dents. But Elyse Keaton proves that there's more to motherhood than baking your kids cookies and picking them up from school, and there's more to being a working mom than spreadsheets and running from the office to home and back again. She's still herself, learning and changing and focusing, but the love for her children is more fiery than any of her other passions. She's overcommitted and overwhelmed — she's a balancing act without a single regret. And she's a damn inspiration.
They made endless sandwiches and kept us occupied after school, but, like our own mothers, we simply did not see them until we became moms ourselves. Now that we’re dishing up Concerned Faces to our own kids, we're looking back at their patented life advice and appreciating how they have changed after seven decades on the small screen: these are The TV Moms Who Raised Us.