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Ever wanted to sneak away from your mother-in-law? Ever been lectured you about what you're wearing? Have you been tempted to bolt from home after an exhausting day with your kids? Then you're probably a fan of ABC's Desperate Housewives, one of this season's hottest TV hits.
The campy, soap-opera world of Desperate Housewives doesn't mirror real life. Wisteria Lane has the sparkling, unreal look of a studio set, and its residents are a lot more glamorous than the average housewife. As Professor Susan Douglas, chair of Communication Studies department at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, points out: "They're all beautiful and a size 4. But the writers made the characters complicated and interesting." Douglas, who coauthored the book The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood and How It has Undermined Women (Free Press, 2004), says the show "speaks to a growing exasperation with the myth of perfect motherhood and a perfect suburban life."
Women across the country -- from inner-city executives working 60-hour weeks to rural farmers homeschooling their kids -- identify with the show's cheeky main characters: Susan Mayer (Teri Hatcher), the klutzy divorcee and single mom; Lynette Scavo (Felicity Huffman), who left a high-powered career to stay home with four unmanageable kids; Bree Van De Kamp (Marcia Cross), the tightly wound Martha Stewart wannabe whose family has had enough; and Gabrielle Solis (Eva Longoria), the spoiled ex-model who has an affair with her teenage gardener. But it's the nation's housewives for whom the show has really caught fire. Here, four of their stories.
If there's one scene this season that made an impact on real-life moms, it's the moment when Lynette begged Susan to watch her kids and then drove off, eventually collapsing in tears on a deserted soccer field. Anyone who's been at home day after day watching one young child -- let alone four of them -- has had moments when she wanted to run away.
"I watch Desperate Housewives largely to see what happens to Lynette, because her life is a lot like mine," says Jen Singer, 37, of Kinnelon, New Jersey, who left a career in advertising to raise her 7- and 6-year-old boys. "Raising children at home can be exhausting, relentless, and depressing. Lynette lets us know that other moms feel the same way and gives legitimacy to our feelings."
Like Lynette, some especially desperate mothers pop pills to get through the day. "People feel guilty complaining about their children and how overwhelming it is," says Dr. Elaine Rodino, PhD, a psychologist in private practice in Santa Monica, California. While some women take prescription pain pills to dull their anxiety, women like Lynette sneak their kids' ADD medications because it gives them a burst of energy that allows them to be Supermom -- at least temporarily. "Someone like Lynette may only feel adequate if she is terrific at doing all the tasks assigned to her," says Dr. Rodino.
Luckily, Singer found a better way to cope: she started a Web site, www.MommaSaid.net, that let her vent and connect with other frazzled moms. "It was either that or taking up drinking, and writing seemed more productive," she jokes. "I could get my feelings out, disguised in humor, and then -- surprise! -- found out that other moms felt the same way."Order in the House
Jennifer Szostak, 36, of Lake Forest, Illinois, has a close, loving relationship with her husband and 5-year-old daughter Megan. But, like Bree, she admits to being "obsessive" about keeping the house clean.
"I'm doing some sort of cleaning every day," she admits. "I can't stand piles, clutter -- if I see a hairball in the corner, everything stops until I get rid of it. I constantly keep mental and paper lists of everything I have to do, and I've taught my daughter to clean up, too. I want her to appreciate an orderly house."
Many women, like Bree, feel that the state of their house reflects their success as a wife and mother. "When you are a stay-at-home mom, very little in your life produces tangible results," says Szostak. "When I clean my house, I can stand back and say, 'I did that, and it looks really good.' It's a great sense of completion."
"Making no mistakes, not leaving a speck of dust in the house -- it makes these women feel like they're more successful," says Dr. Rodino. The problem comes when that quest for perfection takes precedence over normal family life, which can be chaotic and messy. When husbands and kids aren't allowed to feel comfortable in their own home (and are held to impossible standards), they often rebel. "The illogical part is that these women think they're being good wives and mothers, but it can be very annoying to the family," says Dr. Rodino. "It doesn't work."
U.S. Census Bureau statistics show that 50 percent of all marriages end in divorce -- which means there are a lot of newly single women out there learning to date all over again, just like Susan. While we may not believe that someone who looks like Teri Hatcher would ever have trouble snagging a boyfriend, her struggle to redefine herself as a confident, single woman -- and her close relationship with her teenage daughter -- hit a nerve with Elizabeth Hanson, 55, of Wallingford, Pennsylvania, who is also divorced.
Hanson, who prides herself on looking 10 years younger than her age, thinks the relationship between Susan and her daughter on the show reflects her own dynamic with her 15-year-old daughter, Valerie. "Valerie always passed judgment on my clothes and people I dated because they were usually younger than me," Hanson says. "In fact, even now she says that sometimes she feels like the mother, and I am the daughter because she is much more cautious and regimented in her actions, where I am kind of freewheeling and spur-of-the moment."
But Hanson especially identifies with Susan's self-doubt. "I am always falling, tripping, trying to make an inconspicuous entrance and messing it up somehow!" she says.
After going to work, taking care of the kids, and listening to your husband complain about his day, what woman has time left for herself? The character of Gabrielle -- who doesn't have to worry about work, kids, or chores, and has an unlimited shopping budget -- is especially appealing to women who fantasize about escaping the drudgery of real life.
Susan Rankin, 34, of Seattle, Washington, has a busy career and a child (unlike Gabrielle), but describes herself laughingly as "the anti-wife." "I'm not your traditional housewife," she says. "I don't have time to be Suzy Homemaker -- I don't do cooking or cleaning. And forget laundry."
While Rankin is not -- repeat, not -- having an affair with a teenage gardener, she admires the way Gabrielle lives her own life, even if it means hiding things from her husband or pulling a fast one on her mother-in-law. "She says and does things I wish I could do," says Rankin, who admits that she has a "difficult" relationship with her mother-in-law and sometimes hides credit card bills from her husband. "I like that side of her -- it fulfills a secret fantasy."
Gabrielle's sexy look is also inspiring, because it shows that living in the suburbs doesn't mean submitting to a wardrobe of sweatpants and T-shirts. "I love the way she dresses," Rankin says. "Being a quote-unquote suburban housewife, with a 2-year-old, I still like to flirt and act sexy. I don't want to feel like that part of me is dead."
The genius of Desperate Housewives, it seems, is that it manages to combine a glitzy, make-believe world with some very down-to-earth, real-life issues that transcend the notion of "housewives" (even single, professional women can empathize with Susan's bumbling attempts to get the attention of James Denton's character Mike Delfino). If she could change one thing about the show, Dr. Rodino says she'd like to see at least one of the characters go through psychotherapy. "They all need to figure out how to live their lives better and happier. But then there'd be no show!"