Saying Good-bye to the Iconic and Ironic June Cleaver…Literally and Figuratively

I felt a twinge of nostalgic sadness when I heard that Barbara Billingsley (a.k.a June Cleaver) died this past weekend.  As a child in the 70’s, I’d watch reruns of Leave it to Beaver when I stayed home sick from school sipping on Campbell’s Chicken Noodle soup and nibbling on Saltines.  I loved the antics of the Beaver and Wally, and the way Mrs. Cleaver handled it all without ever breaking a sweat or raising her voice.

But it wasn’t until my newly-divorced, newly-working mother of three declared, “I’m done being June Cleaver” that I began to realize that she was more than just Beaver’s mother.  She represented something that my mother felt she had to actively reject in order to survive.  But what?

Iconic June Cleaver—the guilt inducing, unattainable 10 year old boy’s fantasy

When I became a working mother and wife 12 years ago, I finally understood.  To my mother and tens of millions of other women, June Cleaver had become an unrealistic, unattainable bar against which women in general, and mothers specifically would be judged by themselves, by men, and by society.  In order to survive, my mother felt she had to either reject June Cleaver, the icon, or wither under the relenting assault of guilt for not measuring up (see great post by my friend, Morra Aarons-Mele, “Working Mom Guilt is a Political Issue”).

According to her obituary in The New York Times, Billingsley, “…acknowledged 40 years later, her role was a picture-perfect reflection of the times. ‘We were the ideal parents because that’s the way he saw it,’ she said, describing the show as the world seen through the eyes of a child.”

This quote made me wonder, did we all miss the joke?  Did we understand that the image of perfection against which mothers have been measured for 50 years represented the fantasy of a 10 year old boy?  I honestly don’t think so. And now that we are finally in on the secret, can we move on?

Can women follow my mother’s lead and comfortably reject June Cleaver as the bar of success?

Can men stop looking for and expecting June Cleaver to greet them at the door and mother their children while contributing meaningful amounts of money to the family’s coffers?

Can company leaders, many of whom–like me–grew up charmed by the wonder that was June Cleaver, realize she never existed and never will exist.  And as a result, support the creation workplaces and cultures that support real women, men and families.

Can public policymakers stop clinging to the ideal when they cut child care, eldercare, and after school programs because June’s at home taking care of everything.  She’s not!  And she never was.

It was a 10 year old boy’s fantasy!

Ironic June Cleaver—Barbara Billingsley, single working mother

And then there’s the irony that the woman who portrayed June Cleaver, Barbara Billingsley, was herself a divorced working mother of two.

It wasn’t Barbara Billingsley’s job to point this fact out to the world.  She was being paid to play a character and she did it beautifully.

But perhaps it would have made a difference to know that the woman behind the character wasn’t a perfect suburban stay-at-home mother.  She worked and was paid to support her sons.  That’s not to say the choice not to work is wrong.  But let’s understand and acknowledge that June Cleaver wasn’t even June Cleaver and judge ourselves and others accordingly.

So, good-bye Mrs. Cleaver.  Thank you for keeping me company and making me feel safe as a little girl wrapped in a blanket on the couch as you lit up the screen.  Even more, thank you Barbara Billingsley for letting me in on the secret…you weren’t real.  You were a mother, just like me, trying to do what’s best for you and your family.

4 thoughts on “Saying Good-bye to the Iconic and Ironic June Cleaver…Literally and Figuratively

  1. I think “June Cleaver” might be happy to see that you don’t always have to choose between being a mother and being CEO of a Fortune 500 company according to the article “The Corner Office, and a Family” by Joann S. Lubin in the Monday Oct 18, 2010 edition of the Wall Street Journal. I found it encouraging and interesting that of the current 12 female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, 11 are also mothers. There are definitely work + life balance decisions for these woman – but it seems that being a mother can add to their skill set to be able to rise to the challenges of the corner office! You Go Moms!

    1. Hi GG,

      I know! I saw that article as well today just as I was writing the June Cleaver post and took it as a sign that truly the time has come to beyond the “June Cleaver” fantasy.


  2. I think it is important to acknowledge that while June was fiction, all the work she did was real. Just as Barbara supported her sons with her paid work, June supported her ideal family with the the work she did, caring for them.

    Let’s all deplore the idea of June Cleaver: that we are to be perfect housewives totally fulfilled by family alone. But let’s not forget that someone has to raise children, and care for a family. It can be both parents together, it can be achieved through hiring really good help and having excellent child care (if you can afford it), but most of all – we do June AND Barbara a disservice if we think that all the security emanated in Beaver’s world was all a mirage.

    Caring for others is real work with real social and economic value. It may not be glamorous or perfect, but it is necessary. If it were easy to have a career and accomplish both there would be a greater number of mothers in corner offices. Until we value all the work that mothers do, we will be limited by stereotypes that cut both ways…and keep us from real solutions.

    It is a myth that women want to work full tilt their entire lives and leave their kids to others…they want real options for full lives that include caring for their families. Unfortunately, we are busy thinking in black or white terms. June or Barbara, and not a variety of work structures across a lifetime that recognize all of our value to society as mothers and individuals.

    1. Hi Debra,

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment. You are right. The work of mothering that June did was real and very valuable. But it was the way she was portrayed as doing it that didn’t and doesn’t match reality. As you pointed out, it was too black and white. The question then becomes what is the new iconic image of mothering? That’s the challenge for today, because again, as you noted, we all–not just women and mothers–want real options for full lives. That is going to look different for everyone and can’t be defined by one ideal.

      I look forward to working with you and others to create this new fuller, more flexible vision of work+life fit that moves us beyond any limiting stereotype. In fact, there’s probably a companion post about saying good-bye to Ward Cleaver because it makes men feel like they fall short if they take a break from work to actively participate in their kids lives. The black and white thinking doesn’t work for anyone.


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