How Mary Tyler Moore Helped Me Understand My Mother

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Through her iconic show, Mary Tyler Moore introduced an entire generation to a new kind of woman. On The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Moore portrayed Mary Richards — a fashionable and funny thirtysomething news producer who lived alone in 1970s Minneapolis. Mary was flawed, but she flouted convention and was a force to be reckoned with. She was unlike any character who had appeared on TV before.

And in many ways, she was my mom.

Like Mary, my mother has led an unconventional life. In 1975, she emigrated from the Philippines to the United States, where she landed in Ashland, Nebraska — a small rural town located 25 miles northeast of Lincoln, the state’s capital city. She was engaged to a military man with whom she had been exchanging transpacific love letters for more than a year. Shortly after their wedding, he was sent to be stationed in Germany. My mom — still acclimating herself to life outside of her native Philippines — decided to stay in Ashland and await his return.

Mekita Rivas

When he did return, my mom was tasked with making his funeral arrangements. He had been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and died in Germany. My mom later learned that he had been diagnosed prior to their getting married — perhaps he had known all along, even while they were pen pals. “He never mentioned a thing about it,” my mom later recollected to me one afternoon. She was my age — 27.

I often wonder how my mom dealt with that kind of incomprehensible heartbreak at such a young age. How did she carry herself? What kind of support system did she have? Why did she stay in the States after her husband died, especially when she barely knew a soul?

Some of the answers I found in watching The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Mary embodied an aspirational version of the American woman, the likes of which had never been portrayed on network television. She — shockingly — had opinions of her own. She pushed back against the era’s prevailing notion that single working women somehow demanded pity. Rather than shy away from her bachelorette status, she embraced it and saw her singlehood as an opportunity to forge a path of her own choosing.

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That newfound drive and determination empowered women like Mary and my mom to outwardly reject society’s preconceived ideas of how a woman should live her life. My mother knew that if she returned to the Philippines, the chances of her ever opening up a restaurant — her ultimate dream — would be slim. And if she were to ever have children, she knew that they would be afforded infinitely more opportunities in the U.S. than back in her home country.  

So against all odds, she stayed.

Mekita Rivas

My mother had me when she was 40 years old. Whenever I tell people this, their reaction is usually a mixture of confusion and disbelief. Their facial expressions all but say, “Is that even possible?” While nowadays women who want to have children are increasingly having them later in life, back in 1989, my mother was quite the pioneer. She even drove herself to the hospital when she was in labor. She left a note for my aunt and brother to discover; apparently, she didn’t want to disturb anybody with the whole "having a baby" thing. Whenever I think about that story and how my mother took care of her own goddamn self even as she was preparing to birth a human, I am stunned by her fortitude. Where does one acquire such resolute strength?

Well, for many women of my mother’s generation, it came from a lifetime of being told that you weren’t strong enough to live on your own; that you weren’t resilient enough to have a career; that you weren’t ambitious enough to dream beyond the confines of a laminate-lined kitchen.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show helped change all of that.

Mekita Rivas

Growing up, I regularly speculated about what my mother’s four decades on this earth were like before I came into the picture. For 40 years, she lived this full, interesting, and complex life. And I knew so little about it. That was partly due to the fact that I didn’t ask her more questions. Admittedly, I simply saw my mom in the same one-dimensional way that most of us see our moms: not necessarily as people with their own complicated back stories and aspirations but as, well, moms.

My mother was — and still is — endlessly loving and supportive. She worries a lot, though what mom doesn’t? But because of the generational and cultural gaps, establishing a substantive connection with my mother is sometimes a struggle. I frequently daydream about what it would’ve been like to have known my mom when she was my age — to have, perhaps, been her friend.

Fortunately, The Mary Tyler Moore Show provided a glimpse into the life my mother led when she was in her twenties and thirties. Mary helped me understand the pushback that my mother faced as a young, unmarried woman living and working in a place like Nebraska — a locale that isn’t exactly known for its forward-thinking or progressive values.

My mom took unimaginable tragedy and turned it into possibility. Like Moore and the character she played, she made no apologies for tossing out tradition in favor of feminist enlightenment. She didn’t need a spouse to validate her goals or her worth, despite living within a society that insisted that she did. She didn’t need anyone to approve of her plans. In a time when a woman’s decision-making skills were constantly called into question, she owned her decisions entirely.

She did make it, after all. And just like Mary, she did it on her own.