What Atypical’s Smothering Mother Elsa Has Taught Me About Parenting

TV Features Atypical
What Atypical’s Smothering Mother Elsa Has Taught Me About Parenting

I never thought of myself as someone obsessed with control and order. I don’t require every outfit I pick out or every meal I make to be Instagram-approved. My email inbox is rarely empty at the end of the day. I didn’t take all AP classes in high school. For college, I went to a state school because of the cost difference and because I was too lazy to study for the SATs (hey, if AC Slater could get a 1050 …).

Then I watched Netflix’s Atypical. Creator Robia Rashid’s family dramedy centers on a middle-class household of four whose eldest child Sam (Keir Gilchrist) happens to be on the autism spectrum. Now entering its fourth, and final, season, the show’s depiction of Sam—both through the writing and through the casting of Gilchrist, who does not have ASD—has been thoroughly investigated and both widely praised and panned. (It was nominated for a Peabody Award in 2018 while critics have weighed in via think piece essays and on Twitter.

But I’m not here to talk about Sam. I’m here to talk about Elsa, his overprotective mother played by Jennifer Jason Leigh. She’s the one who micromanages the family schedule, standing periodically at her color-coded kitchen wall calendar to make additions. She knows how to make each member of her family’s favorite meal. A hairstylist by trade, she offers to do everyone’s hair for a school dance if the kids all agree to wear headphones so Sam can feel more comfortable when he attends. When Sam’s a senior, she ruins a secret kegger house party over her concerns that other parents have left her out of party planning. She’s very invested in the dating lives of Sam, his sister Casey (Brigette Lundy-Paine), and their friends. She is prone to enacting seering vendettas against anyone who disagrees, or has some notes on, her parenting style (upon the advice of Sam’s friend Zahid, Nik Dodani, she takes out some aggression on Sam’s therapist, Amy Okuda, by rubbing her bare butt on the specialist’s car).

And sometimes, when she takes breaks from cleaning the bathroom to look at how many more minutes are on the oven timer before dinner’s ready, she catches a glimpse of herself in the mirror to wonder if any of this is appreciated.

In the second episode of the fourth season, Elsa offers to help high schooler Casey maintain the heavy load of training to be a championship runner and excel at a competitive private school. She forces a smile and reminds her daughter that “I’m excellent at nagging people and keeping them on their schedules.”

Wow, Atypical. That one hurt.

As I write this, it is nearly 4 p.m. the day before this essay is due and I have about 600 to 800 more words to go. I’ve been interrupted twice by my husband to hear about his day and to discuss our two children, and once by my six-year-old son’s tutor regarding shifting his appointment time. I make all the doctors’ appointments and dental visits. I know if my toddler daughter’s favorite pacifier is clean or dirty. I started my own color-coded family schedule a few years ago when we began the dreaded preschool application process. It’s on a dry-erase board in the kitchen. Although I am not naturally a confrontational person, I have argued with teachers and administrators as a parent in a way that I never would have as a student. When my son was in preschool, I could see the emergence of popular girl cliques beginning to fester in his class and I debated whether I should say something (I did not).

Some of these tasks are unavoidable. But watching TV has taught me something else. Elsa’s smothering and self sacrificing made me realize that all of this could be making me a bad (OK, not bad, but also not great either) parent. My children are considerably younger than Elsa’s, but I wonder if the parenting styles I’ve set in motion will create a love-hate dynamic similar to the one Casey now has with her mother. If my kids leave the room for a second, I corral them back. I’m the type of parent who immediately makes them apologize if they take toys from others and I consider it a personal demert if I don’t have a snack handy when they see a kid eating something they want. In 2019, after the Felicity Huffman / Lori Loughlin scandal broke, it dawned on me that I may, in fact, be a helicopter parent who was becoming a snowplow parent. Then the COVID-19 shutdown happened and my over-protective tendencies went into overdrive. (My husband, who does his own share of parenting, would vouch for all of this).

That’s why I think I’m drawn to Leigh’s character on Atypical and why I think the character’s development on the show has been a learning experience. Like Elsa—and pretty much everyone else in the world—I have issues with my mother. I want to do better as a parent than she did because of this. But I also sometimes get confused and think that this means making my kids “better.” (I will also note that I am much better at thinking up pun-themed names for small businesses. I still don’t understand why she didn’t immediately call her hair care company that caters to kids with special needs “Spectrims”).

In this last season, Elsa will have to try to start letting go. Sam, now a college student, is living by himself even as she forces him to FaceTime her constantly and tries to lure him back home. Casey is starting to figure out this whole adulting thing, too. And Elsa gets to try to repair a lot of the damage that she and her husband, Michael Rappaport’s Doug, each inflicted upon their relationship.

In what I hope will soon be a post-COVID real world, I have to prepare myself that my kids will be going out into a germ-infested environment where I cannot always control what happens to them, what they will do, or what their schedules may be like.

I hope I can take the lessons I’ve learned from Elsa’s parenting styles to heart as I prepare for this journey.

The fourth and final season of Atypical premieres July 9th on Netflix.

Whitney Friedlander is an entertainment journalist with, what some may argue, an unhealthy love affair with her TV. A former staff writer at both Los Angeles Times and Variety, her writing has also appeared in Cosmopolitan, Vulture, The Washington Post and others. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, son, daughter, and very photogenic cat.

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