What Atypical’s Smothering Mom Elsa Has Taught Me About Parenting
I never thought of myself as someone obsessed with control and order. I don’t need to be Instagram approved for every outfit I choose or every meal I prepare. My email inbox is rarely empty at the end of the day. I didn’t take all of the AP classes in high school. I went to state school for college because of the cost differential and because I was too lazy to study for the SATs (hey, if AC Slater could get a 1050 …).
Then I watched Atypical from Netflix. Creator Robia Rashid’s family drama revolves around a middle-class household of four whose eldest child Sam (Keir Gilchrist) happens to be on the autism spectrum. Now, in its fourth and final season, the portrayal of Sam – both through the writing and the cast of Gilchrist, who has no ASD – has been thoroughly studied and both widely praised and panned. (It was nominated for a Peabody Award in 2018 as critics weighed through 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 micro-manages the family plan and regularly appears on her color-coded kitchen wall calendar for additions. She knows how to prepare her family’s favorite food for each member. As a hairdresser by trade, she offers to do everyone’s hair for a school dance, if all the children agree to wear headphones so Sam can feel more comfortable when he’s around. When Sam is a senior, she ruins a secret Kegger house party because she is concerned that other parents have excluded her from party planning. She is very invested in the dating life of Sam, his sister Casey (Brigette Lundy-Paine), and her friends. She tends to take sharp vengeance on anyone who disagrees or has some comments on her parenting style (on the advice of Sam’s friend Zahid, Nik Dodani, she takes out aggression against Sam’s therapist Amy Okuda by showing her bare bottom rubs on the specialist’s car).
And sometimes, when she pauses cleaning the bathroom to see how many minutes the oven clock has before dinner is ready, she catches a glimpse of herself in the mirror to wonder if it’s all being appreciated .
In the second episode of season four, Elsa offers to help high school student Casey maintain the heavy training load to become a championship runner and excel at a competitive private school. Forcing a smile, she reminds her daughter, “I’m excellent at nagging people and keeping them on their schedule.”
Wow, atypical. It 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 words left. I was interrupted twice by my husband to hear about his day and to talk about our two children and once by my six-year-old son’s tutor because his appointment was postponed. I do all doctor appointments and dentist visits. I know if my little daughter’s favorite pacifier is clean or dirty. I started the dreaded preschool application process a few years ago of creating my own color-coded family plan. It’s on a dry-erase board in the kitchen. While I’m not a confrontational person by nature, as a parent I have argued with teachers and administrators in ways that I would never have as a student. When my son was in preschool I could see popular girls’ cliques spring up in his class and I wondered if I should say something (I didn’t).
Some of these tasks are inevitable. But television taught me something else. Elsa’s suffocation and self-sacrifice made me realize that all of this could make me a bad (OK, not bad, but not great either) parent. My children are considerably younger than Elsa’s, but I wonder if the parenting styles I have initiated will generate a love-hate relationship similar to that which Casey now has with her mother. When my children leave the room for a second, I hold them back. I’m the kind of parent who makes them instantly apologize when they take toys from others and I consider it a personal shame if I don’t have a snack on hand when they see a child eating , what it wants. In 2019, after the outbreak of the Felicity Huffman / Lori Loughlin scandal, it dawned on me that I could actually be a helicopter parent who became a snowplow parent. Then the COVID-19 shutdown happened and my overprotective tendencies went into high gear. (My husband, who does his own part of the education, would vouch for all of this).
That’s why I think I’m drawn to Leigh’s character in Atypical and why I think developing the character on the show was a learning experience. Like Elsa – and pretty much everyone else in the world – I have problems with my mother. Because of this, as a parent, I want to do better than them. But sometimes I get confused too, and I think that this means making my children “better”. (I’ll also find that I’m much better at making up small business wordplay names. I still don’t understand why she didn’t immediately name her hair care company, which caters to special needs children).
This last season Elsa has to try to let go. Sam, now a college student, lives alone while constantly forcing him to FaceTime and trying to lure him home. Casey is also beginning to understand this whole growing up thing. And Elsa is trying to repair much of the damage she and her husband, Michael Rappaport’s Doug, each did to their relationship.
In what is hopefully an imminent real world after COVID, I have to prepare myself for my children to go into a germ-infested environment where I cannot always control what happens to them, what they do or what timetables they do like.
I hope I can take the lessons I learned from Elsa’s parenting style to heart as I prepare for this journey.
The fourth and final season of Atypical launches on July 9th on Netflix.
Whitney Friedlander is an entertainment writer and, as some might argue, has an unhealthy love affair with her television. As a former contributor to the 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 a very photogenic cat.
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