Defining what makes a mom great is a complicated undertaking. No mother — or human, for that matter — is perfect all the time. Keeping that in mind and in honor of Mother’s Day, Rotten Tomatoes made a list of some of our favorite fictional TV moms.
We’ve included some obvious recent choices like characters from The Handmaid’s Tale and Parenthood — programs that, in their very premise, address the concept of devotion to one’s children and what that means to different people. We’ve also included older series like Leave It to Beaver — series that may not seem as relevant in a world in which many moms juggle career with home life but that still shaped the role for a generation of viewers. And there are also shows that aren’t necessarily about motherhood all the time but have certainly offered some thoughts on the subject; Game of Thrones’ Daenerys Targaryen, for example, got too Icarian in what started as a quest to fiercely protect and avenge her dragon “children,” and Catelyn Stark made the ultimate sacrifice in protecting her human ones. (The series’ prequel, House of the Dragons, however, is almost solely about maternal sacrifices).
One thing’s true for all of these shows: These characters may not be the best moms all the time. But their imperfections sometimes make them best in the role.
Single mom and working actress Sam Fox knew she didn’t always have a good work-life balance. But she raised three kids who don’t begrudge her for it and that says something.
It wasn’t just that Tami Taylor was a great mom to her two daughters. But she was also the de facto parent for so many other kids in Dillon, Texas when they needed advice on everything from how to handle colleges, their own parents or even more serious issues.
Dragon moms Queen Rhaenyra Targaryen, Queen Alicent Hightower, and Rhaenys Targaryen made sacrifices for their children, either by giving up their own ambitions or their lives. While some of those offspring may have grown into petulant brats, in the Targaryen battle for “best mom,” Alicent reigns supreme. So far, she’s kept her children alive — in part because she knows how to do her own politicking behind the scenes.
It may not have been Jane Villanueva’s plan to have a kid when she was still a virgin — especially since she was artificially inseminated with her old crush’s sample — but it turned out that she was pretty good at it. It helped that she had such great role models in her mom, Xiomara (Andrea Navedo), and grandmother, Alba (Ivonne Coll).
One of Dr. Rainbow Johnson’s greatest acts was her ability to talk to her kids like adults and put them first even when she was going through her own stuff (like, say, her marriage briefly falling apart or that she was living with her in-laws).
How far would you go to save your child (or yourself)? In this Emmy-winning dystopian drama, June Osbourne risked death — hers and others — multiple times for her daughters. Some of the choices weren’t the best, or smartest, ones. But being held prisoner by a puritanical dictatorship can cause people to make rash decisions.
Daenerys might have been the Mother of Dragons, but she also felt a maternal duty toward her army of soldiers and followers. Catelyn Stark’s final act was a (failed) attempt to protect her first born. And then there’s, erm, Cersei (Lena Headey). Say what you will, the woman loved her children — mostly. Bye, Tommen!
Penelope Riera Alvarez lead an exceedingly stressful life. A war veteran coping with her own issues of depression and anxiety, she was also a nurse to a fairly incompetent doctor (Stephen Tobolowsky) and lived with her extremely vivacious mother (Rita Moreno). But she always had time for her kids.
More kids; more drama. During its five-season run, this show’s central blended family handled issues like adoption and abandonment trauma, LGBTQ+ rights, health scares and other social issues. In doing so, it oh-so-subtly challenged the notion of what a “normal” family looks like.
You try co-parenting with Homer Simpson while raising three (very different) kids who are permanently stuck at the ages of elementary school or younger. Marge Simpson is a saint.
The epitome of “having it all” just as the phrase was permeating the lexicon, Clair Huxtable was a successful attorney, a mother of five, and a patient saint who was able to keep up with her family’s antics.
Lorelai Gilmore was there for her daughter Rory’s (Alexis Bledel) many, many mistakes with a smile and a quick-witted pop culture reference. In fact, she loved her so much that she even attempted to play nice with her own mother, Emily (Kelly Bishop), no matter how infuriating those encounters can be. (And, for all her stuffiness and snobbery, Emily did her best to understand her daughter too).
Sally Field, who played matriarch Nora Walker in this long-running series, said it best when she accepted an Emmy award for this part: “If mothers ruled the world, there would be no goddamn wars in the first place.”
There are some things for which parents can never prepare. A deadbeat ex and an older son anxious over what his college education will do to his family’s financial security? Sure. Your child getting sucked into another dimension and your boyfriend getting eaten by a Demodog? Those aren’t in the parenting books. But know that Joyce will go to hell (or even California) if it means saving her family.
We know that Rebecca Pearson had a strong better half in her husband, Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) when it came to the emotional support necessary for raising their “Big Three.” But it’s how strong Rebecca had to become after Jack’s untimely death that proved she should never be underestimated.
The series’ other standout mom was smart, successful, and sympathetic Beth Pearson — a woman who switched careers mid-life to build her own business, dealt with an army of her husband’s relatives crashing on her couch, and still was invested enough in her daughters’ lives that she’d make homemade jalapeño poppers when they brought over dates and handled heavy topics like birth control with pragmatism.
That stereotype that housewives sit on the couch and watch soaps everyday? It didn’t apply to Debra Barone. She was relatable because she was as overworked and stressed out as the rest of us. Plus, she has to put up with her meddling mother-in-law, Marie (Doris Roberts).
The circumstances under which Sharon and Rob (Rob Delaney) accidentally became parents and partners could have been catastrophic (one-night stands can have that effect on people’s lives). But she handled issues like redefining herself after children, her husband’s alcoholism, and fighting with a spouse in front of the kids with impeccable comic timing.
How did a feminist, free-thinking mom like Elyse Keaton end up with such materialistic and conservative kids? It was a sign of the times and she made the most of it.
Like many immigrants, Jessica Huang wanted her kids to be successful Americans and remember their roots. And if she had to be a stern pragmatist to get them there, then so be it.
No list of this kind is complete without Mrs. C. Marion Cunningham was the caretaker and mother everyone wanted in their lives — even those like Fonzie (Henry Winkler) who may have been too cool to admit it.
The TV remake of the Ron Howard movie was loaded with strong examples of motherhood. These included Monica Potter’s Kristina, who overcame cancer and also turned her worries about her son’s development into a career that would help similar kids. But there was also Lauren Graham’s Sarah Braverman, who may not have been good at adulting herself but who moved back home because that was what was best for her kids.
Before the Kardashians or the Partridges, there was this long-running comedy in which singer Harriet Nelson played a version of herself as the perfect small-town housewife and mother (even if she was nothing like this in real life).
Wife, mother, and Tom Selleck fan Linda Belcher is husband Bob’s partner in life and at their restaurant. A little scatterbrained yes, but who can blame her? The lady hasn’t had a day off in years. And she has to put up with burger-themed puns.
Despite what she may say, Beverly Goldberg did not fail as a mother. Sure, she was the definition of a “smother” and was a little too engrossed in her kids’ personal lives. But she did it all with heart (and a lot of Aqua Net).
Harriette Baines Winslow was proud to be a working mother with her own opinions. She was also patient enough to deal with Steve Urkel’s (Jaleel White) increasingly frequent visits.
With her pearls and immaculate kitchen, June Cleaver was the archetype of nuclear family matriarchs who always managed to have a handle on her two sons. Breaking the stereotype of that era, she also eventually found a life for herself outside of her family; the follow-up series The New Leave It to Beaver saw her as a member of the city’s council.
If motherhood is about keeping your kids as innocent and safe for as long as possible, then all of the women on this series deserved accolades. We were especially impressed with characters like Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley) and Celeste Wright (Nicole Kidman), who strove to keep their sons good even if genetics wasn’t working in their favor.