Patricia Heaton Talks Mother's Day, Midwestern Values & Life in "The Middle"

Sona Charaipotra

Patricia Heaton in the Middle
Photo from ABC
Talk about a multitasking mama! Patricia Heaton -- two-time Emmy-winning actress, producer, and a TV mom icon -- balances raising her brood of four (Dad is actor David Hunt) with a full-time gig as the star of ABC's hit comedy The Middle.

On the show, she plays Frankie Heck, a frazzled-but-fun -- and supremely funny -- middle-aged mom of three. But before you start making those Everybody Loves Raymond comparisons, know this: "Sure, there are similarities, but with The Middle, it's really told from the mom's perspective," says Patricia, 51. "You'll get it. In the Mother's Day episode, the point is that Mother's Day ends up being more work for her than anyone else. Of course, I'd do the same to my mom in the episode. So that's life as a mom."

Despite her hectic schedule, Patricia managed to take a coffee break with The Stir to chat about raising boys and her own Mother's Day plans.

But before we got started, Patricia said, "I'm looking at your website -- an 11-pound baby born at home? That's a brave woman. Oh my God, I think that's huge, even to me. My biggest was 9 pounds, 14 ounces, but that was a c-section, I can't even imagine. Six or seven pounds used to be the size, right?"

Yes ma'am. You have four boys, right?

Yes, I have four boys. Boys are a lot of fun. And tonight is the first night every single one of them is going out. My 10-year-old is at a sleepover, my 12-year-old is at a school dance, my 14-year-old is going to the movies with friends, and my 16-year-old usually just gets in his car and leaves. So we have a free night.

Wow, do you even know what to do with yourself?

I know! And I'm like one of the older parents in the neighborhood now, which I keep forgetting. It's a bunch of people in their 30s pushing their strollers with their newborns and 1-year-olds. I keep thinking that that's who I am, but then I realize, no, I'm like 20 years older! What happened? But actually, tonight is the wrap party for the whole series of 24, and my husband was on it a few years ago, so we're going to go to that. So that will be fun.

Do you guys still get out a lot? You know, date nights?

We've been getting out a little bit more than we used to. But years of staying at home has kind of made us lazy, boring people and so we're trying to push ourselves to go out. We've had to stay in for so long because of the kids. And then there's work. My show makes it impossible with 12 to 14 hours a day, plus the kids and homework and school and all that stuff. So months go by and we don't do anything. But now we're just starting to rev up again. I'm able to go to more charity events -- I like to support my friends' charities. And we've gone to dinner with friends, which we never do. So a little bit more now, we're getting out.

What's Mother's Day like in your house?

Like it is for most of us -- I'm lucky if anybody remembers that it's Mother's Day. Literally, it's kind of like what happens on our episode. The kids remember it eventually and they bring home some flowers from the grocery store and then try to find something else at the grocery store that slightly resembles a Mother's Day present. That's pretty much what I get. It's alright, it's okay. But the affection is always there. Boys wear their hearts on their sleeves. Because I do get hugs every day from my kids. So every day is Mother's Day at my house.

Speaking of which, you're a mom icon -- now twice over.

I know! Twice. Which I was a little nervous about. As an actor, you kind of want to try different things. So when I first heard about this role of Frankie Heck, I was nervous. I was like, "Here we go, now I'm pigeon-holed. I just did this for nine years and I gotta do it again." But then I read the script and it's a very different role than Debra [the mom on Everybody Loves Raymond]. It's from Frankie's point of view and it's a single camera show, which is a very different format than Raymond. On Raymond, there was an audience, so it was like putting on a play. The Middle is one-camera, no audience, and we shoot every day. So there's no time to rehearse. It's using a different set of muscles, which is why I was interested in doing it. And I thought the script was brilliant. The show has a very specific Midwestern sensibility, and I think people really can relate.

Could you relate to it, being from that background yourself?

I do! I'm from Ohio, and Frankie sort of reminds me of my mom. You know, when I was growing up, breakfast was Tang and Pop-Tarts. I mean, if you're going to do Tang, why can't you just do orange juice? I'll never understand Tang when you can just as easily buy orange juice. But maybe it was cheaper, because my dad was a bit tight-fisted. Or maybe it was me, because Tang was the astronaut drink. So maybe I was like, "We've gotta have Tang!" So yeah, Tang and Pop-Tarts and hot dogs and pizza and fish sticks. Occasionally meat loaf, and she taught me how to make spaghetti and meatballs. Growing up, my mom wasn't interested in decorating, nor did we have any money to do decorating. We kids just had our crap all over the house all the time. So that's the Heck house. I have friends who call me and say they want to jump through the screen and clean up the house. But I do relate to it.

What was it like for you growing up in the Midwest?

Parents were very hands-off back in the day when I was growing up. There weren't so many parent-teacher conferences and dangers. The world seemed to be a safer place. Parents didn't have to worry about technology -- there were no computers to monitor or cell phones to check. And the schools did their thing when the kids were at school and parents did their thing at home. And never the twain would meet. We did an episode where Mike and Frankie wondered why they kept having to go to school for conferences and do volunteer things all the time. That's supposed to be the school's job. What's interesting is, things in the Midwest haven't changed all that much. Except for the advent of all the technology we have these days. But a lot of stuff is still very basic, football and dating and homework. I think that makes the Heck family relatable. I can relate to it from growing up, but I can certainly relate to it as a mom today.

How much are you your mom?

When I had four kids ages five and under, I was just like my mom. They're all like 22 months apart. So I was taking every shortcut I could take. Just like my mom. But now the shortcuts are a lot better for you. You can buy a jar of baby food, but it's organic and dairy-free. I'm more relaxed about things now, but back then I had to be more of a strict parent because I had so many kids who were so little at once -- and I was working the whole time. So we had to be strict. I think my parents were pretty strict too, but I just couldn't tolerate having chaos, especially behavioral chaos. And I tell you, it really has made a difference.

Somebody told me this early on: You have to look at raising your children as an inverted triangle. You keep tight rein on them when they're really little -- lay the ground rules and really stay on top of them. And as they get older, you can broaden out and relax the rules a little bit as they're able to handle more freedom and responsibilities. So as they get older, you let them go. A lot of people start way wide open with the, "Oh, they're just a baby." Then they try to close the lid. That doesn't work. It's like this: What do you want your child's life to look like when they're 28? You want them to have a good job, you want them to be in a good relationship, you want them to be happy and moral and all of that. All those things, you need to start investing in them now, from the day they're born. That's how I looked at raising my boys, and knock on wood, I think, so far, we're doing okay.

Catch Patricia Heaton on The Middle, Wednesdays at 8 p.m. on ABC.

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