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Television: A working-mom danger zone?

Mitchell Haaseth/NBC

I am a huge fan of Parenthood. I think the show almost always gets the stresses and joys of parenting right. On last week’s episode,  Julia Braverman, Erika Christensen’s high-powered lawyer/working mom, suddenly quit her job.  She had screwed up big-time, missed a dance recital, and then broke down in her kitchen after burning the kids’ breakfast. Oh, how I related. When I was working as editor-in-chief of ELLEgirl, I had one such morning on the train into the city. I happened to be seated with an important media reporter, who watched as I tried to use an expired commuter pass, then had to borrow money for my fare; received a phone call informing me that I had forgotten about picture day at the preschool, and generally appeared to be in over my head. I did not quit my job that day — because it was too good a gig — but I sure felt like it.

Julia, on the other hand, has always been the working mom who had it all figured out. Her husband took care of things at home, and she seemed very engaged and validated by both her work and her home life. In this episode, after she made an expensive mistake, her old male bosses called her in for a scolding. They ordered her to proclaim her clients as her only focus (a ridiculous demand, especially from a mother, even for a lawyer), and she did what any mother would do: she quit. Well, not every mother would quit. Some might pretend that the needs of their clients surpass those of their kids, in order to support those kids.

There has been a lot of discussion in recent months about the dilemma of working mothers. Ann-Marie Slaughter’s cover story in The Atlantic this summer said the workplace needs to change if women are to succeed. In the same publication, childless Elizabeth Wurtzel ranted that “being a mother is not a job.” Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO and new mom, will publish a book in March urging mothers not to cut back on their career ambition. Of those three women, Slaughter is the most credible witness, as she is the only one to raise kids while fulfilling the demands of a political career, and she says it is impossible.

I’m  guessing that the Parenthood writers thought they should address this recent round of debate of a seemingly unsolvable problem. They’ve gone there before. Several seasons ago Kristina Braverman turned down a job she would personally love but would be too much of a strain, considering the needs of her autistic son. That storyline seemed so real and organic; and my heart broke for Kristina. Kristina later went back to work as a campaign manager after a sexy receptionist kissed her husband.  Which, when you think about all the ways she could have retaliated, seems like the most rational choice.

So now Kristina has Julia for stay-at-home company. I kind of doubt hard-driving Julia will be at home for long, though, which is a good thing, because I mourn the presence of this sane and fulfilled working mom on TV. TV could use more together professional working moms. There aren’t even any working moms on 30 Rock, a show run by a working mom. Connie Britton’s character on Nashville is a mom, but she’s a famous country singer, and that is a totally different kind of grind. (Her Tammy Taylor on Friday Night Lights was an excellent working mom, though.)

The moms on Modern Family don’t work outside the home. I love the show, but I thought last week’s episode was insulting to stay-at-home parents; stay-at-home dad Cam was made to look like a thumb-twiddling idiot before suddenly landing a job as a music teacher. (Really? Out of nowhere?! We never before heard anything about Cam’s background as a teacher, but we sure know all about his clown career. ) Kate on Ben and Kate works, but her job as a bar manager doesn’t really qualify as professional. Alicia on The Good Wife returned to the workplace when her kids were teenagers and her husband was exposed as someone who slept with prostitutes. Again, good move. But then she slept with her boss. And she barely sees her kids.

So why aren’t there more moms on TV who are personally fulfilled, yet not overextended? Who have I overlooked? And is that enough? Do happy professional women with kids not make good TV?

(NOTE: It seems Cam’s past as a music teacher has been mentioned before. So sorry I forgot about that. Can I blame the error on my kids? Also, how I wish I had never mentioned Kate’s job as a bar manager. I actually like Kate, and think she is an awesome working mom. I was clumsily trying to make a distinction between her job and Julia’s.)


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