What the Show "Parenthood" Says About Working Moms

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Parenthood Premiere Party in LA

After spending several weeks focusing on the challenges of a working mom, a recent episode of the new and somewhat uneven NBC drama Parenthood delivered a complicated take on a mother who seems conflicted about having left her career to raise her children.

Two primary Parenthood characters made different choices when it came to work and motherhood: Julia Braverman-Graham chose the fast-paced life of a corporate attorney whose husband is at home full-time raising their grade-school-aged daughter Sydney. Meanwhile, Julia’s sister-in-law, Kristina Braverman, gave up her career as a legislative deputy in municipal government in order to raise her daughter, Haddie, – now 15 – and her son Max, 8, who was just diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome.

Their two lifestyle choices clashed recently when Julia agreed to allow the teenaged Haddie to shadow her at work for Career Week. In preparation for her daughter’s day at the law firm, Kristina dug through boxes in her garage – stuff that was designated for Good Will – and found her old pair of black work pumps and tried to give them to her daughter. Eyeing the shoes, Haddie shook her head, “Aunt Julia works in a real office.”

Hurt, Kristina responded, “I wore these real places.”

When Julia arrived to pick up her niece, Haddie literally ran out the front door with her mother chasing close behind, awkwardly trying to slip on a pair of boots as she was calling out that she had Haddie’s egg salad sandwich. But Haddie didn’t want her mother’s egg salad sandwich, or her outdated black pumps. In fact, she didn’t want anything that her at-home mother was trying to give her.

After spending the day with her aunt, Haddie was wildly enthusiastic, telling her parents, “It’s so nice to have this female professional that I can look up to.” Kristina, standing in the kitchen in front of the makings of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, was stung as she listened to Haddie wax on about how Aunt Julia is greatly respected at work, had a male secretary and had lattes delivered to her whenever she wanted them. “It’s like she’s her own powerful woman, you know?” Haddie said.

This storyline reminded me of the argument you sometimes hear against moms giving up careers (or scaling them back): That being an at-home mom sends a negative message to girls and that the children, who are robbed of a strong “powerful” female role model, won’t respect their mothers. At least that’s how it was played on Parenthood with Kristina’s 15-year-old daughter clearly looking down on her mother.

And Kristina picked up on that as she almost defensively pulled out a box of her old work files and began overtly sighing and laughing over them in order to get Haddie to ask about it. “I saw how excited you got with Aunt Julia over Career Day and I got sort of nostalgic,” Kristina said, mentioning the days when she worked in local government.

“Right, weren’t you, like, a councilman’s assistant?” Haddie asked, unimpressed.

Kristina flinched and corrected her, saying she was a “legislative deputy” and had successfully helped draft a local ordinance regulating roadside billboards. “Oh, okay, so, like, you stopped there from being too many billboards . . . Cool,” Haddie said dismissively.

“It passed, this ordinance passed,” Kristina said proudly, pointing to the file. Then, to burst her triumphant bubble, her 8-year-old son walked into the kitchen and said, “I want eggs today,” as though she were his servant.

With a sigh, Kristina said, “Okay, we can do eggs.”

By the end of the episode, Kristina’s husband Adam brought Haddie to a park that Kristina had convinced a developer to build adjacent to where a new office building was going to be erected. “Without her, this wouldn’t be here,” Adam said, to which the now impressed Haddie said, “Wow, that’s so Erin Brockovich of her.” Later, Haddie delivered a latte to Kristina while Kristina was putting towels away in the linen closet. Although it seemed like it was meant to be a happy ending, it didn’t feel all that happy to me. It still felt conflicted, melancholy and unfinished. Perhaps the writers will later go on to explore Kristina’s mixed feelings about leaving her career behind, feeling taken for granted by her family and her exhaustion from taking care of a high maintenance child.

The writers have already begun to flesh out Julia’s story, as she has struggled with her jealousy over the relationship her at-home dad husband has with their daughter Sydney, who openly prefers her father to her mother. In an early episode, Julia waded into the at-home/working mom morass by making a huge, anti-at-home mom faux pas at a school auction. Julia got into a bidding war with an at-home mom over a reserved parking spot in front of the school entrance. When the other woman bid $1500, Julia made flippant remark, accidentally amplified by a microphone, about how it was a lot of money for the woman to be bidding considering that “she doesn’t even work.” When Julia realized everyone had heard her aside, she backtracked, badly, lamely calling being an at-home parent, “such a valid, wonderful choice.” Hardly made Julia a favorite at the school pick-up/drop-off lines.

Clearly there’s lots of material which the writers can tap with the groundwork they’ve laid with Julia and Kristina.

What’s your take on how Parenthood has handled the issues of moms and work?

by Meredith O’Brien (Moms in Pop Culture and Politics)

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