Politics & Policy

Moms in the Box

To heck with reality, TV moms choose careers.

Motherhood is confusing these days. Every few months, we hear a new salvo in the “Mommy Wars.” Women expect to be fulfilled both by work outside the home and by having children. Work takes time, and children stubbornly refuse to change their own diapers, warm their own bottles, and kiss their own boo-boos.

#ad#Primetime TV is even more confusing — and confused. Long gone are the days of June Cleaver and Carol Brady. Even more, the days of Malcolm in the Middle’s Lois and Roseanne’s Roseanne are gone as well. TV shows just don’t focus on motherhood anymore. Many characters on TV are mothers, but their storylines revolve around work, social life, and romance — anything but parenting.

Many series have storylines that involve motherhood. There are single moms on Desperate Housewives, Ugly Betty, the New Adventures of Old Christine, and even CSI. Working moms also abound, such as surgeon Dr. Bailey (Chandra Wilson) on Grey’s Anatomy, nurse Carla (Judy Reyes) on Scrubs, or school counselor Tami Taylor (Connie Britton) on Friday Night Lights. Even Heroes’ stiletto-wearing, dual-personality hit-woman Jessica/Nikki (Ali Larter) is a working mom … of sorts.

Desperate Housewives’ Lynette (Felicity Huffman) started out as a stay-at-home mom in the first season. Perhaps the best satire of modern motherhood on TV, she staged a coup d’etat in the PTA, had her energetic boys dig ditches to wear them out before a school interview, and started taking their Ritalin when she heard it gave adults energy. It was such a disappointment when Lynette went back to work and became just another working mom on TV.

Grey’s Anatomy has followed Dr. Bailey as she returned to work after the birth of her son. She was torn between her ambition and her desire to be with her baby, and she resorts to such unusual resolutions as singing him lullabies over the phone at night.

It’s even harder to find a stay-at-home mom on TV. Only three shows, According to Jim, 7th Heaven, and My Name is Earl, feature moms home with their children full time. One hardly counts, since Joy (Jamie Pressly) from Earl is really more trailer-park queen than soccer mom.

Some TV moms tend to be more of a best friend to their offspring than a mother, such as Gilmore Girls’ Lorelai (Lauren Graham) or Desperate Housewives’ Susan (Teri Hatcher). Tami Taylor from Friday Night Lights bucks this trend, saying things all we mothers say, such as, “Don’t you take that tone with me, young lady.” She wants to connect with her daughter, but also isn’t afraid to draw boundaries.

Apart from a few solid examples, real depictions of moms are missing on TV now — moms who yell, who say no, who lose their temper, but who always come through. Moms who offer wisdom, comfort, and an occasional kick in the heinie. Moms like Jane Kaczmarek’s Lois (Malcolm in the Middle), Patricia Heaton’s Debra (Everybody Loves Raymond), and Patricia Richardson’s Jill Taylor (Home Improvement).

If scripted shows are leaving motherhood out, reality TV is bringing us glimpses of the complexity of modern motherhood. Shows like Trading Spouses: Meet Your New Mommy and Wife Swap enter the American home and show us what moms are really doing with their days. Although the shows go out of their way to swap families with polar-opposite lifestyles, it usually turns out that the underlying desire for family connection is the same.

Motherhood looks very different in each home. The shows highlight the farm mom who gets up at four to cut hay before taking her kids to school as well as the suburban mom who spends her days driving children from activity to activity. Some moms are hyper-organized; some go with the flow. Some work in the marketplace. Some work at home. Some show love through helping kids follow their passions; some through sharing their own passions. Some micromanage their kids lives; some take a back seat. However, many of the moms are willing to learn from their experience and to change where needed while still appreciating the qualities that make their families unique. Like the rest of us, they build a working model based on everyone’s personalities, then adjust as needed.

The Mommy Wars, both on TV and in the real world, make a basic assumption: Women must choose between career and family. Whether this is a false dichotomy is open for debate. Perhaps women, once the business of raising babies dies down, are more motivated to make their mark on the world for their offspring’s sake. This motivation we often attribute to men but rarely to women, reducing women’s incentive to work merely to a sense of personal satisfaction.

In TV land, at least at the moment, women have chosen their careers — except, that is, for those pesky actual women of reality TV who refuse to be crammed into an easily measurable, easily definable, easily tabulated box.

– Rebecca Cusey will be celebrating Mother’s Day in Washington, D.C.

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