TV Moms Can’t Have It All Either

Meredith holds her son, baby Bailey.

Meredith holds her son, baby Bailey (Hypable.com).

We watch TV to escape. Yet sometimes, TV writers borrow from reality, and that can be surprisingly satisfying because it speaks directly to challenges in our own lives. In recent episodes of Parenthood and Grey’s Anatomy, both Julia Braverman-Graham and Meredith Grey have struggled with the realities of modern motherhood, and that pesky question about whether women can have it all. Both shows seem to agree: we can’t.

Julia has been a somewhat reluctant stay-at-home mom, having left her partner-track job at a prestigious law firm last season. She wanted to have more time to help her adopted son acclimate to the family. She also recognized she was distracted, which led to a costly mistake her employer couldn’t overlook. Julia feels ready to work full-time again this season. However, her unceremonious exit from her last legal job costs her the perfect new job.

At the heart of Julia’s struggle is her discomfort about her new identity. She feels like she should be more than just a stay-at-home mom. Julia is so uneasy that she initially lies to the other parent volunteer on the school’s sustainability committee, telling him she’s still at her old law firm. Only after he admits he’s unemployed does Julia finally confess that she’s no longer a practicing attorney.

Being a stay-at-home mom is a noble endeavor, and yet, I can relate to Julia’s unease. Every thinking woman who chooses to stay home has to make peace with the knowledge that her peers continue to climb the career ladder while she takes time out to pursue full-time parenthood.

That internal struggle has external reverberations as well. I have been asked disdainfully by a fellow mother, “What do you do all day?” And I’ve had people at Washington parties abruptly end conversations or start condescending to me when they hear I stay home with my daughter, as if only someone lacking intelligence would do that. That’s ridiculous. It’s also a stark contrast to the reactions I get when I say that I’m a freelance writer (who also stays home with my daughter). The latter regularly elicits genuine interest in what I write and where I publish, based on the different presumption that I’m a thinking person.

Meanwhile, on Grey’s Anatomy, Meredith Grey embodies the challenges working mothers face. This season, Meredith continues to work at being both a great mom and a great surgeon.

On her first day back from maternity leave, Meredith lands a prestigious surgery with best friend Cristina Yang. Only, Cristina decides to do the surgery with another surgeon, because Cristina believes Meredith is distracted by her daughter’s needing stitches; Cristina wants 100% focus on the patient. Meredith is shocked. She learns for the first time that Cristina no longer considers her an equal. Cristina believes Meredith long ago stopped prioritizing being a top surgeon in favor of having a family.

Cristina names two other surgeons who continued to give their all even after becoming mothers, but each one has her own story. The first had a husband who stayed home with their son full-time but then left that surgeon for another woman. The second surgeon co-parented with her wife and the baby’s father, meaning extra help was always available. Meredith has her surgeon-husband, but he didn’t answer her repeated calls asking if he could pick up their daughter at day care. Like Meredith, he had a surgery, but when reality collided with even their incredibly egalitarian relationship, he operated, and she was sidelined.

Meredith’s frustration is palpable. A surgeon can’t afford to step back from her work for an extended period of time. She can’t afford to become rusty, or she risks losing the trust of her patients. So, what should she do if she wants to be both a world-class surgeon and a devoted mother, which is important to Meredith? Presumably we’ll learn how she resolves this thorny question as the season progresses.

The reality is that no one can give 100% to both a demanding job and a small child, who has many, constant needs. It is simply impossible. Perhaps that’s why both these shows’ recent episodes were so refreshing. Candor replaced worn-out mantras, which is so much more helpful to young women. Every woman faces her own choices and trade-offs, but the truth is that women can’t have it all simultaneously. And acknowledging limits doesn’t make a woman a failure. It makes her human.

This article appeared in Acculturated.

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