In true Silicon Valley trailblazing fashion, Apple and Facebook changed the mom-game last month when they announced they would begin offering up to $20,000 to female employees for them to freeze their eggs — effectively granting women more time before their biological clocks begin to run out. Female employees now wouldn’t have to worry nearly as much about stalling (and thereby hurting) their careers in order to have children. Science gives them the ability, and now their employers are giving them the cash, to wait.
The move has been both heralded as a progressive response to the serious plight of the working mother, and concurrently criticized as a selfish attempt to control employees for the companies’ gain. While this new policy is a generous way of granting women agency over both their careers and their family lives, it seems to me like a sad submission: Apple and Facebook are throwing in the towel, basically telling working women “No, you can’t have it all.” It’s a BandAid for a greater social issue, insinuating that if women want to be successful in the corporate world, they should wait to have kids, rather than the companies finding productive ways to accommodate women’s choices so that their careers aren’t negatively impacted.
When I began thinking about this column, I knew I didn’t want to get into a discussion of the Mommy Wars, the slightly derogatory term for the difficult choice mothers make to stay at home or work. Clearly, everything would be better if we lived in a world where moms and dads and stepparents and those without children all had the agency and means to do whatever they wanted with their lives. Unfortunately, we don’t. The dichotomy between working mothers and non-working ones is no better represented than on TV. We have Olivia Pope and Kalinda Sharma, fierce and sexy and hard-edged, firmly childless. Or we have Claire Dunphy, a stay-at-home mom who is frustrated and unfulfilled. There isn’t much in between. However, though few, there are television (and real-life) women who have been able to juggle careers and children without following Apple and Facebook’s edict that they should delay having children in order to be successful.
When my friends and I discuss which “Sex and the City” characters we are, I consistently yell, “I’m a Miranda!” Miranda Hobbes, the cynical, neon-haired, ambitious lawyer who spends much of her time on-screen judging the off-kilter choices of her more glamorous friends; Miranda, who gladly works 80 hour weeks and (hilariously) fights back against sexism in her office; Miranda, who gets pregnant in her late 30s and decides to keep both her baby and her high-powered job, a choice rarely represented on television. In one particularly heartrending scene, she tapes her face to the mobile hanging above her son’s bed, terrified that he won’t remember her. Miranda can balance single motherhood and a career, but the show isn’t afraid to show how hard it is to do so — she isn’t anything close to a superhero, and when she loses control she is at her most relatable.
On NBC’s “Parenthood,” Julia Braverman-Graham is the youngest of the four central siblings, and from the beginning she is depicted as another ambitious, go-getter litigator. For the first few seasons of the show, it seems as though Julia truly does have it all: she works insane hours, but finds time to make it to her family’s bi-weekly get-togethers (why the extended Bravermans spend so much time together is beyond me.) Her husband Joel takes care of their daughter, navigating the perils of the PTA so she doesn’t have to.
It’s almost too picture perfect, which is why it was so powerful when Julia’s carefully constructed façade began to unravel in season four, beginning when Joel decides to go back to work. She makes a fatal mistake at the firm because she’s worried about her newly adopted son, and then misses her daughter’s recital to cover up for that mistake, and suddenly, poignantly, we find Julia standing in her kitchen, breakfast burning behind her, as she repeats, “I can’t do it anymore.” It takes a show fully aware of its characters to portray this kind of breakdown realistically — but “Parenthood” doesn’t stop here. Julia doesn’t become a content, non-working mom. After a few months with a listless lack of structure, she again falls apart, achingly demonstrating that some moms are better when they are working, happier and healthier when they have lives outside of their children. Julia’s desperation and the ravaging effects it has on her family is painful to watch, but also a deeply complex representation of a woman who is earnestly trying to figure out how to make things work best for her and her family.
Both Julia and Miranda are fleshed-out examples of corporate working mothers — high-powered, Ivy-educated execs who also happen to change diapers and go to tee-ball games. But not all powerful portrayals of working mothers take place in the corporate world. In a manner that mirrors actress Connie Britton’s own mid-life revival, her character Tami Taylor on “Friday Night Lights” is a flawlessly flawed example of a woman who took the traditional route and stayed home with her daughter before deciding to embark on a career. Tami works as a high school counselor, bringing the same prescription of measured pragmatism and nurturing warmth to her career that she does to her family. She doesn’t fumble while adjusting to this new role, but rather is able to tailor her charisma into her job, growing as an advocate for her students and her family.
Tami is not a leader in the same way as Miranda and Julia, and her job grants her some basic flexibility that the corporate life doesn’t. However, she is unapologetically ambitious in her career, just as they are, moving from counselor to principal and ultimately college administrator. Tami also doesn’t have the freedom within her relationship that the others do; unlike Miranda, who raises Brady mainly on her own, and Julia, who relies on Joel to stay home with the kids, Tami also must compete with her husband, Eric, constantly reasserting that her job is just as important as his. She is effectively waging a war on three fronts; her career, her children and her husband. This constant struggle makes it so much more empowering that the show ends with their family moving for her career rather than Eric’s.
Why do these women matter so much? While TV isn’t perfect, the past few years have shown a meteoric rise in powerful female role models, these characters included. Why must the Julias and Tamis and Mirandas be distinguished from the Olivias and the Claires — admirable and successful in their own right?
Because Apple and Facebook’s announcement shows that while they care about the women who work for them — and I do believe their move is in many ways progressive — they are giving up on Miranda and Julia and Tami, giving up on the idea of a world in which it’s OK for women to choose to have kids and a career within their own chosen time frame.
Because my mom has worked a high-powered job my whole life and also raised three children. Because she has missed some of my brothers’ soccer games and fed us chiefly Stouffer’s frozen lasagna. Because this morning she called me from the airport three times to give me advice on this column. Because I call myself a Miranda due to the fact that she has always said she was one too. No one can have it all — and the idea that we must strive for that sets an impossible standard — but as I begin to think about what I want to do for the rest of my life, I need to know I can do it all, whatever my “all” is. Miranda, Julia, Tami and my mom taught me that I can. That’s why they matter.