WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–With two boys under age 5, I rarely have time to catch my breath, let alone my favorite TV shows.
But I’ve stayed up late the last few weeks to watch a new show about . . . staying up late.
The central character is the mother of a newborn struggling to meet the demands of work and home.
As a real-life working mom myself, it’s just the plot for me. We girls and women, moms and otherwise, need more of this kind of "reality" TV and less of the hyped-up so-called reality shows about desperate housewives and mom-swapping families.
Media that accurately portray the burdens and joys of real-life parenthood will help prepare us for the challenges of parenthood and then allow us to laugh at–rather than harshly judge–ourselves when we fail. It could also have a political effect by raising awareness of, and fueling debate about, the many challenges facing today’s parents.
And yet, despite the millions of us out here starring in the daily dramedy of working parenthood, "Up All Night" seems to be the only show that comes close to portraying the reality of working parenthood. That’s why I’ve been giving up some precious shut-eye in recent weeks for the rare opportunity to watch the antics of a character much like myself (minus the gorgeous of course).
In addition to its name, another auspicious sign that the new show would live up to its preview promises is the time slot. It airs on NBC at 10 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, a time when my boys are usually–knock (very softly) on wood–asleep, and, if I’m really lucky, I am too.
Hitting the Sofa
But instead of hitting the hay these last few weeks, I’ve decided to hit the sofa so I can watch Christina Applegate and Will Arnett play Reagan and Chris, the exhausted and enamored new parents of infant Amy. "Saturday Night Live" alum Maya Rudolph is cute as the other "baby" on the half-hour sitcom: Reagan’s petulant boss, the star of her own Oprah-like talk show.
But don’t think I’m completely satisfied. The series has, so far, fallen short of hilarity, and in some ways, reality.
Reagan doesn’t have quite the same level of angst about spending time away from her baby that I and the other working parents I know seem to suffer. Nor does she endure the trials and tribulations of breastfeeding and pumping at work. Amy is apparently bottle-fed, although I have yet to see her drinking anything of any kind, even though that is primarily what new babies do in their first few months of life.
Chris, meanwhile, has conveniently–and inexplicably–opted to forego his presumably massive salary as a lawyer and stay home to raise Amy (!). It’s a laudable plot structure in some ways because it enables the show to address challenges faced by stay-at-home parents, and, in particular, stay-at-home dads. But at the same time, it also allows the show to completely dodge questions about child care provided by non-relatives.
The set is another big authenticity problem. The house is always neat and clean, with fresh-cut flowers on the dinner table. And Reagan always (always damnit!) looks fabulous, with freshly applied makeup, perfectly tousled hair and stylish clothes that never seem to have been stained by spit-up (or worse).
I can forgive some of that. This is Hollywood, after all. And I can tolerate a lot of it, mainly because the show is so far superior to anything else I’ve ever seen on television about parenthood.
Past TV Moms
Looking back, the TV moms I grew up with now seem to have been cut from whole cloth.
Clair Huxtable–a lawyer and mother of four played by Phylicia Rashad in "The Cosby Show"–was always waltzing around the house in some flowing suit plating a family breakfast or dishing out the family rules.
Elyse Keaton–the mother of three on "Family Ties"–was apparently an architect. Who knew? I watched practically every episode when I was growing up but I still had to look that one up online. As I recall, the show hardly ever dealt with the struggles her character must have faced as a working mom raising three kids.
"Growing Pains," meanwhile, was about a dad who decides to work from home when his wife goes back to work as a television reporter. Any difficulties she had making both her professional deadlines and the kids’ dinner are hard to recall.
There was "30 Something," which was a big breakthrough in candor about the stresses of marriage and kids. The drama did draw criticism from feminists because the main character, Hope, chose to leave her job as a journalist to raise her young daughter. But she at least struggled with the decision, giving voice to a common inner battle that seems to be ignored by most of today’s shows.
More recent television shows haven’t opened the viewfinder any wider. Practically every character in "Friends" had at least one child during the 10-year series. But the show nonetheless focused on the adult relationships rather than what would have been all-consuming ones with their babies–especially for Monica and Chandler, parents of adopted twins, and Pheobe, a mother to triplets.
I’m encouraged by the recently released movie "I Don’t Know How She Does It," which at least in the title presents working parenthood as an impossible juggling act. (I haven’t been able to get away from the kids yet to see that one so I can’t say much more).
I’m also happy to hear about the run-away sales of "Go The F**K to Sleep," the hilarious book that calls itself a "bedtime book for parents in the real world" and doesn’t spare the curse words that occur all too naturally to a tired parent who knows such words are also entirely inappropriate.
And then there’s Louis C.K., the crass, often offensive but almost always hilarious comedian who has made a name for himself by riffing on the difficulties of parenthood. Imagine that: a male comedian making a career out of child-rearing. Love it!
But these shows and acts are few and far between. We could all use more entertainment that portrays parenthood in a more realistic light. It would help parents relax and relate, but it would also give some much needed attention to the challenges facing parents today. And that could lead to political change in the arena of family-friendliness: paid parental leave, paid sick days, access to quality, affordable health care, flexible work schedules and so on.
In "Up All Night," Reagan, at least, is a character who actually tries to balance the way-more-than-full-time demands of work and family. She also articulates why she does what she does: She is the sole provider for her family, she loves her job and she is thriving in her career. At the same time she tells her needy boss that she wants and needs to care for her young daughter, and is often (along with Chris, bless his modern-day-dad heart) up all night doing it.
Learning how to find that elusive work-family balance is the crux of the show. And it’s the crux of my life as a working mom and of the lives of millions of other working parents.
Even though the show isn’t perfect, I’m grateful there is a television show I can relate to, and at an hour when I can (knock on wood) see it.
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Allison Stevens is a writer in Washington, D.C. She covers women’s issues for a variety of groups and publications.