While this week’s Mindy Project premiere didn’t exactly give us a glimpse into Mindy’s specific parenting style, it’s only a matter of time before two become three, and we get what’s sure to be a no-holds-barred look into the life of Dr. Mindy Lahiri: Working Mom™. Like every mountain Mindy scales, this adventure is sure to be dramatic and ridiculous, but, ultimately, not as much of a mess as initially suggested. Then again, isn’t that parenthood in a nutshell? Lest we forget everything Mad Men’s Joan Harris was compelled to do in the name of raising her son.
In any case, fictional portrayals of working moms are vastly different now from the days when such characters were treated as shameful anomalies, branded as bad examples by vice-presidents (seriously). Today, these characters are celebrated for their commitment to both their professional and personal lives, and society’s evolving attitudes about working moms are in large part to thank for that. But at the same time, haven’t some of these portrayals helped to change norms?
Thanks to series like Murphy Brown, Who’s the Boss? and The Good Wife, the working-mother trope has shifted slightly away from the myth of “having it all” (though that pressure is still very real for women) and toward honest portrayals of the real-life frustrations that accompany the mom-job balance. Here’s how TV over the years has helped to set the stage for a working mom like Dr. Lahiri, and what role each character played in doing so.
The Anomaly: Joan Harris
Series: Mad Men
Era: Mid-to-late 1960s
Between seasons four and five (so late 1965 to early 1966), Joan Harris welcomes baby Kevin, the secret illegitimate love-child she conceived with Roger Sterling. By mid-season, tensions with her (abusive) absentee husband Greg led to divorce, at which point she’s left to raise Kevin by herself, with her mother Gail serving as a live-in nanny. In 2015, this narrative does not shock (besides the secret daddy part, that’s wild in any era). But 50 years earlier, this way of life cements Joan as a bona fide maverick, particularly since her professional trajectory soars after having Kevin. After all, it’s only after Pete’s reminder of her single-mom status that Joan decides to sleep with slimy Jaguar bigwig Herb in exchange for partnership in SCDP (season five), to ensure her son’s financial stability. Two seasons (and one marriage proposal) later, she leaves her new boyfriend because he doesn’t respect the importance of Kevin or her work. Finally, as the ‘70s break, Joan gets a break of her own: The series ends with her starting her own company, which puts the future of herself and her son in her own control — without a bunch of men reminding her that her parental status makes her bargaining fodder. (Also, it narrowly goes without saying, but: Had Mad Men been broadcast during the era in which it’s set, a character like Joan [or Peggy, or half of Don’s love interests] would not have existed.)
The Mom Who’s Single and Struggling But She’s Totally Got This: Ann Romano
Series: One Day at a Time
Era: Mid-1970s to early ‘80s
If the differences between the 1960s and the 1970s seem dramatic, that’s because they are. Where Joan Harris was ostracized, condescended to, and manipulated because of her single parenthood, Ann Romano had the big-picture benefit of second-wave feminism on her side. Like Joan, Ann is divorced from an absentee ex. However, Ann relocates herself and her two teen daughters to Indianapolis, where she builds an entirely new professional and familial life, and does not remarry until her daughters are grown. The series was still relatively eyebrow-raising for its tackling of feminist topics ranging from rape to menopause (it went on to win the Innovator Award at 2011 TV Land Awards), but Romano’s parental status, specifically, was met with fewer whispers than it would have been just a decade earlier. Romano’s struggle was out there, talked about, and not delegated to the back of anybody’s mind. Ultimately, she could truly own her status as a single, working parent, allowing more women — fictional and real — to do the same.
The Cool Mom (and Person): Clair Huxtable
Series: The Cosby Show
Era: Mid-1980s to early ‘90s
We know that in theory, Clair Huxtable “had it all.” She was married, had five kids, held down a killer career as a lawyer (who eventually makes partner), and instilled important values into each episode without Full House–like faux-sincerity. However, Clair’s most important TV-mom quality was less her work-life juggling skills and more her ability to raise kids who didn’t conform to stereotypes of their own. She came across as a multidimensional human being who rose above the fictional mom trope of advice-giver/cookie-maker, helping Theo through his dyslexia, championing Denise’s choice to work in Africa, and schooling Sondra’s husband on feminism when he suggested Clair should be “serving” coffee. In short, Clair was a cool mom, but also a whip-smart woman who stuck to her guns, proving that by the 1980s — even with a laugh track in tow — you can have be both. (Now let’s try to forget that the character had to be married to Bill Cosby.)
The High-Powered Divorced Mom: Angela Bower
Series: Who’s the Boss?
Era: Mid-1980s to early ‘90s
The year was 1984. The times? A-changing. While single parents had been populating the television landscape for nearly two decades at this point, Angela Bower was different. Mainly, she wasn’t widowed. But she was also an ad exec in New York, which sees her trying to juggle her professional life and her mom duties to young Jonathan with the help of her own mom, Mona. The show’s entire premise is built around this tension: She’s too busy to keep her gorgeous home clean, so she hires beefy live-in housekeeper Tony Macelli, who — spoiler alert — later becomes her romantic lead. While Tony parents his daughter alone because he lost his wife, Angela is divorced and not questing for another family; marriage never seems to be the point of her active love life, with Tony or anyone else. In fact, Who’s the Boss? is one of the first sitcoms to have painted life as a divorced, single, working mother as acceptable (or, more specifically, great), which reflected the shifting norms of the decade. Bonus points for more groundbreaking mom narratives via Mona, the “get it, girl” grandma who celebrated her sexuality and laid the groundwork for characters like Golden Girl Blanche Devereaux.
The Single-and-Cool-With-It Mom: Murphy Brown
Series: Murphy Brown
When TV journalist Murphy Brown gets pregnant by her ex-husband, who tells her he’s not interested in parenting, she makes a tough call: She chooses to put on a brave face for single parenthood and welcomes a little boy named Avery. This is why she — both the character and actress Candice Bergen — became an unofficial spokeswoman for familial diversity in the early 1990s. Thanks to the outcries of people like Vice-President Dan Quayle, who felt the series was “ignoring the importance of fathers by birthing a child alone,” the show’s 1992 season began by spinning this real-life political drama into story lines that addressed the changing face of parenthood in America. Like other TV parents, Murphy had previously been married (and to her baby’s father, no less) — but her child came into her life after the divorce, while she was technically single and at the height of her career. In turn, she inspired an addendum to the serious career-oriented female-character trope, the working woman who embraces unplanned pregnancy and willingly braves parenthood alone. But it’s not an easy balance by any means, as 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon discovers while considering adoption; in Lemon’s eternal words, “Murphy Brown lied to us!”
The Teen Mom As BFF: Lorelai Gilmore
Series: Gilmore Girls
Era: Late-1990s to mid-2000s
Following in the philosophical footsteps of Murphy Brown, Lorelai Gilmore welcomed her daughter Rory when she was single, too — except in Lorelei’s case, she was 16 and had run away from home, after her stuffy parents forced an engagement to her baby daddy/childhood sweetheart, Christopher. Settled in her new town of Stars Hollow, Lorelai starts anew, goes to night school, and works her way up from a hotel maid to the owner of a successful inn — all while raising a smart, driven-as-hell daughter as her own personal BFF. While Lorelai’s role as a single young mother is obviously brought up, it isn’t the series’ talking point. Instead, the focus is on Rory and Lorelai’s sisterlike dynamic, which is what sets the series apart from pretty much every other family-centric series to date. They bond over work, school, dudes, junk food, and a commitment to peppering their banter with as many cultural references as humanly possible, in the process introducing a bold concept to viewers: Busy single moms and their children need to work as a team in order to achieve greatness. Suddenly, mothers weren’t written just to dole out advice; they might need it from their kids, too.
The Moms Who Didn’t Want to Marry the Father (But Then Totally Does): Miranda Hobbes and Rachel Green
Series: Sex and the City and Friends
Era: Early 2000s
By the early 2000s, single parents on television were pretty standard, especially if said singlehood was the result of divorce. Still, it seemed low-key revolutionary when the ‘00s ushered in an era of fully grown TV mothers who got pregnant, kept the kid, and were on good terms with their baby daddies — but chose not to put a ring on it. Life as they knew it would be fine with the help of their loved ones and their high-paying jobs, they were sure of that. Characters like Miranda, a lawyer perpetually trying to make partner, and Rachel, a Ralph Lauren exec, opted to co-parent with their exes while still maintaining their careers and social/love lives. Of course, both women ended up coupled off by the time Sex and the City and Friends ended in 2004, but for a couple seasons each, Miranda and Rachel showed how the modern New York woman pulls off co-parenting with an ex-boyfriend she slept with on a whim. Motherhood saw Miranda and Rachel both struggling to maintain a sense of self — a friction that, in past decades’ TV portrayals, was far less of a concern.
The Tough Mom Who Ends Up Mothering Everyone: Miranda Bailey
Series: Grey’s Anatomy
Era: Mid-2000s to present
Behold the majesty of Miranda Bailey, mother not just to son William George “Tuck” Bailey, but to every person at Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital. As the only person who can successfully keep residents, attendings, and the chief of surgery in line, Miranda established herself as a working mom even before having William in season two. (Remember when she stopped the elevator to let Dr. Shepherd cry? I mean, come on.) This is what makes Bailey so special. Yes, she has a son, and yes, he becomes a part of her narrative, but before experiencing motherhood in the technical sense, she shows us what it means to be the high-stress workplace mom by constantly doling out tough love and knowing what’s best. Evidently, you can be a mom to adults you’re not related to and to your own son, even when you’re a surgeon who can’t find time to sleep or maintain your (first) marriage. By the late ‘00s, TV was pushing for a redefinition of the family unit; Grey’s showed us that in a few different ways, one of which was having Bailey as the mother of it all. (It’s also worth mentioning that both Mirandas on this list make significantly more money than their spouses — a shift that never would have occurred in earlier parallels of their characters.)
The Former Stay-at-Home Mom Playing Professional Catch-Up: Alicia Florrick
Series: The Good Wife
Era: Late-2000s to present
Before becoming the litigator we now know and love, Alicia Florrick gave up her law career to be a stay-at-home mom to Zach and Grace, her kids with husband and public disgrace Peter. After Peter’s political scandal briefly sends him to jail, Alicia personifies the dancing-lady emoji, picks herself up, and returns to work as a junior litigator after years as “a good wife” (get it?), eventually working her way up the ladder because she’s driven, gifted, and arguably better than her husband in every single way. However, all this is a catch-22. While she once sacrificed her law career to raise her family, Alicia’s professional climb sees her sacrifice the time she was used to having with her kids — but she needs to work because Peter can’t. And this is a very real problem: As a professional who loves her work, how do you reconcile spending less time with your kids? More important, how can you not go back to work when your family desperately needs the money? The series premiered in 2009, and it’s shocking to think that it took so long to see such crucial questions posed to TV audiences who undoubtedly have been considering them in their own lives for years.
The High-Powered Mom Who Has It All: Leslie Knope
Series: Parks and Recreation
Okay, fine: If there’s one way to “have it all,” it’s the Leslie Knope Special, a.k.a. give birth to triplets and somehow still end up the president of the United States by 2048. Where we’ve often seen how the arrival of new baby can drastically change the dynamics of show, Parks and Recreation challenged tropes by refusing to base entire episodes around the adjustment to family life and simply jumping ahead to Ben and Leslie back in their respective professional grooves. Arguably, in a career-oriented series (and in real-life careers) in 2015, nobody needs to know the details of one’s family life. So, yeah, sure, Leslie’s a mom now — but she’s a mom much like any mom at work is. We know she has kids, and we’d love to see pictures, but she’s still got a job to do.
The High-Powered Mom Who Long-Ago Abandoned “Having It All”: Selina Meyer
Era: Mid-2010s to present
Admittedly, President Selina Meyer isn’t going to win Mother of the Year anytime soon — especially since her response to daughter Catherine’s admission of having had a “hard, lonely life” was to tell her to change her jacket. But this is exactly why Selina is also so important: While TV mothers of our past usually strived to have it all, Meyer doesn’t, and feels no remorse for that. She puts her work first by a landslide, and as a result, has ruined her daughter’s birthdays and relationships, even coerced her into going to a gun show. And yet, because of all this, Catherine has grown closer with her mother in a professional sense. While we didn’t see much of Catherine in season one, seasons three and four saw her taking an active interest in Selina’s campaign, even when her ideas were often dismissed. And lest we forget Selina’s motherly advice during the season-four finale, which are wise words to anyone.
The Mom Who Survives: Cookie Lyon
Era: Mid-2010s to present
Cookie Lyon is all business. Having spent years in prison away from her sons, she returns to reunite with them and confront their father, but finds herself amid a strained and competitive family. So she adapts, even going so far as to pit two of her sons, Hakeem and Jamal, against each other while using them as pawns in her own game to regain some control of the label she helped build. However, Cookie’s story is one of survival. True, her motherly intentions may sometimes be misguided, but she’s focused on doing what it takes to build a life for herself and Jamal. What’s most refreshing isn’t even her honesty or her momager approach to parenting, but the fact that viewers are often directed toward Cookie’s fight for Empire Entertainment. By the time the smash drama premiered earlier this year, the realization that there’s no “right” way to parent had become commonplace. But in her brief time so far, Cookie’s lived a life that changed TV-mom rules; now, like many women, she’s playing by her own.