‘The Mindy Project’ Takes On ‘Having It All’ Mommy Culture
Though television is rife with pregnancy announcements and depictions of motherhood, most shows ignore the early, difficult days of caring for an infant and adjusting to life back in the workforce. Then there’s The Mindy Project, which stars Mindy Kaling and Chris Messina as Danny, her love interest and baby daddy. The show, now in its fourth season—its first on Hulu—has mined the comedy from the birth of Mindy and Danny’s son, Leo; her subsequent maternity leave; the couple’s negotiation of who should stay home with the baby; and Mindy’s return to the workplace.
It is the first show in a long time to deal with a new mother’s choices and depict how difficult stay-at-home parenting can be. We may have hoped that Parks and Recreation's Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) would tread this territory, but her pregnancy, birth, and early years of parenting triplets were skipped over in her show's three-year time jump. So the only other recent example that comes to mind is Pam (Jenna Fischer) on The Office, who was even shown training her maternity-leave replacement.
Because almost 70 percent of women with children under 18 work, and 40 percent of American households with children have female sole or primary breadwinners, now more than ever, the subject is topical.
Maternity leave in this country is still a luxury for many to aspire to. The U.S. is the only developed nation with no paid parental-leave policy. Though a handful of states and cities offer paid family leave through employee-paid payroll taxes—and some private companies offer employees generous leave (Netflix, for example, recently announced an unlimited parental leave policy)—only 13 percent of American workers have access to such leave.
Once mothers return to work—whether after paid time off or not—the challenges continue. Moms, especially those of babies and children, must juggle their roles as employees and parents. They worry about losing a shift because of a sick kid, missing a school play because of a work commitment, or being passed over for a promotion when family responsibilities trump overtime or business travel. Even those in the best possible scenarios—those with fulfilling, well-paying jobs, supportive spouses, and affordable child care options—can find “leaning in” to be guilt-inducing.
The Mindy Project spent an entire episode on Mindy’s maternity leave, illustrating in the show’s own exaggerated, cheeky way how lonely and boring it can be to be home alone with a newborn. Then it turned its attention to the question of whether Mindy, an accomplished ob-gyn who has earned prestigious fellowships and opened her own fertility clinic, should return to work.
At the urging of Danny, who wished he had a stay-at-home mother, Mindy quits her practice. Though the show annoyingly steers clear of showing the hard work of raising an infant—Leo doesn’t have colic or reflux, never seems to cry or prevent Mindy from sleeping, and is an adorable accessory she can tote around New York City—it does a good job illustrating the common feeling of not living up to one’s ideal of motherhood when Mindy becomes an acolyte of an aspirational mommy blog.
Is there no better image of the impossibly high standards to which real moms hold themselves (and often fall short of) than that of Mindy in a chic dress and heels, slavishly cleaning the house, which Leo immediately messes up again, only to read on the mom blog that she was supposed to be going for a run and glazing a duck at the same time?
But in addition to being demoralized by the gulf between the type of mom she thinks she should be and the one she is, Mindy has realized during her time at home that she misses her job, something at which she is talented and for which she spent many years training. When she returns to the office during a classic sitcom man-and-woman-switch-places-for-the-day-to-see-how-hard-the-other-has-it plotline, it is presented as a triumph. When first she’s questioned about why she’s there when she's supposed to be at home with the baby, Mindy says, "That's like asking Rihanna why she's at the Met Ball. I'm queen of this ish." She then aids in a successful surgery, proving her point.
Though the joke on the show is often that Mindy is messy and overconfident in many other aspects of her life, her medical skill and proficiency are never in question. So often women, especially mothers, who love and are good at their professions are portrayed on television as overcommitted, harried workaholics, so it’s refreshing to see that Mindy is simply allowed to be confident and competent.
Mindy’s experience represents the choices available to some of the best-positioned working mothers in America—those with financial means, partners to share the child-rearing responsibilities, and jobs they love. Yet even for her, there is tension between her job and family responsibilities. That should help mom viewers (whether they work outside the home or not) feel less alone, and help to shine a spotlight on nationwide policy issues that President Obama has been championing.