The feelings I have for The Mindy Project and it’s creator, Mindy Kaling, aren’t really an internet secret. I’ve proclaimed my love in FB status updates, tweets and Huffington Post articles. When Kaling decided to get Lahiri pregnant last season, my young mother’s heart leapt. Not because Lahiri’s pregnancy or motherhood would look anything like mine, but because Kaling was about to give us a feminist, mother positive narrative in a space where one was desperately needed.
And you know, in a lot of ways, she’s really delivered. (Pun totally intended.) While Lahiri’s pregnancy was both full of more partner drama and perfectly sculpted eyebrows than mine was, I related to the huge shift the pregnancy had caused in her life. When she came home from the hospital in a silk jumpsuit and a desire to get out into the world immediately, I saw nothing that reflected the stitches that held my bleeding lower half together or the postpartum depression that ripped through my soul as fiercely as that baby had ripped through my, well…you know…vagina. But, the greater message of a woman trying to figure out how to navigate days now changed by the obligations and love due to a baby did resonate with me. And honestly, blood-soaked sweats and crying on the bathroom floor isn’t really the stuff comedic gold is made of…so well done on that one, Kaling. I cheered while Lahiri dealt with ignorance about the role of a woman’s body on the subway. And I felt her conflict like it was my own when faced with the demands of career (and the workplace’s often antagonistic treatment of mothers) and motherhood. Lahiri took a look at the two options in front of her - to work or not to work - and didn’t know what the hell she was supposed to do. I can appreciate that with every little cell of my ever-conflicted being. When she quit in a breastmilk soaked moment of frustration, I understood her visceral reaction to the prevalent attitude about mothers in the workplace. I also understood her regret following her resignation.
So, I was looking forward to this week’s episode where Lahiri got to explore the world of Stay at Home Motherhood. I’m a stay-at-home mom myself and, while I know Lahiri will go back to work, I was excited to see Kaling’s take on what I do. I guess I expected to see the same balls out (ovaries out?), nuanced, horrified, respectful, get-it-girl attitude I’ve seen when she dealt with other aspects of the female existence.
I didn’t expect Lahiri to suddenly decide she wanted to stay home. That decision would be all wrong for her character as it is all wrong for many women in real life. I did expect Kaling to take just a moment to show why the hell anyone else might make the choice to stay home. A dialogue about the decisions women make - even a comedic, caricatured dialogue - only has real entertainment value (or any other kind of value), if we are honest about the things women are forced to choose between - for better and worse. I didn’t even need a whole scene dedicated to that kind of insight. This girl would have settled for an oddly in-tune line from Morgan and moved the heck on.
And you know, the episode started out so, so brilliantly. Kaling skewers the exaggerated 1950s housewife culture that blogging has inflicted on so many women. The website where Lahiri gleans all her stay-at-home advice, Modern Mominista, is an amazing send-up of every earnest Pinterest board, aspirational mommy Instagram and well-lit mommy blog that has ever made you feel like a failure for not perfectly basting your duck after hand-oiling your floors. (And yeah, neither of those things are euphemisms.) The crazy throwback online advice for motherhood and the oppressive expectations of her old school is the new school partner, Danny, (who thinks she should clean, cook new and exciting meals every night, etc) are naturally overwhelming for our Lahiri.
I kept waiting for the moment when Lahiri would realize that none of those expectations had to actually be tied to stay-at-home motherhood in 2015. I was sure the great tossing out of the 1950s framework of oppressive housewife-dom had to be just around the corner. Oh my goodness, I knew...I JUST KNEW…that Kaling was going to give us a punchy episode of TV portraying the complexities facing women as they decide whether to stay home or pursue a career or knock together some hybrid of the two. She did it for body image, surely she could do it for motherhood. I really thought the message would be that we’ve moved past having to choose between retrograde service and fulfillment of self while setting a powerful example. I thought we’d see Lahiri knock stay-at-home motherhood into what would work for her AND THEN decide it still wasn’t what she or her family needed. That would have been a powerful (and probably even funnier) 27 minutes.
But retrograde servitude vs self-fulfillment while modeling good examples is exactly what we ended up with by the end of the episode. When Lahiri explains to a colleague why she’s chosen to stay home, she says that her son needs his mother who is a doctor to stay home and clean the house. That’s it. In Lahiri’s world, a stay-at-home mom is a woman who has been trained to do something that matters but gives it all up so that she can clean floors and roast poultry. In the course of the episode, Kaling presents the responsibilities and difficulties of stay-at-home moms as keeping a clean house, making appointments, and baking pie…twice. Danny - when he gives this model of stay-at-home motherhood a try - is horrible at it. Lahiri is maybe even worse. They both hate stay-at-home parenthood and by the end of the episode we understand that eventually the story arc will likely be that they’re both going to be working full-time while Danny’s Ma takes care of Leo.
So if we live in Kaling’s Mindy Project world, there are women who have fulfilling, meaningful things to do, so they can’t stay home with the babies. And then there are women like Ma, a woman who cleaned hotel rooms to keep her family fed, that don’t have fulfilling, meaningful things to do, so they can stay home with the babies. (Never mind, that cleaning hotel rooms can be meaningful, because what makes a job meaningful can be what it supports outside of work, not just what it entails during work hours.)
I want to think I am reading too much into the subtext here, but Ma has been Lahiri’s foil since she was first gloriously introduced to the series. Kaling presents Lahiri as a somewhat (emphasis on somewhat) modern version of womanhood - educated, ballsy, confused but passionate, talented, ambitious and, now, stifled by the thought of staying home. Meanwhile the backwards Ma, equally ballsy but less educated and without a career laden with prestige, is a woman that is most often portrayed as a busybody with literally nothing better to do than to continue mothering her 40 year old son. She’s spent her life serving, so watching Leo will come naturally to her because that is what stay-at-home motherhood is in this narrative…servitude.
If staying at home with my children had even the general hue of the exaggerated depiction Kaling served up in this episode, I would marvel at anyone’s decision to excuse themselves from the workplace. For the first time, when the credits rolled I could not find myself in Kaling’s over-the-top in the depiction of womanhood. I couldn’t find my mom friends who work outside the home, either. No one in my circle has chosen between 1950s perceptions of perfect but empty motherhood and meaningful work. That flat depiction of the decision ill serves both working mothers and stay-at-home mothers. Our options are more richly hued and multi-layered.
The ultimate work of stay-at-home mothers doesn’t include oiling the floors or perfectly roasting a duck any more than the ultimate work of a doctor includes malpractice insurance payments or keeping a waiting room stocked with new magazines. Honestly, if you are me, stay-at-home motherhood doesn’t even penultimately mean those things. My floors are usually filled with crumbs because the girls and I are finishing a Roald Dahl book instead of cleaning, and while we sometimes cook together to learn fractions…I don’t think I could get them to eat duck if I tried. Not that I’ve ever tried.
I do not stay home with my children because I couldn’t do meaningful work outside of my home. I stay home because, at least in this season in my life, the work I can do at home has the most meaning. I do not stay home with my children because my husband wants me to be his housewife. We reassess our working situation every year, with him as the one more insistent that I don’t let my writing and non-profit work fall by the wayside. I do not stay home with my children because I am living down to a culture of women who do less while helping men do more. I stay home because, again at least right now, it is forcing me to become more while doing more.
I think it’s important to say, I’ve never considered my status as stay-at-home mom a static thing. It’s the right thing for right now. I do not know, with my interests and ambitions, if it will be the right thing for always. Life is too complex for labels applied with super glue.
I do not think my working mother friends, amazing women who leave their children with loving nannies and daycare workers every day, do so because they think the work of caring for children is less important, fulfilling, or example making than their own. My mom friends work because they want to or have to or more commonly, some combination of need and desire. Some of them have agonized over the choice, some of them have rejoiced in it - not one of them has ever even implied that the untrod road of stay-at-home motherhood held only a meaningless string of tedious chores. We’ve all got too much respect for one another to view each other’s life’s work through such a reductive, paternalistic lens.
By the end of the episode, Lahiri holds her son and tells him she’s only been good at one thing - being a doctor. By continuing in her medical practice, Lahiri will be able to show her son the best version of herself. I like that sentiment and truly, truly support it. I just don’t believe Kaling, Lahiri, or The Mindy Project’s loyal viewers deserved to get to that insight by way of the same old 1950s narrative flipped upside down - as if turning the “silly, pretty, cocktails ready when the husband gets home” housewife thing 180 degrees suddenly gives it merit.
Lahiri and I are similar in many ways. We both love a bold lipstick, short men that like strong women (my husband clocks in at 5’7), shouting down ignorance in public places and and mixing patterns. We are also both privileged. It’s insanely rare for a woman to even be able to consider whether she wants to stay home or go back to work. For most women, "to work or not to work" is decision made by circumstance rather than preference.
I respect the women who get back out into the workforce after having babies. I need them to continue to make room for my daughters who may or may not have children, who may or may not decide to have a career outside the home. They are part of a revolution that has benefited those that stay home and those that work outside the home. But if we’re going to move forward, the discourse on this subject - both in pop culture and in our homes - has got to acknowledge the also radical value of the mothers who choose to be at the kitchen table for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It has to acknowledge what they are choosing and why they are choosing it. Because my stay-at-home motherhood - with its activism, feminist dialogue, tossing out of traditional gender roles within the home - is revolutionary, too. And has never included cleaning the house in an apron. Not once. Ever.
Am I done with The Mindy Project? Not even close. There are still several episodes left in this story arc and a lot left to be said. There is still plenty of time for a more modern, realistic depiction of stay at home motherhood. I haven’t given up on Kaling yet. I just hope she hasn’t given up on me.