For years, it has seemed acceptable in some circles to criticize career-oriented parents – particularly hard-charging dads, folks who, on the surface, appear more wedded to work and career than to their families, those who have spouses who take care of all things domestic for them and who eventually wind up feeling taken for granted. These parents are caricatured in movies, books and on TV, mocked for failing to see what’s important; they’re taught lessons about priorities. They’re told that they can’t have both, a family and a high-powered career.
But what happens when a parent attempts to buck conventional wisdom about what it takes to succeed in a career and to become a nurturing parent? During one week on different TV programs, two characters tried to do just that -- be a professional and a parent -- and faced varying results.
In a recent episode of “Grey’s Anatomy .” Dr. Miranda Bailey had promised her husband Tucker that she’d leave work at Seattle Grace Hospital and get home in time to see her son in his first Halloween costume. But, as her casework piled up, she was unable to make it home in time. Instead of lovingly gazing at her little boy in his costume, she was helping another boy who needed cosmetic surgery in order to give him a set of ears. And Dr. Bailey’s husband was ticked.
While venting her frustration, Dr. Bailey (Chandra Wilson) uttered words that have doubtlessly been uttered, or at least thought, by many other, hard-working professionals striving to be good parents:
“I’m here, late at night, on Halloween, helping an earless boy get ears. And my husband wants to act like that’s not an important thing. He wants to act like it isn’t a good thing I did today . . . I missed my son’s first Halloween and my heart is aching inside of my chest but that doesn’t mean anything because, in a black and white world, I simply didn’t make it home and that makes me a bad guy. I’m always the bad guy.”
Obviously, Dr. Bailey isn’t a bad guy. Judging from previous episodes over several seasons, her character has struggled with pregnancy, motherhood and the unyielding world of medicine. While she’s been on the receiving end of warnings from the chief of surgery (who never had children and whose wife left him because of his work-a-holic ways) not to sacrifice family for work, Dr. Bailey has been determined to try to plow ahead in her career, like the rest of her childless and unmarried colleagues, including one who secured a promotion  over her. Last season, after listening to surgical intern Dr. Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo) bitterly lament the emotional devastation caused by her mother, surgeon Ellis Grey’s careerism, Dr. Bailey was determined not to turn into Ellis Grey, so, when she had a spare moment, she called her son on the telephone and sang him a lullaby .
The same absent-working-mom thread ran through this very same “bad guy” episode when Dr. Grey casually mentioned to another colleague that her mother never took her trick-or-treating or got her a Halloween costume. Ellis Grey didn’t celebrate Halloween with her daughter, just like Dr. Bailey missed the same holiday with her son.
Things weren’t any easier for male professionals who were trying to be involved dads. Over on the guy-oriented program “Big Shots ” (the male equivalent of “Desperate Housewives”), a dad’s version of this storyline played out. Brand, spankin’ new CEO, James Walker (Michael Vartan) has been learning the single dad ropes after he left his unfaithful wife, who, ironically, was cheating on him with his boss. But trying to be both a dad to two young kids and convince a company’s board of directors that he’s up to the leadership task has proven difficult for this character, just as motherhood and medicine has been challenging for Dr. Bailey.
Take, for example, the phone call Walker received from his grade school-aged son while Walker was in the middle of a board meeting. As he tried to have a quiet conversation in the corner of the board room with his son about whether they could go kid-oriented restaurant after soccer practice, eyebrows were raised and his commitment to his work was questioned. All because he fielded a phone call. (Kind of like people questioning Rudy Giuliani’s commitment to his presidential campaign after he took a call  from his wife, but hey, that’s another issue for another column.) “By all means James, don’t let these billion dollar meetings interfere with your personal life,” remarked a snarky board member afterward.
During the same “Big Shots” episode, Walker -- who had to work late and took his kids to the office with him (where they subsequently scribbled crayon on some earnings reports and accidentally knocked over files) – continued to fend off criticism. When his colleague Katie Graham (Nia Long) told him there had been “rumblings” about the fact that he accepted a personal call during a meeting, he responded by saying: “Oh, well, that’s tough. I’m going to be there for my kids. The board’s going to have to deal with that.”
From his lips to God’s ears.
If only more CEOs, surgeons and other high-powered professionals in the real world would start uttering lines like those more often (and if their fictional counterparts would continue to do the same on TV and in film), then maybe, just maybe, the American workplace might slowly become more accepting of the rest of us who muddle along, daring to try to be professionals, raise kids and have a life.
Professionals who also happen to be parents aren’t, contrary to popular belief, automatically the bad guys if they stay late at work, like Dr. Bailey or CEO Walker. However if they don’t make up for those absences later with some special family time, if this behavior goes on for years and they miss every Halloween and every birthday and every holiday and don’t know their kids’ teachers’ names, then it’d be okay, not to call them bad guys, but to call them uninvolved, distant, emotionally removed parents. Or you could just throw a bad fictional caricature at them and call them “Ellis Grey.”