ABC’s “Brothers & Sisters” recently started heading down an uncomfortable dramatic road, pitting a soon-to-be-divorced, full-time working mom against a soon-to-be divorced at-home dad in a court of law, with each vying for custody of the couple’s two young kids. And to watch the divorce unfold is wrenching, as divorce -- fictional or real – almost always is. It’s usually messy and inevitably causes heartache, particularly when children are involved.
In the Sunday night drama, Sarah Whedon (Rachel Griffiths) the CEO of her family’s fruit company, and her estranged husband Joe (John Pyper-Ferguson ), the at-home parent caring for their children, squared off in a lawyer’s office and in front of a judge over the terms of dissolving their marriage. Though they graciously made concessions to one another during their divorce proceedings, they vehemently disagreed on the matter of child care after Joe changed his mind about shared custody, saying he instead wanted primary custody. He argued that altering the kids’ schedules and caretaking situation by dividing custody equally would be too disruptive for the children. During a hearing on temporary custody, the judge ruled in favor of the at-home parent, saying that since the father had been the one who had been with the children while their mother was at work, they should primarily remain with their dad for the sake of stability.
I’ve labeled this “Brothers & Sisters ” storyline “uncomfortable” because it is as discomfiting as it is atypical to watch a mother lose custody of her kids, even if it is only on a TV show. One couldn’t help but feel badly for the Sarah Whedon character as she despairingly sunk down onto the bottom stair in her home in a haze of shock and tears after her estranged husband took their children out of the house. But seeing a parent become emotional when his or her children are being taken away from them wasn’t the only uncomfortable part of the show. Watching Sarah Whedon -- dare I say it -- act like a negative, stereotypical working dad, throwing around the fact that she makes all the money in the family therefore she should be entitled to take custody of the children half the time even though her husband has been doing the job on a full-time basis, well, to me, that was pretty disconcerting as well.
Consider some of Sarah’s lines:
- “I support my family by working. And for the record, we made that decision together, Joe and me when I was pregnant with Paige. I would work. He would stay home. God knows I can bring in five times what he can. It made sense. I thought he was so progressive.”
– Said to her attorney brother.
- “Don’t hide behind your overpriced lawyer, which, by the way, I am paying for.”
-- Said to her estranged husband after learning that he was seeking primary custody.
Put those same lines into the mouth of a hard-working, CEO dad and you’d call him a sexist who didn’t appreciate what his at-home wife had done for their family and for him, who overlooked all that she sacrificed including her career aspirations (at least temporarily) and her economic independence. And if that CEO dad starting lording his mega-earning capacity over his at-home wife’s head -- including the fact that he was paying for his soon-to-be ex-wife’s divorce lawyer -- everyone would call him a jerk. Why should it be different in this case?
Further consider this line:
“I’m a good father. I know that. I may not be able to drop [the children] at school everyday. But I am their father. Every day. You can’t punish me for trying to parent and work. I want my kids to know the joy that I get from my work, but it’s nothing compared to the joy I get from being their father, every day. And they know that.”
On “Brothers & Sisters,” those lines weren’t uttered by a father. They were uttered by Sarah Whedon and referenced her being a good mother, not a good father. But imagine if the lines did read “father” and had been uttered by a working dad who was having his parental custody rights downgraded to a couple weekends a month simply because he works a lot. Would viewers feel the same kind of sympathy for him as they do for Sarah Whedon, who was crestfallen that she wasn’t going to see her children on a daily basis?
In the episode, Joe Whedon argued that he wasn’t trying to secure primary custody out of anger or spite. (He is, by the way, the one who initiated the divorce proceedings after the couple separated following a sordid kiss Joe shared with Sarah’s half-sister. Despite the kiss, Sarah still tried to reconcile, but to no avail.) “This might be hard for you to understand,” Joe told his estranged wife, “but this isn’t about you. The kids need stability.” Had an at-home wife – even one who had been unfaithful and kissed another man -- said this to her CEO husband, it would have sounded reasonable, selfless even.
However when this heartbreaking installment of “Brothers & Sisters” concluded, as Sarah tearfully watched her children leave what was once the family’s home to go to stay with her soon-to-be ex, I got the distinct impression that viewers were supposed to feel as though Sarah had somehow been wronged because she is a working mother. But I didn’t feel that way. I simply felt badly for everyone involved with the situation because the process of legally extricating two people’s lives from a marriage is painful and hard. No one ever comes out looking or feeling as though he or she has won anything amid all the emotional wreckage.
And as more women become CEOs, as they are the ones who log late hours at the office while their at-home husbands cart the couple’s children to gymnastics classes, dance lessons and school events, is it unreasonable to think that they’ll be treated the same way working fathers have been treated for all these years? I think not.
Editor’s note: During the most recent episode of "Brothers & Sisters," the character of Joe Whedon changed his mind about the custody arrangement with his estranged wife Sarah. The two then agreed on a shared custody arrangement.