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Published on Mommy Tracked (http://www.mommytracked.com)

Elyse Keaton: Working Mom Role Model.

She made it seem effortless. Well, not effortless exactly, it's just that she didn't do a lot of complaining or apparent schedule juggling like other mothers who try to maintain a career while working from
home.

 

Elyse Keaton (played by Meredith Baxter-Birney), the mom of three in the 1980s sitcom "Family Ties," made blending her work as a self-employed architect and a mom seem easy, compared to my own chaotic life blending work- from-home employment with child rearing.

And it can be tempting to hate her for her grace.

But come on, this is "Family Ties." This is the program that introduced us to Michael J. Fox's signature character, Alex P. Keaton. It paired former hippie parents-turned-white-collar-professionals (an architect and a public television station manager) with a briefcase-toting, shirt-and-tie-wearing teenaged son who aspired to climb the heights of the corporate ladder. It had a smart alecky sister in Justine Bateman's Mallory and a precocious 9-year-old in Tina Yothers' Jennifer. What wasn't to love?


I recently viewed the show's first season to see how Steven and Elyse Keaton managed their two-career family in the days when there wasn't a lot of workplace support for dual-career families. (The later-in-life pregnancy that resulted in the fourth Keaton child, Andy, didn't occur until the third season, which is currently unavailable on DVD.) And, surprisingly, there was precious little in the first 22 episodes of "Family Ties"aboutthe multitude of work-family struggles that parents still face, some 25 years later. Maybe the "Family Ties" creators didn't want to address this topic in a sitcom, as the writers for "One Day at a Time" and "Alice" did by incorporating humor into the insanity of work and child rearing. Or perhaps they wanted to send a positive message about how simultaneously working and parenting is achievable.


It just seemed a bit odd that there was slight mention, at least in the first season, of how challenging Elyse's work-from-home set-up could be. Many parents who work from home say that while it's an ideal set-up on paper- they continue their careers AND are home with their kids - say it's not as simple as it may seem. Though Elyse was constantly shown working on plans in the family room, at the kitchen table and in the corner of the kitchen where she had her desk, it was done in a matter-of-fact way. Home rarely intruded on her work and vice versa. None of the kids, for example, accidentally spilled a Coke all over plans for a home expansion.


"Family Ties [1]" (1982-1989) sent the message that it isn't too difficult for a married couple to maintain two careers while parenting three children. The family almost always had breakfast together at the kitchen table. Steven (Michael Gross) frequently drove the kids to school and was home for dinner. However when it came to all things domestic, it was Elyse who was shown cooking, bringing home grocery bags, straightening up the house and sewing, despite the fact that she too had a career and her husband was supposedly a sensitive, women's lib-lovin' kind of guy.


The final episode of the first season was really the only moment when the Keatons' work-life balance was addressed. But instead of looking at the issue through the lens of balancing family and career, the episode examined how a marriage can easily suffer from neglect if one spouse is over-committed to career, volunteer work and child rearing. In this case, Elyse had a pressing deadline for a project that kept her working late into the night and meeting with clients. At the same time, a proposed condo development that Elyse and other civic activists were trying to stop, was coming up for a vote at the city council and Elyse had to host organizing events in her home. In addition, a new mother-daughter yoga class for Elyse and Mallory was starting that same week.


In the midst of an anti-condo meeting at the Keaton house, Steven entered triumphant. His TV station had won a major award for a documentary they produced and he was in the mood to celebrate with his wife.But she was unavailable. For several days. And that ticked him off. They argued. They slept in separate rooms for a night. Then they finally had a Big Talk. "Even though part of me wants you around the house all the time," Steven told her, "I love that you're never here." This cued the laugh track as Steven awkwardly stepped over his words and explained that he loved the fact that she had an abundance of things that kept her busy. She responded by thanking him for his love, support and encouragement.


The message that it's a risky proposition for a woman to forgo a career once she marries and becomes a mom, however, was clearly delivered in episode 19 in the cautionary tale of a stay-at-home mother/wife whose husband suddenly left her. In a poignant conversation, Elyse's friend Suzanne lamented that when a woman turns 40 and her child has gone off to college there's "a void" in her life. "I've got no identity of my own," she told Elyse. ". . . Face it, mothers are like pro ball players. They get to a certain age, all they're good for is selling beer." Elyse felt badly for Suzanne and hired her as an assistant in Elyse's home office. But it was a disaster. She later had to fire her friend.


It's unfortunate that the third season of "Family Ties" is unavailable on DVD, as that's the season when Elyse discovered she was pregnant, when the family adjusted to a new baby and when Steven and Elyse had to try to reconnect amid the chaos of careers and children. That would've been something I would've liked to have seen.


Season one [2] of "Family Ties" is available through Amazon and other retailers. The second season is expected to be released in October 2007.


Meredith O'Brien is the author of A Suburban Mom: Notes from the Asylum, a collection of humor columns, and the mother of three. She writes the Boston Mommy Blog [3] about parenting for the Boston Herald's web site and teaches journalism at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.


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