It was the fourth episode of the first season of the sitcom, “The Cosby Show.” And Claire Huxtable lost it. Decked out in colorful, sharp work attire -- her leather briefcase prominently placed in the family living room -- attorney Claire had just seen four of her five children off to school when she realized that her 5-year-old daughter Rudy had forgotten her lunch. She chased the girl down the street only to discover that Rudy left it behind on purpose because Rudy was having second thoughts about the lunch she made for herself: Tuna and peanut butter.
Then Claire accidentally locked herself out on the front stoop. After her husband Cliff, an ob/gyn who worked in an office in the lower level of their New York City townhouse, let her in, she headed straight for the kitchen and surveyed the post-breakfast mess. And became utterly frustrated. With the housework. With the fact that kids were always crying and fighting in her house, or doing odd things kids do, like drinking bathwater. With the fact that she would labor on legal briefs for weeks only to have the case settle out of court, her efforts wasted.
When Cliff asked her specifically what was pushing her buttons, she replied, “What it is, is it’s a life so crowded that [she paused and noticed the time] I don’t have time to figure it out because I’m going to be late for work.” In response to Claire’s mini-meltdown, the amiable Cliff arranged for the two to spend the night at a swanky hotel, complete with good food and room service. “Tonight is, ‘You are Not a Mother Night,’” he announced.
While it’s true that the hit comedy “The Cosby Show ” (1984-1992) was ground-breaking for its ebullient portrayal of an upper-middle class African-American family with two married parents in lucrative professions – law and medicine – what didn’t garner as much attention was the fact that Claire (Phylicia Rashad) provided an unapologetic, strong working mom role model. Claire was not only shown in multiple episodes of “The Cosby Show” in her well-appointed office and in court questioning a witness, but she was allowed to be seen as an imperfect mom, who lost her patience with the children and shouted at them. And although Cliff’s (Bill Cosby) obstetrical work kept him out of the house at odd hours delivering babies, because his office was in the house, he frequently took charge of the kids, picked them up from school and made dinner. They were the yin and yang of parenting.
What was also remarkable about watching Claire Huxtable, circa 1984-1985 with 2007 eyes, was the fact that she didn’t second-guess herself as a mom, didn’t beat herself up over how much time she spent at work versus home, in spite of her mini-meltdown. During the show’s freshman season, Claire became a partner at her law firm, found a loophole in a contract that saved a client thousands of dollars and argued several cases, all while she had a spouse who was truly her equal parenting partner. That shared parenting – mostly a plot device so that Bill Cosby could employ his humorous schtick with the kids – was never so evident as during one episode where Rudy woke up sick. Claire couldn’t stay home to tend to the child because she had a meeting with the founding partner of her law firm, and for which the partner was almost an hour late. Meanwhile Cliff had patients scheduled. How did the pair – and yes, it was a joint effort -- handle the child care crisis? Cliff stayed with Rudy as long as he could and when he had to see his patients in his office, he left the 5-year-old on the living room sofa, with the telephone next to her and strict orders not to get up.
Though it was refreshing to see Claire treat her job as a simple fact of life and not something to get all guilty about, what was missing from the early “Cosby” episodes was the depiction of the pressure on attorneys to log a certain amount of billable hours and to meet with clients late into the night. Flex-time wasn’t exactly prevalent in 1984. It’s not exactly an option offered to most attorneys today, at least not without a cost to one’s career. And, the fact that the inevitable clashes between Cliff and Claire’s work schedules didn’t result in a mad scramble for a babysitter and were portrayed as no big deal struck me as a bit too convenient for my taste. I would’ve liked to have seen how they handled gaps in child care when neither Cliff nor Claire could be there. If only it was as easy for the rest of us to balance two-career schedules as it was for Cliff and Claire. But then again, don’t we all wish we lived lives like Cliff and Claire?
The first four seasons of The Cosby Show are available on DVD via Amazon.com  and at other retailers.