Thirtysomething: When The Mommy Wars Wore Shoulder Pads

In a new column, Doree Shafrir reflects on life in her thirties. In this installment, she visits a certain precious 80s TV drama and finds that nothing much has changed when it comes to women, work and the mommy wars.

Thirtysomething wasn't a show I grew up watching.

In my house, prime-time TV watching was done by consensus; the only TVs in the house were in the master bedroom and in the den, and we - my brother, sister, and parents - usually crowded into my parents' room after we'd done our homework and eaten dinner. And so our list of shows in the '80s was crowd-pleasing and family-oriented. After school I could watch as much 3-2-1 Contact as I wanted, but in the evening we watched The Cosby Show and Who's the Boss and Family Ties and Silver Spoons and Punky Brewster. But never Thirtysomething - it sort of missed my family's demographic. My parents were a few years older than the adults featured in the show and I was a few years older than the kids, but perhaps more importantly, the adults in Thirtysomething - whose first season was released earlier this week on DVD - were unabashedly yuppies, children of the '80s in a way that I don't think my parents identified with.


However, I wondered whether the series would resonate with me more now that I'm pretty much exactly the age of its protagonists. Or have things changed so much in the last 22 years that their concerns would seem completely dated? (It certainly did a good enough job of entering the cultural lexicon that it was an obvious choice for the name of this column.)

In a scene in the first episode, Hope Steadman, the former lawyer and now stay-at-home mom, gets into a fight with Ellyn, her single, childless friend, when they meet for lunch. Ellyn is a total cliche of a hard-charging '80s career woman, right down to her shoulder pads. "I've been in the office til 10 every night this week," she says to Hope as they sit down. "Do you know how many people I have under me? 27!" she continues, as Hope's baby cries. Eventually, Hope has to leave because the baby won't stop wailing, much to her friend's chagrin.

Maybe, at the time, Thirtysomething was considered revolutionary because it explored the nature of female friendships through this lens, and pointed out how neither woman was truly happy. But talk about painting women with broad strokes. Either you're a self-absorbed careerist bitch, or all you can think about is feeding schedules.

But ultimately, our sympathy is supposed to lie with Hope. The stories are mostly told from her perspective; Ellyn comes across as an interloper who deigns to drop in on Hope when she feels like it, or when she feels like Hope is neglecting her. Hope is always portrayed as taking the high road—diffusing the situation by being the bigger person, placating her selfish friend who doesn't understand the rigors and responsibilities of child-rearing, because all she cares about is herself. It's what ultimately makes Thirtysomething a retro, reactionary show. Even as it shows that Hope is conflicted about the choice she made to stay at home with her daughter, the show serves to glorify its version of modern-day motherhood.

Later in the same episode, Ellyn comes to the playground where Hope is hanging out with her daughter.


"How'd you find us?" Hope asks, though it's clear that Ellyn knew exactly where to find her. "It occurs to me we haven't spoken in six days," Ellyn says. She's hurt that her friendship with Hope has changed. "Ellyn, my life! Everything is chaos," Hope responds, smiling broadly. "And you don't feel ready to do anything about it?" Ellyn says sadly. We're again led to understand that Ellyn is somehow incomplete, an unrealized version of what a real woman should be.

I found watching these episodes sort of excruciating - not because they exposed any deep essential truths about the nature of being in your thirties, or being a woman, or the choices we all have to make, but because they were cliched and, frankly, boring. So it was sort of depressing to read Katie Roiphe's article in Double X the other day, in which she excoriated feminists for not allowing themselves to admit the pleasure of infants - she writes that she's addicted to her six-week-old baby-and realize that as far as we've come, we still have a long way to go when it comes to not only respecting other women's choices, but not presenting everything as black and white. It's all too easy to set yourself up in opposition to a feminist straw woman, as Roiphe does, as though feminism is completely monolithic. Why can't Roiphe just write that she's addicted to her child (like plenty of mothers have been before her), instead of turning it into an overgeneralized commentary about the nature of feminism?


The article also made me sad because, as a woman who has yet to have kids, I dread being swept up into these debates. One aspect of being in my thirties that I've come to embrace is I'm finding myself much less prone to offer unsolicited advice about the choices my friends make. You're living with a guy I think is a turd? That's your choice, and-as I learned the hard way at some point in my twenties-nothing I say is going to make you break up with him. (Though I will feel some small bit of vindication when you do, finally, break up.) I'm hoping that I'll likewise feel disinclined to pass judgment on friends of mine who make choices that run counter to what I feel is best for myself-whether it's staying home with the kids or moving to a faraway city for a husband's career. Feminism is, I think, also about empathy, about putting yourself in someone else's shoes and acknowledging that what is best for one woman isn't necessarily the choice that every woman should make. It's a lesson that the creators of Thirtysomething should have taken to heart.

Thirtysomething: The Complete First Season

Related: My Newborn is a Narcotic [Double X]

Earlier: Why Sarah Haskins Turning 30 Didn't Send Me Down the Rabbit Hole


Watching that felt odd, my best friend has a baby (I don't have children) and that dynamic of me hanging out with her and then dropping everything mid sentence to do something for the baby or trying to calm him or her telling me something and then running after the little one... everything felt so familiar. I love my friend a lot, but I wish sometimes she could take time to hang out with me and other friends without the baby.

By the way, I love Little P (my friend's baby) and I'm really involved in their lives, but I still like some time for us to be on our own.