There are lots of different dads on Parenthood: single dads, married dads, almost-stepdads, mostly absent dads, and of course, stay-at-home dad Joel Graham (Sam Jaeger). Married to high-powered attorney Julia (Erika Christensen), he was a contractor until the recession hit. Since then, he’s been the primary caregiver for the couple’s daughter, Sydney, who is 5 when the series starts.
The show doesn’t stint on clichés associated with stay-at-home dads, from Julia feeling threatened by the flirty, make-everything-from scratch homemakers her husband now hangs around with to his father-in-law wondering why he doesn’t have a “real” job. Joel himself sometimes seems frustrated by his lack of a creative outlet or a social life not involving children. But for the most part, it’s a positive portrayal of a man who doesn’t resent his wife for having a job, or consider his own contribution to the family to be any less important. He’s probably more patient than Julia, steps up to the plate when it comes to both discipline and showing affection, and is a caring, competent father.
But when the couple adopt a son, 10-year-old Victor, their family dynamic is challenged. The difficulties of this situation aren’t ignored: Victor is withdrawn and yells that Joel isn’t really his dad, Sydney doesn’t feel like he’s her brother, and Julia admits to her husband, “I feel like I’m waiting to fall in love with my son.” In fact, Julia finds dealing with the demands of two kids instead of one so challenging that she keeps bursting into tears, losing sleep, and finally makes an uncharacteristic and catastrophic career mistake, quitting her job when she’s called on it. Soon after, Joel takes on a well-paid, high-status gig, making Julia the stay-at-home parent by default, and with very little discussion.
Something similar(ly disappointing) happened at the start of the second season of Up All Night, formerly one of very few sitcoms to show being a SAHD as fulfilling rather than “emasculating.” Chris (Will Arnett) spent a year as a stay-at-home dad who not only didn’t want to return to work but really seemed to enjoy and excel at caring for his baby daughter. However, as soon as his wife Reagan (Christina Applegate) lost her TV production job and before she’d finished pondering her options, he’d gone into business with her brother, casting her in the role of stay-at-home parent (or meaning she had to organize alternative childcare) with no prior conversation or compromise.
The way these men quickly rush out and get jobs the minute their wives are out of work suggests not only that they were secretly unhappy all along but also that the woman being at home is the default and it’s a relief to return to that. For both shows to make such sudden reversals makes it seem like they feel they were wrong; that dads can’t be as good at parenting as moms, after all. In the wake of Up All Night, which is undergoing some drastic changes in an effort to stay on the air, perhaps producers feel that viewers will prefer a more gender stereotypical family sitcom. (It will be depressing if they’re right.)
When Julia tells Joel that she doesn’t know what to do now that she’s at home all day, using terms like “bored” and “not fulfilled”, he dismisses her feelings, replying that she hasn’t had this much free time in years and should try to enjoy it. It’s true she does have more time while her kids are in school, but filling time isn’t the same as being mentally stimulated. And we don’t see her attempt to enjoy herself; instead, she doubles down on helping Victor with his homework. She discovers that he missed over 40 days of school the previous year and has an inferiority complex due to his terrible grades. Why Joel never paid any attention to this when he was the stay-at-home parent is never made clear, but he was more concerned with getting Victor onto a sports team.
There’s the sense that Julia coming home means that order will now be restored, especially as every other mother on the show is either a stay-at-home mom or the parent in charge. Jasmine’s (Joy Bryant) role has degenerated lately into little more than a rarely-seen party-pooping nag, especially disappointing considering that she’s Parenthood’s only POC spouse. But while the show can be flawed and schmaltzy, it’s also more nuanced and intelligent than many, so I hope that Julia’s lack of personal fulfilment will be addressed and not continue to be conflated with her concerns about Victor’s adjustment process.
Women aren’t necessarily more “natural” or able parents than men, and being a mother isn’t always a source of happiness in itself. It’s okay to admit that, and it would be really exciting for TV to reflect it, without turning any characters into terrible people in the process.