On the sitcom The Office, as in real life, middle class working mothers are stuck between a rock and a hard place. They often face the choice of either compromising their careers—working part-time or quitting altogether—or feeling like absent mothers. Men, on the other hand, are typically not held to the same standard. Rarely do employers worry whether their male employees will have children and scale back their working hours. Seldom do people worry whether men can “have it all.” The Office paints a fairly balanced portrait of what it means when a husband and wife clash over their careers and their families. In the evolving relationship of Pam and Jim in the American version of the series, the married coworkers are equally responsible for their marriage’s breakdown, and they should be equally responsible for fixing it—if it can, in fact, be fixed.
The show’s central relationship echoes dynamics that feminist writers have pointed out for decades. This week is the 50th anniversary of the Feminine Mystique, the book which so clearly articulated the tension between the roles expected of women in their work and home lives. Writer Stephanie Coontz spelled out the real-life statistics behind this continuing conflict this week in a great New York Times piece:
When family and work obligations collide, mothers remain much more likely than fathers to cut back or drop out of work. But unlike the situation in the 1960s, this is not because most people believe this is the preferable order of things. Rather, it is often a reasonable response to the fact that our political and economic institutions lag way behind our personal ideals….Female professionals are twice as likely to quit work as other married mothers when their husbands work 50 hours or more a week and more than three times more likely to quit when their husbands work 60 hours or more.
Though Jim and Pam’s relationship on The Office has seemed, well, perfect, their romance isn’t infallible. What threatens to tear them apart recently is the tension between Jim’s time away from the family running a new business in Philadelphia and Pam’s desire to stay in Scranton with her burgeoning art work and steady job. Not to mention Pam has been subtly flirting with Brian, a boom mic operator and part of the documentary crew that has been following the office’s workers for years.
But it’s not plot device/brilliant twist Brian who is truly a threat to the Halperts. The real question is: Does the couple want to give up on their professional dreams in order to maintain their personal lives? And, as in real life, will Pam rather than Jim end up making outsize career sacrifices in order to keep the family together? It’s the same question women have been asking aloud for fifty years.
To be sure, some of us aren’t lucky enough to have this dilemma. Single mothers without a financial safety net have no choice but to work. And those of us without jobs in this post-recession era struggle to land employment at all, let alone a job that offers family-friendly policies. But for middle class couples who are faced with the challenge of balancing work and family, it’s often working moms who must take a backseat to their husband’s careers.
In the Office episode “Vandalism,” Jim and Darryl are roommates in the Philadelphia, both working part-time. Jim realizes he enjoys his time apart from his family, focusing solely on work and finally allowed to realize his potential beyond the small world of Dunder Mifflin. Meanwhile, Pam has been commissioned by the city of Scranton to paint a mural on the wall of Dunder Mifflin’s warehouse. When someone from the warehouse defaces the project and attacks Pam, Brian from the documentary crew swoops in to save her. She’s grateful not only because he rescues her but because, in defending Pam, he defends the thing that gives her life meaning—her art. Both Jim and Pam want to be recognized for their achievements, but this means staying in respective cities, which threatens to tear apart their family.
So in the episode “Moving On,” Pam indulges Jim and goes on a job interview for an office manager position in Philadelphia. Even though Jim excluded her from his decision to take a job outside of Scranton, she decides to see if life in Philadelphia might be for her. Instead, she discovers that her prospective job is painfully similar to the one she had about ten years ago—complete with Michael Scott-like boss played by Bob Odenkirk. That night, Pam tells Jim, “I don’t know if I want this.” He says, “This is a little out of left field,” he says. She responds, “Is it?” Their resentments have been simmering throughout the season: Both Jim and Pam feel that the other underappreciates their work. And for Pam in particular, she knows that if she takes this job, or any job, in Philadelphia, it symbolizes that her career isn’t as important as Jim’s. The viewer is left to wonder not only, what will happen to Jim and Pam but whether a TV couple can get a Hollywood ending.
As previously discussed, in the real world, it’s not lack of ambition that holds women back. It’s gender bias—as well as race bias and class bias. And while, like Pam, we experience these professional restraints on a profoundly personal level, it’s government and corporate policies that limit our choices as well.
Perhaps Jim and Pam can reach a compromise that honors both partners’ wishes for meaningful work outside the home. Or perhaps, in true documentary style, Pam is a reflection of the average middle class American woman, oftentimes a cipher in the challenge to balance work and family.