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 career—working part-time or quitting altogether—or feeling like an absent mother. 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.