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Mad Men TV Club: Work Life Balance

The struggle between career and family is one that women have wrestled with for decades, and there seem to be no easy solutions on the horizon. Work vs. home. “Office wives” and romantic partners. Kids or promotions. The battles rage on, illuminated by think pieces and parsed by university studies, but the essential question of what is most worthwhile and meaningful in life remains unanswered.

“Time and Life,” Mad Men’s third-to-last episode, was unquestionably about legacy, but it was also about the conflict between work and family. When the leaders of Sterling Cooper learn that their company is being absorbed (and dismantled) by the big, bad men at McCann Erikson, they are forced to consider what will remain of them once Sterling Cooper, the company they built and brought back from the brink of failure so many times, is no more.

With his name about to be scrubbed off the building, Roger is faced with the prospect of irrelevance—he has no male children who carry on his name, is an only child, and is estranged from his hippie daughter. A failed father, he thought his legacy at work was secure, much like Pete, Sterling Cooper’s other absentee dad. In fact, Pete and Roger suddenly seem to have a lot in common—failed marriages, no relationships with their children, and hefty surnames that once meant a great deal but are quickly becoming meaningless. In Pete and Roger, we see men stripped of their machismo: both were serial cheaters who are long divorced. Without the women who once helped define them, what are they? Who are they?

This brings us to Trudy, who has become a social pariah as a single divorced woman. She tells Pete that she has few friends because all of the husbands want her. It’s interesting that Mad Men is emphasizing the stigma of being a divorced woman at this point, so long after we were introduced to Helen Bishop in Season 1, the OG threatening divorcee. Why was this so striking? Well, when we return to the office and see the partners of Sterling Cooper sitting in their conference room, it hits me that all five of them are divorced—some of them (Don, Roger, Joan) more than once. Did Ted, Roger, Joan, Pete, and Don choose work over family? Were their sacrifices conscious? Were they worthwhile?

Peggy is more aware of sacrificing family for work than any other character in the Mad Men universe. During a casting for a commercial, Peggy is surrounded by children, and fights with Stan after he remarks that she “hates kids.” Her eventual admission that she had a child and gave it up for adoption is touching and surprising, but is most notable for the heated conversation that leads up to it. When Stan makes a joke about not knowing if he’s fathered any children, she reacts angrily: “That’s funny to you. You can walk away.” We realize that despite Don’s insistence that she forget the incident ever took place, that it would “amaze her how much it never happened,” Peggy is still impacted by giving up her child. As she argues with Stan, who is taken aback by her reaction to his teasing, Peggy says the thing that I believe will come to define her character: “She should be able to live the rest of her life, just like a man does.” Peggy knows this isn’t how life is. But she deeply wants it to be true, and she works hard to make it so in her own life. Peggy’s protofeminism is on full display here: she is not especially liberal, she pre-dates 70s feminism, and she worked her way up in an old boys’ club in a fashion that younger feminists would soon deride. But damn if Peggy didn’t earn her feminist badge of honor here by finally articulating what she had been working for, consciously and unconsciously, for so many years. Women should be able to make mistakes, make choices, stumble and get up again, just like a man does.

After their exchange, to which Stan reacts with grace and maturity that we haven’t seen in the past, Peggy tells him “I’m fine. I have work to do.” She knows that she chose work over family, but unlike the men of Sterling Cooper, she still has time to secure her legacy. She is on the rise, and though she may stumble and question whether she chose correctly, she isn’t letting go of the success she’s worked so hard for.

As this episode wrapped up, I couldn’t help but reflect on the other man with his name soon to be scraped off of the Time Life building. Bert Cooper, founder of Sterling Cooper, died castrated and childless. His legacy will surely be erased with the end of the company that bears his name—do the young copywriters even know who Bert Cooper was? The symbolic castration of the men—Don speechifies to a room of chattering employees who ignore him, Pete doesn’t have the clout to get his daughter into a good preschool, Roger can’t claim his son as his own—is loud and clear, and circles back to Bert, the man whose entire legacy rests on work. While Mad Men is sympathetic to Peggy’s choices as a woman with limited options, harsher judgment is being cast on the men. The charming, cheating, cunning ad men of Season 1 have never seemed farther away. The men who had everything, it seems, chose wrong.

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Partners of Sterling Cooper
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The partners of Sterling Cooper, in a still from Mad Men.
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How to cite this page

Metal, Tara. "Mad Men TV Club: Work Life Balance ." 28 April 2015. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on December 18, 2017) <https://jwa.org/blog/mad-men-tv-club-work-life-balance>.

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