The Low-Key Radicalism of Leslie Knope’s Nonexistent Motherhood Storyline

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Parks and Recreation ends its seven-season run Tuesday night on NBC. To celebrate the show’s unforgettable characters, Flavorwire is publishing a series of tributes to our favorite Pawnee residents. Click here to follow our coverage.

I’ve always wanted Leslie Knope to be happy. She is a better person than I am — a better person, perhaps, than it is possible for anyone who lives outside the unlikely utopia of fictional Pawnee, Indiana to be. But by the time Leslie’s Season 5 marriage to Ben Wyatt and particularly last year’s revelation that she was pregnant came around, I (like A.V. Club’s Libby Hill) was too sick of seeing pop culture’s powerful women forced to “have it all” to be thrilled for her. Instead, I thought, somewhat unfairly, “Another one bites the dust.” What Parks and Recreation has done with the character since the end of last season, though, has made me reconsider.

Weddings and childbirth — as over-the-top and harrowing, respectively, as possible — are the stuff that sweeps-month TV ratings plays are made of, so it’s noteworthy that co-creator and showrunner Michael Schur resisted the temptation to show us Leslie screaming through the triplets’ arrival. In discussing the decision to jump three years into the future at the end of last season’s finale — and long before Leslie would have given birth — Schur said that it “allows us to avoid a lot of things that (I would imagine) fans were fearing about getting Leslie pregnant, in terms of the stories we tell going forward.”

You can easily picture the kinds of stories he’s referring to: pregnancy cravings raging, Leslie sends Ben on an improbably complicated late-night quest for waffles; prescribed bed rest, Leslie reassembles the office in her bedroom and the entire crew spends months working from her home; Leslie gives birth to triplets and then hops out of bed to save Pawnee from whatever daily crisis is in progress. As Schur implied, fans are protective of Leslie Knope. We didn’t want to see her fall prey to terrible sitcom pregnancy tropes, even if the Parks writers worked extra hard to strip them of their sexism.

The extent to which the show would break with traditional depictions of motherhood in its final season didn’t become clear for several episodes — and that’s because the notable thing wasn’t how Schur and Poehler depicted Leslie as a mom, but that they barely did so. The reason for this can’t just be that Parks and Recreation is a workplace sitcom. From the Tom/Lucy storyline to last week’s episode-long journey into the world of Johnny Karate, this abbreviated farewell season has devoted plenty of time to the characters’ lives outside government.

After just a brief glimpse in the Season 6 finale, it took seven episodes for Parks to give us a substantial scene featuring the triplets, in another type of parenting moment we rarely see on TV. As Leslie and Ben leave home for Donna’s wedding, they hand off the kids to their understandably harried nanny, Roz (Rachel Dratch, in an endearing cameo). Noticing that she’s “fading,” Leslie gives Roz a pep talk. “You are a wonderful nanny. You’re tough and strong, and you’re an excellent caretaker for our children,” she says. Ben adds: “Every time you come to our house, we are so happy to see you.” Finally, Leslie admits, “I love you more than Ben… If Ben left me, I would be sad, but I would get through it. If you left me, I would never recover.” This is a far cry from the way we usually see mothers interact with their children’s caretakers on TV and in film, because pop culture loves nothing more than to paint women who outsource childcare as selfish, spoiled, and neglectful. (Remember The Nanny Diaries?)

Parks and Recreation has never been very popular by network television standards, but it’s difficult to think of a current sitcom whose fans love it more. Outside of its sweet characters (who each also embody a certain type of political orientation), the show’s biggest selling point has always been its openhearted embrace of progressive politics. And while it’s true that Parks was often too mired in feel-good liberalism to do anything remotely radical, its depiction of Leslie as a good mom who loves her work too much to sacrifice even a little bit of it for her kids has been truly, if quietly, daring. I’m still waiting for the day when a Leslie Knope or a Liz Lemon can end up single, childless, and fulfilled (or at least not pathetic), but it’s been fascinating to see Parks make its protagonist into a mother without letting that role define her.