Most of our more respectable fantasies have found a place on reality TV. There's the show where designers swoop in to organize your clutter and the one about the nanny who figures out how to keep the kids from using their potties as weapons. There's even a show about wife swapping.
But TLC has found one more untapped fantasy—at least for mothers. We're not talking about "The Manny." No, this is the one where you're a woman who's been home with your kids so long that you can't remember the last time you wore hard-soled shoes. Then someone (say, former sitcom star Tracey Gold) comes by and says, "Hey, you know how you always wanted to be a fashion designer, cop or chef? Well, we'll give you a week to try it out—without your family knowing. Then at the end of the week you get to choose whether to restart your career or stay home. And guess what: your kids and husband will support you either way."
Sounds dreamy, right? Well, not to everyone. If the initial reaction to the "Secret Life of a Soccer Mom," (Mondays at 10 p.m. ET) is any indication, TLC has struck one of the rawest nerves of parenting. In the show's March 3 premier Adrian Stark, a mother of three girls in suburban California, decides to go back to work full-time as a high fashion designer after 10 years at home. Stark's daughters are awestruck by the gowns she makes, and when she's offered a job, her physician husband gets teary with joy: "I'm seeing Adrian get something that I have been unable to give her, which is completeness."
This family is so sweet it makes your teeth ache. But as soon as the show aired, TLC's online message boards were jammed with comments from women outraged that Adrian would choose a career over being a stay-at-home mom (SAHM in parent lingo). The posts said the premise of the show is "sick" and Adrian is "selfish." One mom wrote, "Let's show the other side of the story … how the kids' world is going to be turned upside down by having to go to day care." Another woman goes even further: "Unless you're about to starve there is no reason for you to be at work. If you didn't want to raise your children, you should not have had them. It's child abandonment."
Adrian's wish to fill a missing creative void raised even more hackles: "Could any more feminist crap be shoved down our throats? The idea that you need a career to be complete? How about feeling complete by parenting your kids the right way?" And even if you agree with the mothers who support Adrian's choice to offer her daughters a career role model, you can see why some SAHMs might be a little miffed by a program that opens with a song whose lyrics include "time to lose the minivan…"
Women have been in the workforce for decades now, but the tension between moms who stay at home and those who, by choice, have jobs outside the home continues to brew. When in mixed company, mothers on both sides of the fence tend to tiptoe around the subject. Totally unvarnished confessions of either boredom or guilt are usually left to gatherings of moms of one's own kind. (Disclaimer: I was home with two kids for eight years before going back to an "outside" job.)
The network deserves praise for diving into this touchy topic and for hosting a frank discussion on its Web site (with lots of qualifiers saying that staying at home is also a career, etc.). But you do have to ask whether this decision is one that should be made in one week as part of a TV show. We're not talking about changing the color of your living room. The critical SAHMs are right in that if the moms choose work, their children's lives will be affected and that the adjustment is tough. And while the show gives a nod to the logistical trials ahead, when Adrian's husband points out that the fashion company won't care if one of their kids gets sick, a follow-up show could start about six months into Adrian's new career when she gets to have stereophonic guilt—the kind where you feel bad for leaving work and for getting home late.
But this is reality TV, not reality. We don't necessarily want to see what happens when the producers leave and that remodeled house reverts to a big mess. And it's so satisfying to watch an insecure Adrian walk in and defy the expectations of skeptical and snarky colleagues. Score one for the moms. Of course, in real life wedging yourself back into the job market like Rip Van Mommy isn't so easy—you might just find you don't know the new software and everyone is somehow both younger and more experienced than you are.
TLC says that in future episodes not every mom gets offered a dream job and not every mom chooses work, but the real unreality here may be that whatever happens these moms can probably quit their jobs if things get tough. That's not usually the case; most families need two incomes these days. SAHMs are a minority. According to recent federal numbers, 70.5 percent of American women with children under 18 work outside the home—including 60 percent of mothers with children under 3. And what those mothers want, perhaps more than the choice of whether to work at all, is the option to work a little less. Currently three-quarters of them work full-time, but a July 2007 Pew Research Center survey found that only 21 percent of working mothers with children under 18 saw full-time work as the best arrangement, down from 32 percent in 1997.
So for all the talk of flex time, many women are still juggling full-time gigs and kids. And nearly half of all private-sector workers and three in four low-income workers do not have even one day of paid sick leave, according to the National Partnership for Women & Families. So maybe the SAHMs and employed moms can use some of the energy they've been expending on the message boards to petition their legislators to require parent-friendly paid sick time for all employees.
Until that happens, moms of all stripes can enjoy a few delicious moments in "Soccer Mom." Let's start with Adrian's husband's struggles to care for the three kids. At first he makes fun of her three-page instruction sheet, saying, "I'm not going to turn childhood into a structured, serious rule-based thing." Within days he's resorted to pointing at the toddler and saying, "Stay! … Oh, I don't mean to talk to you like a pet." And when their tween daughter says gravely, "I know it might be a little bit more difficult for my dad than my mom, because he's a man and men can't do anything right," we know they'd never get away with showing a boy saying that about his mother—but it's still funny.
I do have one little request for TLC. On the first day of Adrian's foray into the professional world, the network sends a SWAT team of three ponytailed model types clad in black to cook and clean while she's scoping out the job. Are they kidding? I can pretty much speak for womankind when I say we don't want three hot young women running around the house vacuuming and sautéing. Sheesh. Doesn't anyone remember "Who's the Boss?" with Tony Danza as the manny?