Stay-At-Home Mad

What do soccer moms fantasize about? That list would probably be too long—and semi-unprintable. But some of them dream of hanging up their sneakers and becoming police officers. Or chefs. Or architects. At least that's what TLC is betting on. In a new reality show called "The Secret Life of a Soccer Mom," the network is offering stay-at-home mothers the chance to spend a week back at the career they left—or simply wished they'd had—before they had kids. The twist was supposed to be that at the end of the week, the moms would decide whether they want to keep working. But TLC has discovered that their show packs a much bigger wallop than that. In fact, it's touched off a war—another Mommy War.

In the show's recent premiere, Adrian Stark, a mother of three girls in southern California, decides to go back to fashion design after 10 years at home. Her daughters were awestruck by the gowns she makes. Her husband, Bruce, a physician, is at first stymied by the child-care duties. But when she's offered a full-time job, he tears up. "I'm seeing Adrian get something that I have been unable to give her, which is completeness." Completeness? Almost instantly, 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—a SAHM, in parent lingo. They called the show "sick" and Adrian "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: "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 desire for "completeness" drew an especially scathing response: "Could any more feminist crap be shoved down our throats? How about feeling complete by parenting your kids the right way?"

What constitutes the "right way" is what's up for debate. While TLC deserves praise for hosting a frank online discussion, it has clearly stepped on a land mine—which in the TV world means it's a gold mine. "Soccer" is certainly asking for controversy. To start with, what sane woman could make this kind of decision in a week? We're not talking about a kitchen makeover here. The show also skips blithely over the reality that choosing to stay home is, for many women, a luxury. About 70 percent of American women with children younger than 18 work outside the home—including 60 percent of mothers with children under 3. Without TV producers acting as their personal employment agency, it's not exactly easy for women to wedge themselves back into the job market after a decade like Rip van Mommy. Most perplexingly, "Soccer Mom" sends a team of three model types to cook and clean for the newly motherless family. It's not exactly every mom's fantasy to have hot young women running around the house sautéeing and vacuuming—even temporarily. How about a "manny" or a dowdy supernanny?

To be fair, in subsequent episodes not every mom gets a dream job, and sometimes the cost of child care rivals the take-home pay. They do flick at the inevitable child-care stresses and lack of job flexibility—a common complaint among working mothers. Currently, three quarters of them work full time, but a July 2007 Pew Research Center survey found that only 21 percent of working mothers saw full-time work as the best arrangement. But the best way to inject a little reality might be to do follow-up shows. Then we might see Adrian six months into her new career when she gets to have stereophonic guilt—the kind where you feel bad for leaving work and for getting home late.

Long after Hillary Clinton's much maligned "I guess I could have stayed home and baked cookies" crack, most women still can't easily admit they want to leave their kids with sitters to pursue a career. Even now, Michelle Obama is careful to explain that her daughters are cared for by their grandmother while she's campaigning—not, heaven forbid, by a babysitter. One wonders what the reaction would be if she left the kids behind to run for president herself.

But sniping aside, there are few delicious moments in "Soccer Mom" for women of all stripes. When Adrian's husband takes over the child care, he makes fun of her three-page instruction list: "I'm not going to turn childhood into a structured, serious, rule-based thing." Within days he's pointing at the toddler and saying, "Stay! … Oh, I don't mean to talk to you like a pet." When their tween daughter says, "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"—well, that's enough to make any mother smile.