Among the books I’ve adored reading to my three children over the years has been Rosemary Wells’ “Bunny Planet ” collection. In each of the three books in the set, a child-bunny is having a bad day, falls asleep and has a dream about visiting the “Bunny Planet” where a benevolent Bunny Queen named Janet shows the youngin’ the day that “should have been,” a day that exists only in the little one’s dreams.
I kept thinking about those books when I caught the first episode of TLC’s new reality show, “The Secret Life of a Soccer Mom .” The conceit of the show is that an at-home mom gets the opportunity to see what her life would be like if she resurrected her dormant, pre-kids career and started working full-time outside of the house. The woman is given a week to work at a company – all arranged by TLC and caught on film, of course – while her family thinks she’s off at a spa, relaxing. Dad is left in charge. At the end of the week, depending on how the mom fared with her work, she may be offered a job at the company and is given precious few hours to decide if she wants to radically change her life and become a working mother. The tagline in the show’s introduction summarizes it nicely: “For anyone who has put their dreams on hold, your time has come.”
The premiere installment featured Adrian Stark, a former fashion designer who has worked for the likes of Chanel. She left her career over a decade ago when she became a mother. Her life since then -- before “Soccer Mom” hostess Tracey Gold arrived at Stark’s home in a black truck containing spy-like surveillance equipment – has revolved almost completely around her three daughters, while her husband Bruce, a physician, has gone off to work each day. Gold gave Stark the chance to work in a fashion house where Stark was called upon to design and make three dresses in less than a week. Stark’s creations were included in the designer’s private fashion show for two buyers and a celebrity stylist. After the first two of Stark’s dresses were given the thumbs down, the last one was labeled a hit. In fact, Stark’s cream-colored dress was later worn by Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson at a televised event.
Near the end of the episode, Stark came clean with her family about what had transpired and they were shown a video of her at work. “I don’t regret staying home with you girls at all,” she tearfully told them, “but there is a side of me that loves to be creative.” After her husband watched scenes of her in action, he said that for many years there has been a part of her that has been missing and he could never quite figure out what is was. Perhaps, he ventured, pursuing her dreams would make her feel whole again.
Then, in a move that I found manipulative and cruel, the owner of the fashion house offered Stark a job as a designer but gave her until the end of the day to make a decision: Take the job or leave it. And if she takes it, she starts in a couple of days. Providing only a handful of hours to determine what to do about child care for the couple’s grade schooler, pre-schooler and baby was unreasonable, in my opinion, and put unnecessary angst on the family. Deciding to return to the workplace is a monumental enough decision without artificially juicing up the drama to create emotional, ratings-grabbing scenes. Nonetheless, Stark chose to accept the position. “I’m gonna be a working mom,” she said. “. . . and my family’s going to stand behind me.”
Despite my problems with the absurd and unnecessarily small window of time producers gave Stark to make her choice, coupled with my annoyance with the overly dramatic pressure they put on Stark at the fashion house, I found the show, overall, to be inspiring. Here was a woman who’d shelved her dreams for 10 years to care for her daughters full-time. But now she was in a different place in her life and was ready to take a different road. Not every mom would necessarily have reached the same decision, particularly under the time restrictions placed upon the family. (Side note: I would love for the show to check back with the Stark family to see how they’re doing and whether they were able to arrange satisfactory child care.)
Among some at-home moms, though, “The Secret Life of a Soccer Mom” is raising ire, with folks accusing it of promoting working motherhood to the detriment of at-home parenthood. On the show’s bulletin board, one woman wrote:
“I will never turn this show on again. We're supposed to be excited about a mom being taken away from her 3 young girls so she can be a fashion designer? How selfish. 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 daycare. I am appalled. There is something seriously wrong with our society. Obviously, if mom has to work that's one thing. But the mom did not have to work and she has two babies. Sick show.”
But Stark and the show have defenders, such as this woman wrote on the same bulletin board:
“I thought the show was really interesting actually. They weren't forcing her to do anything, it was just an option she had. And I think everyone should follow their dreams, if they can and are able to. Her husband was going to help her out and they both said they were going to have to depend on some people to help them out. There's nothing wrong with that, I don't think. I don't think she should abandon her children but it didn't appear that she was doing that. She was just pursuing a dream, something that she was really good at and she was being fully supported by her family.”
There is nothing wrong with the premise of the show, spending a few days dabbling in the career that might have been and could still be if given the right opportunity. Likewise, there’s nothing wrong with deciding to forgo paid employment to raise your children full-time. As I’ve said repeatedly, not every choice is right for every family or every mom. I’m hopeful that “The Secret Life of a Soccer Mom” won’t simply promote full-time working motherhood, and that, in subsequent episodes, it will present a balanced approach, portraying women making an array of choices representing the myriad decisions made by today’s mothers. However I do find it sad that - upon viewing this program and disagreeing with Stark’s decision -- some people would use it as an excuse to attack working mothers, labeling them as bad and selfish women. Maybe everyone accepting everyone else’s work-life choices is something that happens only in my dreams, when I’m visiting the “Mommy Planet” where a Mommy Queen named Janet shows me the world that should have been.
TLC’s “The Secret Life of a Soccer Mom” airs Mondays at 10 p.m.