HOLLYWOOD — The presidential candidates probably don't have much time for watching television, except those bits they're on. But between reviewing their appearances on The View and Larry King Live, Sens. McCain, Obama and Clinton might consider queuing up a few episodes of TLC's The Secret Life of a Soccer Mom.
Because shockingly, the new reality series (it airs at midnight Saturdays) is the closest thing we have to a cogent discussion about the dilemma still daunting to so many women: Keep the career and miss out on raising your kids or give up the career and miss out on fulfilling your other lifelong aspirations.
Forty years after The Feminine Mystique helped launch a modern women's movement, we remain so distant from the need for a national child-care plan or workplace reform that, apparently, we are turning to reality television for solutions. That's as loud a wake-up call as you can get.
The situation is so bad we don't even have the right language to discuss it. "Soccer Mom" — the term was coined during Bill Clinton's 1996 presidential campaign to characterize women whose lives were devoted to shuttling their kids from one practice/lesson/play date to another. Seen at the time as something of a voting bloc worth courting, it has become shorthand for upper-middle class, mostly white, obsessive mothers, usually clad in yoga pants and piloting SUVs or minivans.
TLC, however, seems to be using the term as a substitute for stay-at-home moms — the women featured have a broad economic base and many of their kids are too young for soccer. Possibly because the title The Secret Life of a Stay at Home Mom was nixed by the marketing department as unsexy. Which it is.
Stay-at-home-mom is a less-than-perfect job title, much too passive-sounding to be accurate. Full-time mom doesn't work either because what does that make those women who also have jobs outside the homes — part-time moms? Homemaker has a nice solid ring to it, but it is awfully dated and hostess-aprony.
So while Americans can turn "Google" into a verb and latte into an adjective, we still do not have an accurate and nonincendiary term to describe the millions of women who care for their children full time.
The basic action of Soccer Mom is this: A stay-at-home mother leaves her family behind for a week, telling them she is going to a spa as reward for her hard work. Instead she is put smack in the middle of the career she either abandoned or always longed for — fashion designer, head chef, police officer, flight nurse — while back at home, Dad must, as the preternaturally perky and pregnant host Tracey Gold says, "pick up the slack."
How horrifying is that? It's 2008, there's a woman running for president and here is a show in which the idea of a woman thrust into the workplace and a man figuring out how to keep the baby from eating Desitin is considered entertaining.
And it is, in its fake and familiar reality way. (There's no way a woman is going to leave her kids for a week and never call in.) There is a certain fascination in watching a woman reacquaint herself with the rigors of the workplace, where, it must be said, everyone is in on the gimmick. So a fairly predictable narrative unfolds — woman struggles, seems to fail, then triumphs.
Meanwhile, back on the home front, Mr. Mom is enduring a similar mixture of peaceful picnics and misbehavior. Not surprisingly, the Dads wind up looking much more at sea — having the owner of a restaurant not like your pureed peas is one thing, but seeing a boy mercilessly kick his younger brother while Dad is in the other room on the phone is quite another.
In Soccer Mom, these windows into the at-home mayhem, with the fathers' dutifully telling the camera of their new-found appreciation for their wives, might be the homemaker's money shot, but they are, in fact, the least interesting part of the show.
The moments of actual revelation come when, after all has been told to the families, the women describe the adventure to their loved ones. Their voices shake and their faces show the awful constant tension of living one life while dreaming of another.
Each Mom acknowledges that quitting their jobs left them feeling incomplete, even as they acknowledge the joy and challenges of raising their children. These are, of course, precisely the sort of women who would sign up for a show like Soccer Moms — women whose previous occupations were less glamorous than chef or fashion designer, or women who find unconditional satisfaction working in the home, don't need Tracey Gold to restore their dreams.
But the show has a definite message, which is that many highly talented women are sacrificing their dreams and abilities to raise their families. And this, even when revealed in a ridiculous SLSM big rig mocked up like some sort of SWAT van, is heartbreaking.
At the end of each segment, the women are offered full-time jobs in their fields, and because this is a reality television show, the families are given an hour or two (which on the show translates into a minute or two) in front of the cameras, to decide. Some take the jobs, some don't, but in every case it is clearly seen as an all-or-nothing choice that must be made by the couple alone.
There is no talk of job flexibility or family-friendly hours; no checking of the availability or affordability of day care, just a take-it-or-leave-it, starts-Monday-morning offer with no recognition of family issues, all those hours of in-home tape notwithstanding.
For women who have spent years juggling work and family, patching together nanny hours and day care, summer camps and after-school programs, such an opportunity seems utterly unfair — these women have been out of the workplace for years, and here they are being offered their dream jobs? Because they agreed to be on a reality show?
But strip away the inanity of the medium, the drama-inducing deadlines, the hidden cameras, the carefully manicured story lines and the message is as plain as the tear-stained or anxiety-strained faces of the woman and her husband: They are being asked to jump at a chance in a lifetime, we are told, but there is no net. No reliable system of child care or workplace innovation, no nationally recognized family-friendly vacation, not even a meaningful tax break for families paying for child care or corporations attempting to offer it.
Instead we live in a country that doesn't even know what to call women who care for their children full time, much less how to recompense them. A country that defies the rest of the industrialized world by refusing to give meaningful, standardized help to mothers with ambitions outside the home. A country that rarely acknowledges the possibility of men being the primary or even co-homemaker, except in situation comedies or lesson-learning swap situations.
For mothers at home and mothers in the workplace, Soccer Mom might seem silly or compelling depending on a viewer's tolerance for reality shows. But its underlying message — that choosing between work and family is an all-or-nothing decision — is just plain sad.