Feminist Mystique

Womans Health : Silhouette of woman, over a female symbol and caduceus AP / CBS

This column was written by Kirsten A. Powers.
The ongoing "Mommy Wars" has been building with such ferocity that it seems destined for an old-fashioned rumble. The Greasers and the Socs used knives and tire irons; the working mothers will hurl blackberries and briefcases, while the stay-at-homes try to run them over with their minivans.

Barrels of ink have been expended to make unequivocal cases for the "right" way to be a mother, when any reasonable person knows there are no simple answers, and there is no panacea for raising emotionally healthy, productive children. So, why can't we all just get along?

If Caitlan Flanagan, New Yorker writer and author of "To Hell with All That: Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife," has her way, it's not going to happen any time soon. She urges women to find their inner housewife, but she has a maid and brags that she has never cleaned or changed a sheet during her marriage. Yet anti-feminist writer Christina Hoff Summer's blurb on the jacket cover calls the book "a tribute to homemaking and traditional motherhood so deprecated by Betty Friedan." This makes one thing clear: Hoff Summers simply did not read this book.

If she did, she would know that Flanagan's book is perfect companion reading to Friedan's, making the same points, but in a much less academic and deeply personal way. And for Hoff Summers to consider having a nanny, never cleaning your home, and holding a job as a writer for a major magazine "traditional motherhood" is a contortion only the other conservative elites who label their high-powered lives as such could comprehend.

As a woman who has always hoped to be able to stay at home full time when I have children, Flanagan read to me more like Stephen King than happy homemaker. If ever there was a book that would scare a woman off the desire to stay at home with her children, this is it. It was exhausting and frightening to read about her miserable, lonely early years raising her two young boys.

She describes the days when the nanny didn't show up as "shaped by weariness and claustrophobia and isolation." When one of her boys is sick and throwing up, she recounts how she stands by and yells for the nanny to run in and comfort him and clean it up, while she observes from the doorway. (When my cat throws up, I show more emotion.)

She says that motherhood has introduced into her life a "ceaseless, grinding anxiety." And then there are the "guilt-racked, sleepless nights and over-worried-about children and the never-ending sense that I'm doing too little or too much or the wrong thing, or missing the crucial moments, or somehow warping these perfect creatures." After her children were born, "I began losing my mind," she says.

How exactly is this different than the "quiet desperation" Friedan immortalized? Perhaps it is the modern version: desperation, but not so quiet.

It's important to note that Flanagan's suffering existed despite the constant presence of her beloved nanny, Paloma. As you read, it becomes clear that Paloma is there not only to take care of Flanagan's children, but to care for Flanagan as well. She writes: "It was the most reassuring feeling in the world to know that Paloma was inside, that order was already being imposed, that the babies would be lifted from me. I felt … the way I used to feel when I walked home from school, knowing that my mother was inside the house."

Though Flanagan's bizarre misreading of pop culture — describing Ward Cleaver as being portrayed as a "monster" in "Leave It to Beaver" — is hard to explain, it doesn't take a PhD. in psychology to understand why Flanagan is so attached to the nanny or has over-romanticized 1950s-era housewives, or even why she can't admit she is a working mother. Her much-beloved mother died in the years before she wrote this book, followed shortly by her father. She was understandably devastated. And, in many ways, Flanagan's book is a love letter to her mother, an attempt to make sense of such heartbreaking loss. Unfortunately, Flanagan also unnecessarily and angrily takes potshots at working women and feminists, whom she gratuitously attacks throughout the book.

Flanagan describes the childhood her mother created for her thus: It "was to live in a world that seems to me a bygone age, as remote and unrecoverable as Camelot: a world of good meals turned out in an orderly fashion, of fevers cooled without a single frantic call to the pediatrician, of clothes mended and repaired and pressed back into useful service rather than discarded to the rag heap as soon as a button pops or a sleeve unravels."

But Flanagan doesn't need a time machine to get to this "bygone age." She could just leave her rich, privileged neighborhood and discover the majority of Americans who can't afford to throw away clothes because a button pops, who can't afford a nanny or a maid, and who don't feel entitled enough to call their doctor at any hour that moves them. And if she really wants this life, why not get rid of the household staff?

She holds so tight to the perfection of her childhood that it is jarring when she writes that her mother "dumped" her for a job when she was 12 to escape the "demoralizing nature of make-work cleaning projects" and to earn her own money, since her husband would not allow her any input in financial decisions. With no irony, Flanagan reports that, "Almost as soon as my mother began working, she cheered up. The glooms and sulks that had so often descended upon her lifted miraculously."

Cheering up when you start working. Glooms and sulks lifting. Sounds exactly like what Betty Friedan talked about in the "Feminine Mystique." If Flanagan wants to make the case for blissful stay at home motherhood — something I was completely open to — it would help immensely if her own experience, or even the experience of her mother, matched up with that theory. It's like writing a diet book and then revealing that you gained 40 pounds following the diet.

Sadly, this kind of hypocrisy is hardly a new phenomenon. Phyllis Schlafly, right-wing hit woman and dogged defeater of the Equal Rights Amendment, spent most of her high-powered career traveling the country spreading the good word of stay-at-home motherhood while her young children were at home without her. Scores of conservative women are trotted out routinely to attack career women while living the exact same lives they are trashing. Conservative men with high-powered working mother wives join in hardily to lecture the masses to "do as I say, not as I do."

Flanagan is unencumbered with political ideology, but in her quest to make sense of the enormous loss of her parents, she has adopted tired and overly simplistic theories that don't match up to even her own experience. And she has written a book that is nothing more than more cannon fodder in the Mommy Wars. Just what we need.


Kirsten A. Powers served as Deputy Assistant U.S. Trade
Representative for Public Affairs in the Clinton administration and is a New York-based Democratic consultant.

Reprinted with permission from The American Prospect, 5 Broad Street, Boston, MA 02109. All rights reserved
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