By Anthony D'Alessandro
By Catherine Wagley
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
One day in 1973, Ellen Flanagan, an exemplary stay-at-home Berkeley mom who sewed and cooked and cleaned on demand, packed her husband and two daughters off to work and school as usual and got up on a ladder to wash down the wallpaper. Then, sponge in hand, she said to herself, “to hell with it,” climbed down again, and went back to work as a nurse, leaving her bewildered younger daughter Caitlin to while away the after-school hours with a house key tied around her neck. In her new book, To Hell with All That: Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife, whose title was inspired by her mother’s midlife epiphany, Caitlin writes that to this day “my anxiety about being alone in a house borders on the pathological.”
That’s more psychic damage than most of us latchkey kids could reasonably lay claim to: I, for one, count having spent uninterrupted chunks of my childhood staring tragically out my bedroom window (at least until my mother arrived home for our cozy daily chat over the teapot) as training for becoming a writer. With refreshing candor, Flanagan describes herself as a mild hysteric, and though this pivotal childhood event can’t fully account for the drubbing she gives professional working women in her writing, it surely played its part in the passionate defense of at-home mothering mounted in this collection of her essays on domestic life for The Atlantic Monthlyand The New Yorker. The cultural timing couldn’t be better: To Hell with All Thatcomes out hand in hand with a cacophony of op-ed hand wringing over the “mommy wars”; crowing on the family-values right over the hotly contested news that disillusioned educated women are flocking out of the workplace and back into the home in droves; and a new study by two University of Virginia sociologists claiming that stay-at-home wives experience greater marital happiness than do those flighty, man-hating bra-burners who thought they could have it all.
Even women who can’t stand what Flanagan has to say concede that she’s a terrific writer. I wish we had more like her on the left — her trenchant wit and breezily fluid prose make Maureen Dowd’s look like the work of a shrill amateur. Not surprisingly, Flanagan’s intellectual heroes are mostly men — she cites her late father, Thomas Flanagan, a UC Berkeley professor of Irish history and late-life author of historical novels; The New Yorkereditor David Remnick, and Benjamin Schwarz, The Atlantic’s Los Angeles–based literary editor, whom she so impressed with her skills as a dinner-party raconteur that he rescued her from futile efforts to write a novel and gave her the domestic beat at the magazine; and former Atlantic writer William Langewiesche, who switched her on to the idea of “writing history as it happens,” at which she is very good. At her best, Flanagan is an avid researcher and an astute observer of feminine pop culture, often hilariously at her own expense. Of her mother’s efforts to teach her basic housewifery she notes, “God knows I was a rapt student (like most adult obsessions, mine has its roots in childhood experience) but my attention kept attaching itself to the least important part of the lesson. ‘Now I’m ironing the placket,’ she would say, and I would stand beside her, thinking, Placket. Good word.” She writes amusingly, if with a dash of patrician condescension, about the appetite of today’s non-virgin brides for “traditional” white weddings that fritter away two years’ hard-earned salary for a single day of anachronistic glamour; about the appeal of Martha Stewart Living for women who have neither the time nor the inclination to keep house with the unnerving complexity a Stewart recipe or home-decorating tip demands; about the contradictions of the anti-clutter movement in a hyper-acquisitive age; about the cultural significance of Mary Poppins as differentially realized by Disney and P.L. Travers; about her own intimate, tortured relationship with her children’s nanny.
Over breakfast at the modestly swank Quality Food and Beverage, where Flanagan, a svelte porcelain beauty with china-blue eyes and a fashionably streaked mane of light brown hair, takes barely a bite of the French toast she highly recommends, she positions herself as a political liberal and a cultural conservative. She’s pro-choice, believes in the welfare state, in universal health care and taxation. But Flanagan, who thinks Laura Schlesinger is right on and whose favorite female newspaper columnist is the late Erma Bombeck (an at-home mother in the same way Flanagan is, which is to say, she had a swell full-time job that she happened to do at home), is convinced that professional working women are shortchanging themselves and their children. “I am really glad that there are working mothers in the professions,” she says earnestly. “But do I think that society should bend itself backward to give them more time with their children and to do this profession? I’m not sure I am at all.” She goes on: “It’s different to spend a lot of time with your child. If you stay home with your child, you’re going to have a lot of frustrating moments and quite a few transcendental moments. The kid can’t schedule his days so that the transcendental moments occur from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.” A regular churchgoer herself, she thinks it was great that in the old days men who traded in their wives for younger models were shunned by their religious communities until they shaped up. “If a man dumps a woman now,” she says disapprovingly, “it’s ‘Hello, Bob, nice to see you, Bob,’ and we meet the new wife, because that’s what you do. We’re nonjudgmental, and we’ve created a world that’s very safe for men to do that. I think it’s terrible.” She confesses to a newfound enthusiasm for the evangelical movement. “It’s not my way,” she says, “but one of the things they’re doing is rejecting this culture of work. They want to reclaim deep, committed family time and they want to have just one of the two people doing it, and church not just on Sunday but two or three nights a week with different activities for the family.”