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I Am Not a Housewife 

Caitlin Flanagan fights the mommy wars

Wednesday, Apr 12 2006

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 Monthly and The New Yorker. The cultural timing couldn’t be better: To Hell with All That comes 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 Yorker editor 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.

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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.”

What understandably drives a lot of feminists right up the wall is that Flanagan, by her own admission a wealthy married woman with plenty of household help (including, according to a damning recent piece in Elle magazine, a personal organizer) and who has a pretty darn glam job of her own, tacitly blames professional working women for screwing up the undeniably beleaguered contemporary family. If children are suffering from absent or guiltily hyper-attentive parents, it’s the professional mothers who should be rethinking their work-life balance. In her book Flanagan concedes that working mothers “have retained the most of their former selves.” But, she writes, “the kind of relationship formed between a child and a mother who is home all day caring for him is substantively different from that formed between a child and a woman who is gone many hours a week. The former relationship is more intimate, more private, more filled with moments of maternal frustration — and even despair — and with more moments of the transcendence that comes only from mothering a small child.”

My own small child would probably tell Flanagan that I am much more fun, more fully engaged with her and more ready to play when I’ve had a stimulating day at the office, or lunch with a colleague, than if we’ve been joined at the hip all day. But it’s not just about the kids, according to Flanagan. If marriages are sexless, it’s because ball-breaker women, exhausted from long hours at the office and from nagging their husbands to fold the laundry properly, are not home putting home-cooked hot meals on the table, not greeting their husbands at the door in heels and slinky negligee and, worst of all, not putting out. “Under these conditions,” she writes, “pity the poor married man hoping to get a bit of comfort from the wife at day’s end. He must somehow seduce a woman who is economically independent of him, bone tired, philosophically disinclined to have sex unless she is jolly well in the mood, numbingly familiar with his every sexual maneuver, and still doing a slow burn over his failure to wipe down the countertops and fold the dish towel after cooking the kids’ dinner. He can hardly be blamed for opting instead to check his e-mail, catch a few minutes of SportsCenter, and call it a night.”

When I point out that a favorite topic of complaint in women’s circles is knackered husbands who show no interest in sex themselves, Flanagan tells me that’s different. “Women can get really pissed off and put upon and exhausted and flip the switch off. Whereas with men I think something’s going on, an affair, or severe depression.” Women, in her view, are the natural homemakers. Never mind that we both know neatnik males — most of them domesticated in the 1970s during the heyday of feminism — who complain bitterly of their wives’ slobby habits around the house. In an otherwise invigorating recent piece in The Atlantic she places the blame for an oral-sex craze among teenage girls on rap lyrics, pornography — and, mysteriously, feminism.

Between galley and bound copy, the introduction to Flanagan’s book has softened its brickbats against the women’s movement a touch. Gone are the giveaway phrase “feminist agenda” (replaced with “the new prescription for female unhappiness”) and the laundry list of what most in the women’s movement would now consider old-hat demands, like “Caring for the emotional and physical needs of a husband constitutes subservience.” Indeed, Flanagan is at pains to acknowledge her debt to feminists. “I spell out in there that [feminism] was the most profound movement and that it did create equal rights and opportunities in a deep and profound way,” she insists. “I have only profound gratitude.” All this profundity, however, has not increased her respect for what she dubs the elitism that taints feminism now that “the big equalities have been gained.” Her most controversial piece, whose harsh tone she now calls “slightly insane” and is not reprinted wholesale in the book, takes upper-middle-class working women to task for achieving liberation off the backs of the armies of poor immigrant women they hire as nannies and housekeepers, and for failing to pay the Social Security taxes that will shore up these women’s retirement. About that she is quite right (though she’s hardly the first to note the problem), but she hammers the point as if her entire critique of 21st-century family life depends on it. “Was that worth a 7,000-word essay in The Atlantic?” wonders feminist writer Barbara Ehrenreich, who wrote the 2002 book Nickel and Dimed, an account of her several months working in minimum-wage jobs, and who had a testy exchange with Flanagan in the online magazine Slate when the nanny piece came out. “It’s like running a 7,000-word piece about running a red light. If you’re going to be concerned about women working in the home the concern shouldn’t stop with Social Security. The issue is that they are badly paid and live far from their children.”

In fairness, Flanagan does allude to that in her book, and she tells me she pays both her own and her domestic workers’ Social Security taxes. And though the vast majority of professional women I know couldn’t afford a nanny in the first place, it’s true that women of the class she belongs to and writes about could use a little shaking up: liberal women who believe in public schooling but wouldn’t dream of sending their kids to one; whose feminism begins and ends with, as Flanagan puts it, “making partner” at the law firm; who buy organic at Whole Foods but aren’t home to eat meals with their kids; who use their nannies as substitute mothers; who still regard themselves as oppressed victims and who gripe that their spouses don’t do housework properly.

Flanagan is a sophisticated writer with a highly developed sense of irony and an engaging frankness about her own limitations as a homemaker. For someone so intensely male-identified, she gives great girl-talk and, notwithstanding the twinset and pearls, is great fun to gab with about almost anything — movies (she loves Pauline Kael), books (she adores Joan Didion), adopted Chinese girls (I have one, she wants one), stay-at-home dads (they’re great), Bill Clinton (she loves him), the horrors of academese, sneaking off to check e-mail after the kids come home. She’s becomingly modest about her own writing, generous toward other woman writers, and has her share of loyal female writer pals and admirers, among them Sandra Tsing Loh, a friend and colleague who took over the domestic beat at The Atlantic (and who has made it her own with lively, funny, unpredictable commentary on everything from public schooling to the mommy wars) when Flanagan went to The New Yorker. “Wonderful, lively writing that makes people talk is a good thing,” says Tsing Loh, who calls Flanagan a “volatile, controversial figure” offering a useful critique of women “who lead very enclaved lives that have more in common with wealthy men than with poor women.”

But Flanagan is one of those enclaved women, and then some. She’s married to a Mattel executive (her husband produced Barbie of Swan Lake) and admits to never having changed a sheet, nor is she big on laundry. She also has the kind of job that doesn’t require her to produce every week, as most journalists do. She seems genuinely shocked when I tell her I have to produce a film feature every week, plus capsule reviews. Catherine Seipp, a peppy Republican writer in her own right who’s never met Flanagan but likes her work, says, “I can see why she drives other working moms crazy, because she’s a very rich lady who can afford not to work, who has full-time help for her two boys and can write her New Yorker/Atlantic stuff or hang around with them as she pleases. What a charmed life! I mean, she landed right on the top of that heap without putting in years in the reporting trenches, or scrounging around for those Crappy Hackington celebrity-interview assignments. But here’s the difference between Flanagan and most essayists of her ilk, which, besides her large talent, is her saving grace: She fully owns up to her privileged position. Most first-person writers spend a lot of fake energy presenting themselves as a Nice Person. She seems more honest than that, which I like.” Ehrenreich is less forgiving. “She’s a little like Phyllis Schlafly, this high-achieving woman who advocates domesticity for the rest of us,” she says tartly. “My sisterhood doesn’t extend to feeling the pain of stay-at-home mothers with nannies.”

For her part, Flanagan seems to be feeling the pain of backlash from those she has judged. A week after our meeting — during which she has very likely read the Elle profile, which brought out the pious parson in her, a side I didn’t see — she calls me back and tells me she has a quote for me that she hasn’t given anyone else. “I am pro-choice, anti-war, anti-Bush, I’m a Democrat, and only a conservative on family issues,” she says plaintively. “I’ve got nothing but derision from the left — you’ve got to check everything on the menu to please them. But the right has been good to me, even though they disagree with me about abortion. I can go on Tucker Carlson and he’s respectful. The head of the Southern Baptist Convention had me on the radio. But the feminists humiliate me. We, the Democrats, have a real small tent. The Republicans have a big tent.” She must have in mind those beacons of open-minded tolerance, Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter.

For all her street smarts, Flanagan, like so many ardent fans of family values, seems cocooned in woozy nostalgia for a lost world even she admits never really existed. A little girl still lives inside her, craving the certainties of life with a mother who had nothing else to do but care for her husband and children. Yet she admits that her mother was depressed while confined to the home, and owns to having been depressed herself while her children were babies. Her hopelessly caricatured feminists are straw women, frozen in the excesses of Berkeley in the ’70s, where her friends’ mothers refused to shave their armpits or brush their daughters’ hair because it was “too oppressive.” In fact it’s been a while since hairy armpits were on the to-do list of the women’s movement, and in my experience as a lipstick feminist, they never were high on the agenda except in the minds of a few literalists. When I bring up an acerbic exchange Flanagan had with Ellen Willis in the letters column of The Atlantic over her nanny piece (she called Willis’ child’s co-op preschool “risibly egalitarian”), she barely remembers the episode and seems unaware that Willis is one of the great dames of the women’s movement. Willis, for her part, finds Flanagan’s ideas on women, feminism, sex and the family “not merely wrong but teeth-grindingly shallow and clichéd. And she is one of those people who seems to think she and her six friends represent the world.”

Certainly Flanagan comes across out of touch with the pressures on contemporary women — and men — of all classes, not just her own. Perhaps because she once taught at an exclusive private school (Harvard, before it became Westlake) and sends her sons to another, she seems unaware of the sheer variety of family forms and child-care arrangements unfolding in today’s cities. In my daughter’s public-school elementary class alone there are three stay-at-home dads, one pair of gay fathers, and Lord knows how many single mothers if you count the north-of-Montana-Avenue women whose executive husbands work (as Flanagan’s own husband does) around the clock. And most of them will tell you that what is crushing the life and joy out of family life today is not packs of over-educated, screaming viragos, but a workplace culture that makes impossible demands on the time and energy of men and women alike, and not just those who are trying to make partner. No wonder some of those who can afford it — and they are few and far between — are throwing up their hands and going back home. “I say this as an old second-wave feminist,” says Ehrenreich. “We thought we could have it all because we thought jobs were eight hours a day. I have great sympathy for the young lawyer who works 60 to 80 hours a week. If you have a husband who can support the family, I can see the temptation to give up work. But I also sympathize with the poor women who have two jobs. If you’re a big defender of domesticity, you should be furiously protesting welfare reform.”

I don’t believe that Flanagan is a cynic or an opportunist, as some of her detractors have called her. But for someone who feels unfairly judged, she’s harshly judgmental herself. At the end of To Hell with All That, in the only original essay in the collection, Flanagan writes affectingly of being diagnosed with breast cancer in 2003, and of how her husband stepped up and took care of her, ferried the children to school and to their activities during her nine months of treatment. “If a marriage is like a bank account . . . I suppose my balance was high,” she writes. “I suppose that all the days I had made a home for my husband, and all the times I had ended my writing days early so that he could work late or come home to a hot dinner and not to a scene of domestic chaos — all of that, as much as the desire and intensity that originally brought us together, were stores in my account.” It’s nice that Flanagan’s husband rose to the occasion, and even nicer that she got better. But there’s an unspoken complacency here, and an implication that working mothers care less about their husbands, and that those husbands might not do the same for their wives if they fell ill. She professes to hate the term “mommy wars,” but she fans the fires by driving a wedge between working women and stay-at-home mothers. “If I went to an at-home mom and I said, ‘Hey, at-home mom, have you missed out on something with your career?’ And she says, ‘Yes, I really have, I would have been up to here by now on the corporate ladder, and I’d be going out and seeing people.’?” She goes on, “But if I go to a working mother and say in a very simple way, ‘Gee, have you missed out on some important moments in your child’s life?’?” She switches to a witchy voice. “?‘Well, absolutely not, I have scheduled this and this and this.’?”

Flanagan thinks working women hanker for more traditional lives (hence the Martha Stewart craze) but slams them for claiming that if they make law partner, all boats will rise for women at home and poor women. I’ve never actually heard a feminist or a working woman say this, but it’s true that in the early days of second-wave feminism there was a strain of contempt for women who chose to stay home with their kids. To judge from Mommy Wars, a new essay collection edited by Leslie Morgan Steiner, the difficulties of achieving that elusive work-life balance have made more mothers, working or not, more sympathetic to each other’s choices. We all draw our lines in the sand, and I know, as my mother knew before me, that I’d be a bitter hag of a mother if I didn’t also have interesting work to do. I also believe it’s a perfectly legitimate choice to stay home with your kids. God bless the at-home moms — not “housewives,” Flanagan insists — who uncomplainingly put hours and hours of unpaid work into organizing activities, acting as room reps and raising money for my daughter’s school. In principle I don’t see much point in having kids if you’re not coming home until eight at night on a daily basis — yet I have seen parents make that work, just as I have seen children who get so much undivided attention they can hardly breathe by themselves. As Carolyn Hax, who pens the exceptionally smart syndicated advice column Tell Me About It and raises three boys under 2 years old with a mostly at-home husband, writes in Mommy Wars, “I am old enough now to have known enough people making enough bizarre arrangements work (and making textbook arrangements fail) to persuade me that anyone who thinks she can judge what’s best for other people’s kids is either arrogant, psychic or high.”?

TO HELL WITH ALL THAT: LOVING AND LOATHING OUR INNER HOUSEWIFE | By ?CAITLIN FLANAGAN | Little, Brown | 244 pages | $23 hardcover

  • Caitlin Flanagan fights the mommy wars

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