Stay at home Mom!SAMANTHA GRICE
As a respected staff writer for The New Yorker, Caitlin Flanagan doesn’t seem like the type of person who would make feminist blood boil, but that’s exactly what her new book is doing.
Flanagan, a wife, mother of eight-year-old twin boys and staff writer at The New Yorker, did this by stating one bitter pill of truth: “When a mother works, something is lost.” It is her opinion that the gold standard for raising children is at home with a mother who loves them, and the feminists hate her for it.
“I said the truth, and you always get in trouble when you say the truth,” explained Flanagan, in Toronto last week to talk about her book To Hell with All That: Fearing and Loathing Our Inner Housewife.
“I said one true thing about a little piece of American life and that is: If you love your work and you love your child and you decide to give your child less of you to go to work, you missed something big and important and so did your child.”
Of course, what really lights a fire under Flanagan’s critics is that the writer is enjoying a successful career and wittily repeating her thoughts on a range of womanly topics such as weddings (she’s had two), mothering, nannies (she had one), sex and, as the title suggests, ironing (women have an emotional connection to it) while on a book tour — thousands of miles away from her sons. This is not lost on the fiery Flanagan.
“People say to me, ‘Caitlin Flanagan, your book is full of contradictions.’ Well, A+, that’s right. It’s a book about contradictions. It’s a book about the fact that right now I’m here living my career and I have two little boys thousands of miles away, and this is kind of a great moment in my career and a horrible moment in my life as a mother. If I was sitting here with a feminist, she would say, ‘Your kids will love this because you are so happy now! And one day they’ll know their mom was someone important in the world!’
“My kids don’t give a shit,” she says baldly. “They are eight years old. They want their mom around and I don’t blame them and that’s why I’ve had 27 interviews in one day — because I made the book tour short and my publisher angry because I said I’m going to give up some of my career.”
It was always Flanagan’s plan to quit her teaching job when she became pregnant. Born in 1961 —the last generation of American women born before second-wave feminism — she was raised in a family in which her father, a writer and English professor, had a busy life outside the home, and her mother calmly prepared rump roasts, mended clothes, shopped for groceries and picked up dry cleaning. Flanagan adored having her mother around, a fact that became all the more clear when she wasn’t.
And while, if given access to a time machine, she is not inclined to give back the freedoms gained for women and transport her family to the 1950s, she does admit the Cleavers had something pretty swell going on. “That idea of when you return home every day mom is there and she is happy to see you and dad comes home and everyone sits down to the table and everything is orderly. We are really attracted to that, and why wouldn’t we be?”
But one morning, when Flanagan was 12, her mother, shortly after sending her husband and daughters out the door to work and school, stomachs full with a cooked breakfast and packed lunches in hand, was about to begin scrubbing the cheerful blue and white wallpaper when she said to hell with all that, and went to find the want ads. This was 1973.
Her mother was driven to leave the home with a desire to utilize her nursing education but, ultimately, the dirty wallpaper might have had something to do with it. Flanagan says women have an emotional, and of course, contradictory relationship to housework, even though they might shun it.
“I don’t like doing the whole shebang,” she says. “And Martha Stewart became this goddess-like figure because a lot of women liberated themselves from housework, but are still emotionally attached to it, so much so they’ll watch a show of Martha Stewart ironing. I’ll watch it.”
As for how to deal with a less than fastidious husband — and they are all less than fastidious compared to their wives — Flanagan has few solutions.
“Everyone wants solutions, but the point of this book is the eternal conflict without solution. The only solution is to embrace the conflict and to say, ‘I’m a woman and I really care about these things and the reason I’m so angry at him is traditional homemaking might be something that I want to do.’ And if that’s true, they should unleash their inner housewife.”
But it might just be the first essay in Flanagan’s book, while certainly a less volatile subject than motherhood, or loading the dishwasher, that highlights a far more curious contradiction of women today — their weddings.
“These liberated, economically powerful women suddenly want to act like virgin brides. There is a part of women who are really attracted to traditional womanhood and yet because they haven’t done the things you have to do to be a traditional woman, i.e. be a virgin when you get married, they’ve taken on this drag queen ethos,” explains Flanagan, who admits for her first wedding (she’s stopping at two) she went the whole nine yards.
“It’s a performance. They are not going to live the life of that young girl in a white dress being transferred from her father to her husband, but they put on a performance. It’s not an ironic performance, it’s not a post-modern, knowing performance, but it’s a very drag queeny one for me.”
On this one, the feminists might just agree.
To Hell with All That: Fearing and Loathing Our Inner Housewife is published by Random House.
Samantha Grice, "Stay at home Mom!" National Post, (Canada) April 26, 2006.
Reprinted with permission of the National Post.
Samantha Grice is a staff writer with the National Post.
© 2006 National Post
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