Neal Conan's last segment involved a call-in conversation with E.J. Graff, whose Op-Ed entitled The Mommy Wars Machine appeared in yesterday's Washington Post. She very clearly calls the media and publishing industry on their role in generating the Mommy Wars hype. Definitely go read Graff's article, but it's also worth your time to listen to the audio segment available for download at NPR. It's about time someone represents this perspective in a major forum!
On a related note, links to two articles from the NYT:
- April 25, 2007 - Mommy Books: More Buzz than Buyers; encouraging when you consider books like Hirshman's and Bennetts's. If you haven't heard of them, continue to the next one...
- April 26, 2007 - The Life a Mother `Should' Have, from Judith Warner's Blog -
April 26, 2007, 10:27 pm - The Life a Mother `Should' Have by Judith Warner Tags: Motherhood, work
Yesterday, I was all set to sit down and write about Leslie Bennetts's highly controversial new book, "The Feminine Mistake," which argues that women are making terribly self-destructive decisions when they choose to leave work and stay home with their children. But there were school conferences in the morning, which I attended with my fourth grader, Julia. Most were back to back, but at one point – between math and science, I think – we had a break, which we spent at a narrow table in a second-floor hallway, she doing homework, I staring off into space.
It was, after all, during work time. I was trying to Have an Idea. I had lots of thoughts, lots of things to say about Bennetts's book. On the surface, I felt, there was really no way to argue against its central premise: that women who leave their jobs to stay home with their children put themselves in a state of dependency upon their husbands which brings with it serious risks of financial and emotional peril.
(Actually, that's me saying "risk of" peril; for Bennetts, stay-at-home motherhood is inherently perilous. She calls it a "trap," says it's "choosing economic dependency as a lifestyle" and agrees with Simone de Beauvoir's depiction of women who live off of their men as "parasites" – which explains why legions of moms out in the blogosphere are campaigning to stop women from buying Bennetts's book.)
But on some deeper, emotional level, I felt Bennetts was somehow off base. She, like Linda Hirshman, who's been screaming about stay-at-home motherhood for about a year now, was dealing too much in absolutes – in "shoulds" and "oughts" and "don'ts." Life, I find, tends to play itself out most often in shades of gray.
I got to thinking, first of all, about Bennetts's demographic. Were the wealthy yet miserable women she met truly being destroyed by stay-at-home motherhood, or were they victims of the particular pathologies of their milieu? After all, their seven-figure-earning hubbies – master-of-the-universe types who screamed at their wives for buying $250 boots they could well afford, gave millions of dollars to charity just to keep it from being communal property or up and left with younger women – may have been at one point "good catches," but they were not the choicest specimens humanity has to offer.
Neither, for that matter, were some of the wives. "We had this deal; you were going to be very successful, and I was going to take care of the children, and everything was going to be fabulous," a Manhattan private school mom recalls having screamed at her former "financial whiz kid" husband after he lost his job and went through all their money. "But this is not what I bought in for. What good are you now to me?"
I wondered if extremes of nasty behavior correlated with wealth. I wondered if, when there's less power and less money in play, less hubris, self-importance and sense of entitlement, the excesses may be more tempered, if only for lack of opportunity. Or maybe because of something more. Sociologists have told me that marriages are more egalitarian among teachers than among people like stock traders and their socialite wives. From Bennetts's book, that certainly seems true.
Other thoughts were swirling round as well. I was thinking about the fact that for most people, work pretty much stinks. Given that, it seems to me that if a woman has the choice between a job she neither likes nor needs and playing tennis and taking – I don't know – flower-arranging class, it's not so incomprehensible that she would choose the latter, particularly if her family is so well-off that, should her husband die or divorce her, she'd still have way, way more money than you (perhaps) or me.
I thought too: there is more than one way to provide for one's family. Sometimes, for a host of reasons, ranging from a spouse's excessive or erratic work schedule to a child's special needs, the best way to provide for one's family is by upping one's own presence at home. Sometimes it just works out that one parent needs to be at home in order to keep the machinery of life from spinning apart.
It shouldn't have to be this way. But then, there are lots of things that should or shouldn't be. No person with children should really be working much more than 40 hours a week. That should be more globally possible – and affordable. The school year should be slightly longer. Top-flight afterschool programs should exist everywhere. The list goes on and on – the practical, rather than the moral "shoulds" which, if they came into being, would do away with a whole lot of the obnoxiously shouted "shoulds" on what women ought or ought not to be doing.
If women were able to do what most of them consistently say they would like to do – work part-time – then a lot of the polarity would go out of the debate. On- and off-ramping from careers would get easier. The great gaps in conversation, energy level, power and status
between working husbands and stay-at-home wives would lessen. (What would keep men and women from trading off years of full-time or part-time work, if they so desired?) The problem is, part-time work generally isn't "worth it." It's poorly paid and hard to find, comes without benefits or any chance for promotion. It is – like far too many of the pleasures and comforts of family life in our time – a privilege enjoyed by the lucky few.
I could have said all this and much, much more if Julia had not asked what I was thinking about. Julia, who has always taken great pride in my career, who brags about me, asks about my work, brings my articles in to share with the class, was interrupting me now to say, "Of course some mothers stay home. They want to take care of their kids."
"Mothers who work take care of their kids," I said.
There was a silence.
"Don't I take care of you and Emilie?"
"Yeah," she said.
"Do you feel like I'm not taking care of you?"
Lately, for the first time, Julia has taken to saying that she doesn't see enough of me. That I work too much. That things were better before.
"You take care of me," she said. "But you don't have fun with me much. Anymore."
I know what she means by "anymore." At least I think I do.
There was a time, a couple of years ago, when I made almost no money at all. My kids weren't yet in regular school, I couldn't afford much child care, and I wrote articles at night after they'd gone to sleep. I woke up at 3 a.m. terrified about the future. Then I got a book contract. It gave me the equivalent of a modest salary. I lived in the library and I loved it, and when the book was done, I swore I'd never go back to living from article to article again. Opportunities came after that, and I grabbed at every one – like a dog eating everything in its path, out of instinct.
"Truth is," I said to Julia, "I've sometimes worked longer hours than this."
"When I was writing the book, we had more child care."
I now, for the first time, make as much money as my husband does. This year, at least. Minus benefits and a retirement plan, of course, but who's counting?
"Maybe you should get more child care."
"I don't want to."
"Then maybe you should work less."
Maybe I should think less about work. Maybe I should have more fun.
"You have career plans," I said. "What are you going to do when you have children?"
"Well," she said, thoughtfully. "I'll be on the ocean a lot." She paused again. She is planning to be a marine biologist. "I'll just have to bring them with me," she said.
That didn't sound very realistic. But what is realistic?
I pictured Julia, her "good catch" husband back at home – a professor, perhaps, or a writer (god forbid), a man available to do pickup and dinner and bath and bedtime – while out on the waves she pined for her children.
Pine for them, I thought. It's part of the "anxiety of liberty," as, thanks to Bennetts, I now recall de Beauvoir once said.
It's part of the good life. The truly good life, when you know the home fire's kept burning, even if you have to go out to sea.