(WOMENSENEWS)–Pity the working mother. If her kids or her boss aren’t ticking off her faults, some smart, ax-grinding commentator is.
This month’s ritual flogging is even well-written and witty. It’s an Atlantic Monthly cover piece by Caitlin Flanagan. The latest scourge and conscience of U.S. feminism, Flanagan is a teacher turned stay-at-home mother turned essayist who delights in deflating whatshe sees as the self-serving myths of thewomen’s movement.
My husband is always pleased to see her essays on the bedside table. He fondly recalls her advice in a review of “The Bitch in the House: 26 Women tell the truth about sex, solitude, work, motherhood and marriage,” edited by Cathi Hanauer, and “I Don’t Know How She Does It,” by Allison Pearson that women stop bragging about how little they want to have sex with their husbands.
“These women assume that in the very act of confession they are wearing the mantle of freedom,” Flanagan wrote last year in the Atlantic Monthly. “What they don’t understand, and what women of an earlier era might have been able to tell them, is that when the little faucet turns off, it is time not to rat out your husband . . . but rather to turn it back on.”
Flanagan gets a second round of applause in my house for scolding wives who scold their husbands to pick up the dirty clothes and wet towels that get left behind when it’s dad’s turn to give the kids a bath. More sex, less grief–take that, Inner Shrew.
But if Flanagan offers a good-humored dig in the ribs on the home front, her piece in this month’s Atlantic delivers an angry sucker punch to women at work, or at least the thin upper-crust strata of working mothers she calls the “professional class.”
Working Women’s Separate Struggles
In the article, Flanagan skewers these women for deluding themselves that they’re struggling against the same forces arrayed against poor and working-class mothers who work to survive rather than to deploy their advanced degrees.
Instead of obsessing about the calibration of their own work-life balance, professional-class women should devote themselves “to the real and heartrending struggle of poor women and children.”
The “sorry story” of the women’s movement, in Flanagan’s view, is about “how so many middle-class American women went from not wanting to oppress other women to viewing that oppression as a central part of their own liberation.”
She is getting at the oppression of nannies and housekeepers. In the wake of the civil rights movement, the prospect of career women hiring less-educated women on the home front smacked of servitude and even slavery. But when an ample supply of poor immigrant women arrived on our shores, some affluent new mothers brushed off their misgivings.
Naomi Wolf “wanted a revolution; what she got was a Venezuelan,” Flanagan says, and what she lost was her moral bearings. (Wolf’s husband, David Shipley, now editor of the New York Times Op-Ed page, on the other hand, has nothing to worry to about. In Flanagan’s world, men work 70 hours a week and hover ineffectually at the edges of childrearing. So any sticky moral complexities are strictly between mother and nanny.)
Focusing on Wal-Mart Cashier
Professional-class feminists think they’re fighting the good fight when they express indignation about missing dinner with their kids for an evening meeting. Flanagan thinks they’re just being self-absorbed. For her, the battle that matters is the one on behalf of the cashier at Wal-Mart, who has to scrape by without universal health care, day care, or the husband that feminists have been foolhardy enough to tell her she doesn’t need.
Flanagan also gets personal, with a sharp rap of the knuckles to Ann Crittenden, author of “The Price of Motherhood.”
Crittenden’s book focused on the role Social Security plays in devaluing stay-at-home mothers by giving them no credit for their labor. Yet she also expressed sympathy for Zoe Baird, the corporate lawyer who lost her chance to be Bill Clinton’s attorney general because she failed to pay Social Security taxes on the wages of an immigrant couple who worked in her home for $6 an hour.
Flanagan thinks Crittenden should have been outraged at Baird on behalf of the immigrants. “Wait a minute, Ann,” Flanagan needles. “Haven’t you just spent an entire book telling us how important Social Security set-asides are?”
Score one for the scourge. But are the Zoe Bairds of the world, with their two-servant households, really more than a blip on the American social screen?
Many Professionals Can’t Wait to Sign Up for Day Care
Women like this must exist, or they wouldn’t be the target of such ferocity. But they’re not much like the mothers in the professional class that I know.
Flanagan’s world is awfully rarified–in the course of their marriage, neither she nor her husband has ever changed the sheets. Ever. “Get a bunch of professional-class mothers together, and they will freely admit that day care sucks; get a nanny,” she tells us.
But the parents in my world don’t think day care sucks, advanced degrees notwithstanding. Far from it. We can’t wait to sign up. Day care is professional and bounded; the staff isn’t available to stay late or pick up the milk on the way home. For parents who want to work, but not all the time, it sets a framework. Day care also teaches children that they can’t always have what they want right away, that sometimes they have to wait their turn. Some of us think that’s good for the soul.
My point isn’t that it’s nobler to choose day care than to hire a nanny, but rather that many professional-class women are more down-to-earth and make more nuanced choices than Flanagan allows. If she’s serious about her goal of renewed activism, she’d be better off moving from caricature to reality. Flanagan argues that professional-class women should fight for universal subsidized day care even though they won’t use it. But isn’t it more likely that as upper-middle-class families experience the benefits of high-quality day care, they’ll intuit the need for more good centers? In overstating the divisions among women, Flanagan succeeds only in putting her worthy goal out of reach.
Emily Bazelon is a senior editor at Legal Affairs magazine in New Haven, Conn.
For more information:
The Mothers Movement Online–
“The least worst choice: Why mothers ‘opt’ out of the workforce”:
The Atlantic Monthly–INTERVIEWS
“The Mother’s Dilemma:
Caitlin Flanagan on parenting, home life, and the morally troubling nature
of the mother-nanny relationship”: