The happy hypocrite

I never cared that Caitlin Flanagan calls herself an at-home mother, even though she's a magazine writer with a staff of helpers. But now she's using her battle with cancer to denounce feminism and extol her traditional virtues -- and I've had it.

Published April 12, 2006 11:08AM (EDT)

Everyone knows Caitlin Flanagan isn't a stay-at-home mother, she's an accomplished writer who plays a stay-at-home mom in magazines and on TV. Right? Part of why I've never gotten upset about Flanagan's pro-hearth and home shtick is that I've seen it as just that, shtick. I'd read enough to know she had a full-time nanny when her twin sons were infants and she was trying to be a novelist; then she wrote about modern womanhood and family life for the Atlantic Monthly after they hit preschool; now, with her boys in grade school, she's got a great gig at the New Yorker. So how is she not a career woman who's also a mom?

I've been too busy to figure it out, since I am a career woman who's also a mom. I haven't always found time to read Flanagan's glossy essays, although I know I should, since she drives some feminist writers I admire to fits. Not me, I always said, with (dare I confess?) a semi-secret, Flanagan-like flash of self-satisfaction: I would never judge those women who are driven nuts by Flanagan, but maybe I'm just a little wiser, a little more secure in my choices, just a bit harder to rattle than they are, the poor dears.

Then I picked up Flanagan's new book, "To Hell With All That: Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife," and I lost my equanimity. It's mostly a lightly reworked compilation of her New Yorker and Atlantic Monthly essays from the last few years, but dressed up with a more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger introduction blaming feminism for causing women "heartache," and a truly below-the-belt conclusion, on how surviving breast cancer confirmed Flanagan's conviction that traditional marriage and motherhood is best. I put the book aside for almost two months because even though I'm tough, I'm not tough enough to kick someone with cancer, and Flanagan deserves a kick for the dishonest and divisive gloss these new essays give the book, and her whole career. But I guess I learned something new about myself in this process: Apparently I am tough enough to kick someone with cancer, but only after feeling bad about it for a while.

As the book's publicity machine gathered steam, it suddenly mattered very much to me what's true about Caitlin Flanagan, and what isn't true. Flanagan has come to feel like another publishing-industry hoax, not as fake as James Frey or J.T. Leroy/Laura Albert, but in some ways worse: a hoaxer who's using a great gift from the cosmos -- recovery from breast cancer -- to rail against feminism, evangelize for traditional gender roles, and to debase women who can't or won't make the same choices she did. So maybe we do have to get to the bottom of this one. Who is Caitlin Flanagan, and why is she writing this crazy stuff?

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I suppose it's inevitable that since feminism was at least partly launched by complaints that women were miserable trapped at home, cut off from careers, it would be vulnerable to an assault that depicts women as happier in the home, as wives and mothers, than in the workplace. A not-so-great consequence of Betty Friedan's "The Feminine Mystique" is that it led to the conclusion that stay-at-home motherhood was bad because it felt bad to a lot of women in Friedan's generation; by the same logic, we're now being told by writers like Flanagan that stay-at-home motherhood is good, because to some women (who believe they'd been denied it by feminism), it feels good. (Most mothers, let's remember, don't have the luxury of choosing to stay home full-time, but Flanagan and Friedan belong to the mouthy minority that does.) Flanagan has always been clear on where she stands in relation to angry, unhappy Betty, who, she reminds us, usually had housekeepers doing the domestic duties she railed against. The only thing worse than a hypocrite is an unhappy hypocrite, Flanagan seems to say.

Flanagan, by contrast, bills herself as a happy hypocrite. She readily confesses that although she's an at-home mother (more on her hair-splitting definition of same later), the "home" part of the equation doesn't get much attention; she's not much for cooking or housekeeping or bleaching or mending, or any wifely duties, really, except (we're supposed to infer from a chapter about how feminists won't give their husbands sex) sex. She's had a full-time nanny, housecleaning help, a "household organizer," and now that the kids are in school, no nanny, but a baby sitter. And while she loves to read old texts like "The Settlement Cook Book," with its recipes and its polite solutions for every domestic problem, some of which involve one part bleach, she's honest about having no practical relationship to the book, beyond that of a reader; in fact, she compares herself reading the cookbook at home to a man reading Playboy in a hotel. "I have never made a solution composed of one part bleach and nine parts warm water  I have been married a total of sixteen years to a total of two men, and never once have I been asked to iron a single item of either man's clothing or to replace even one popped button."

Flanagan can occasionally seem more wry than judgmental. You might coast for pages on her breezy descriptions of the differences -- and similarities -- between the neuroses of at-home and career mothers. You might even find yourself nodding in agreement -- it really is awful that work takes up so much of our lives, that in too many couples and families no one has time to make dinner, to plan seductions, to make a house a home. She sometimes seems like an amusing bystander watching the crazy millennial "mommy wars," occasionally jumping in on both sides of the debate. At one school fundraiser, she confessed in an essay, she hung out with two career-mom friends and the three poked fun at a stay-at-home mom's pathetic zeal for school projects. "Get a life," one of them said, then they all snickered, and turned their backs on pathetic mom and talked about work. But another time, Flanagan admits she joined the mean-mom brigade, tsk-tsking over one little girl whose career mother never shows up at school.

But just when you're trying to accept Flanagan's two-faced approach as a kind of honesty, as evidence of the confusion we all feel as mothers who work, she'll sucker-punch you. In a great Elle profile this month, Laurie Abraham likened a feminist reading a Flanagan essay to taking a nice walk to enjoy the colorful fall leaves during hunting season ... it's so beautiful and then, ka-boom. You're Harry Whittington and she's Dick Cheney, and your face is full of buckshot! You'll be reading and smiling and thinking about how it's so complicated for women today, but we're also lucky, we have so many choices ... and then pow! Abraham points to this passage in Flanagan's famous 2004 Atlantic essay "How Serfdom Saved the Women's Movement:" "What few will admit -- because it is painful, because it reveals the unpleasant truth that life presents a series of choices, each of which precludes a host of other attractive possibilities -- is that when a mother works, something is lost." (The line was dramatically toned down for "To Hell With All That," but don't worry, much nastier lines replace it.)

The essay's main point is to guilt-trip women about taking advantage of their (mostly third-world) nannies, and scare them about being replaced in their children's hearts by their nannies, since their nannies are around more than their moms. My favorite example of Flanagan's method comes in the essay "To Hell With All That," where she sides with both the career moms and the stay-at-homes in the mommy wars. In the end, though, she picks a side. After calling the question of whether women should stay home with their kids "an endless, fruitless debate," she mulls whether there's a perceptible difference between the kids of stay-at-home and working moms (which she confesses she expected to see in preschool). "What a bust. There was no difference at all that I could divine. If anything, the kids of the working mothers seemed a little bit more on the ball." Ah, that's a nice admission, thank you! Maybe we are all in this together. Maybe we're all a little too hard on ourselves, and each other. Let's have coffee!

But Flanagan was just soothing and distracting me, like a pheasant she'd later throw toward Dick Cheney:

"In the end, what did my boys gain from those thousand days they spent with me before school took them out into the larger world? Nothing, it seems to me, of any quantifiable value ... All they gained, really, was the sweetness of being with the person who loved them most in the world. All they gained was an immersion in the most powerful force on earth: mother love."

Oh, that's all. Suddenly the career mom curled up with the book is sitting upright on the sofa, and Flanagan's saying: "Well, I enjoyed spending time with you, your daughter is adorable (if a little wild!), but, well, we're really not all in this together. Because, remember, I stay home, and you don't. Oh, and your daughter? She loves her nanny more than you! Buh-bye!" Then she and her twin sons, Conor and Patrick, just drenched in full-time mother love, are out your door, tripping over the toys on your stairs and you just know you'll never see her again and you're not sure what just happened but you feel ... bad.

Those kidney punches make Flanagan seem a bit sociopathic, but some of her magazine essays, at least, contain comparatively few razor blades in the apples. The portions of the book that are new, including the introduction and the final essay about cancer, however, are studded with them. Her self-congratulatory introduction casts "To Hell With All That" as the product of years spent covering the home-front beat, where she witnessed what happens to men, women and families When Feminists Get Their Way! And clearly, what happens isn't pretty: You have neglected children, men who aren't getting any -- no nurturing, no home-cooked meals and no sex -- and women ... well, the women might be the most miserable of all. Boy, are they confused!

Feminism's rejection of traditional roles for women, Flanagan tells us, has resulted in "a drag queen ethos" of femininity, in which presumably masculinized women demand supersize trappings of womanhood without, in Flanagan's words, "the obligations and restraints that gave those privileges meaning." She sees it all around her: women rejecting traditional, patriarchal marriages but demanding expensive traditional white weddings; disdaining home and hearth but dropping a bundle purchasing the Martha Stewart facade; wanting demanding careers and children too, but not wanting to hear about the consequences to their kids when mom goes to work; demanding ultimate sexual freedom as well as "the right to free themselves from sexual obligation of any kind" and rejecting the notion of sex as a "wifely duty."

Although Flanagan declares that the book is not meant as "a call to action" or "a prescription for a happy life," it reads like both. It comes complete with a "code of feminism," which is worth looking at in all of its crackpot detail for the way it caricatures feminists. The code according to Flanagan holds:

"Girls do not have a natural interest in homemaking.

"A young woman should not spend any of her energies finding a suitable husband and preparing for her life as a wife and mother.

"A woman doesn't need a man, and a child doesn't need a father.

"Caring for the emotional and physical needs of a husband constitutes subservience.

"Paid professional work outside the home is the most valuable way for a woman to assert her intelligence and native gifts onto the world.

" There is no connection between the number of hours a woman spends with her child and the nature of her relationship with the child."

It takes an enormous capacity for intellectual dishonesty to lay out such straw-women exaggerations and pretend that "feminists" unanimously believe any of them, let alone all of them. But Flanagan takes the code seriously: "For many women, this code has brought heartache."

It has also brought them lives in which they are in no condition to battle breast cancer, as she did. "To Hell With All That" ends with a creepy conclusion, in which she describes her diagnosis, her treatment and her recovery. Midway through the chapter, a gripping story nicely rendered becomes a scary Soviet propaganda pamphlet. Almost dying taught Flanagan not tolerance, not mystery, but absolutism. Her writing devolves into ranting:

"The only thing you can protect your children from is the bad behavior of their parents.

"The only thing I can promise my boys is that in this house the parents won't yell at each other or treat each other poorly. They won't become drunks or run off with lovers. In this house the parents will act like adults. They will take the children to church; they will set an example; they will be present in every moment of their lives. Only death can part us from them."

Suddenly we're reading a manifesto. You can imagine Flanagan reciting this credo to ward off her fear of dying and leaving her kids motherless, and for a time your heart goes out to her. But it's got none of the loveliness or sense of wonder of a prayer. Then it gets even worse. A short paragraph explaining that her husband took care of the boys and carried her to the doctor when she was sick is interrupted with what feels like a non sequitur. "If that's a traditional marriage, I'll take it." She explains her reasoning thusly:

"If a marriage is like a bank account, filled not only with affection but also with a commitment to the other person's well-being as much as to one's own, I suppose my balance was high. 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." And she ends the book this way: "Here's what I know: When I woke up from the final surgery, I didn't want to see the articles I've written or the editors I've worked for. I wanted to see my sons and my husband. And I wanted to go home."

Here's what I know: This is one confused book, and one confused author (and admittedly, one confused reviewer as well). What are we to make of it? From the flippant "inner housewife" subtitle to the faux-'50s cover art, "To Hell With All That" bills itself as a continuation of the witty, breezy, entertainingly contrarian writing she pioneered in the Atlantic and the New Yorker, but the book is a strident attack on feminism and a paean to traditional marriage. What's going on here?

My inner superstitious Irish Catholic girl winces at the hubris of Flanagan's crediting her care for her family with her husband's willingness to nurse her through cancer. I immediately thought of Jackie Gingrich, Newt's first wife, who was served with divorce papers by her cheating husband while in the hospital after cancer surgery. Did Jackie Gingrich fail to deposit enough in their marital bank account? Of course not. All over the world, there are feminists with cancer being cared for by loving husbands, girlfriends, siblings, children; sadly, there are also traditional wives who've been abandoned by their husbands at the first sign of illness; there are good men being treated badly by bad women, and bad women being treated well by good men. In short, there's every kind of blessing in the world alongside every kind of heartbreak, and all I know for sure is that to credit your own behavior for what is essentially good luck and someone else's kindness is asking for what's called karma, and not the good kind.

And yet while Flanagan has blamed feminism for causing women "heartache," it's worth saying that there's an awful lot of heartache in her writing -- and most of it, given her self-proclaimed happiness with her traditional role, is her own. Almost every piece in the book makes reference to her depression. Being home with her two babies was "mildly depressing," she admits in the opening of her "Serfdom" essay in the Atlantic. In her "Executive Child" chapter she refers to the "low-level depression" she suffered the first year of motherhood. In "That's My Woman," the chapter on her tortured relationship with her nanny, Paloma, she describes "an emotional weariness that I would recognize as depression years later" along with an unrelenting "loneliness and exhaustion." Things do get better as the boys get older -- she gets them into toddler classes, and then they learn how to talk. "By the time they turned two, my mood lifted considerably," she confesses. The first time she sneezes, and one of them says, "Bless you," she tells us, "I realized that what my shrink had been telling me every week was in fact true: the babies would get older, things would get easier."

It's worth breaking those references down into even a little bit more detail. Yes, the at-home mother had a full-time nanny for her twins. Still, she insists she didn't really do much work in that time, she wouldn't let herself, she was too busy sulking about how her sons were going to love Paloma more than they loved her. Luckily, she begins to come out of her depression around the time the boys could talk -- kids do get a lot more amusing at that age -- and eases Paloma out the door, just in time for Conor and Patrick to spend half their days in preschool, and her magazine career takes off. It's hard not to conclude that when a mother has a nanny but still (supposedly) doesn't work, something is also lost, but I'm not sure what it is. The mother's sanity? Maybe. The right to brag about being a full-time stay-at-home mother, who bathed her children in full-time mother love? Definitely.

Writers before me have made the pretty inescapable observation that Flanagan seems to have been driven around the bend by the defection of one at-home mother in particular: her own. The book's loveliest prose is about the late Jean Flanagan (she died in 2000), who knew the value of a julienned green bean, a freshly made bed, a cool hand on a feverish forehead; a mother's love. Jean Flanagan would never leave her daughter for the world of work like those ugly women's libbers.

Except, well, she did. Flanagan's best New Yorker essay detailed the grief she felt being "dumped by mom" after her mother got an office job when Flanagan was in seventh grade. She works hard not to see her lovely mother -- and she seems lovely, that wasn't an ironic "lovely" -- as some sour Betty Friedan-like figure, trapped by homemaking and then liberated by a job. And yet all the reasons she gives for her "defection" echo "the problem that has no name," complete with her mother's "glooms and sulks" miraculously disappearing once she got back out into the world. In another essay she goes into even darker detail about the chaos left behind in other Berkeley, Calif., homes when mothers fled for the workplace -- filthy houses, meals unmade, daughters with uncombed hair. In Flanagan's Berkeley of the 1970s, apparently, you couldn't escape all the women escaping -- even the therapist Flanagan saw at 15 interrupted a session with a rant about housework. (Flanagan doesn't say why she was seeing a therapist at 15, but you're left believing it has something to do with the "terrors" she admits to feeling when her mother left her home alone.) "When a mother works, something is lost" indeed.

I don't mean to minimize the abandonment the young Flanagan may have felt at being a latchkey child. And she's entitled to grow up and decide nothing will take her away from her sons. But she's not really entitled to put on a show for the rest of us, insisting on her saintly at-home mother status when she's in fact got the resources to combine motherhood with an "at-home" career. She tied Laurie Abraham in knots on the question of why she won't call herself a working mom in Elle:

"'Aren't you a working mother?' I ask.

"'All mothers are working mothers,' Flanagan replies.

"'Working mother outside the home, I mean.'

"'No, I'm never outside the home when I work,' she replies. (Geez, I fell right into that one.)

"'But you do have an office in the house? You're not typing in the kitchen, right?'

"'When the boys were really little I did. I sat at the kitchen table. I sat right there and worked.' And so on.

"I ask her whether she still has regular child care. 'I don't want to get into the specifics of that,' she says, 'because it's so personal, but I would say there's a lot more cleaning help at this point. I have help with the kids sometimes, babysitting.'"

Is Flanagan trying to fool her publishers, her readers, or is she fooling herself with this at-home mother shtick? It's really hard to tell. Lots of feminist writers have rebuked big-name editors for giving the anti-feminist Flanagan such great perches -- the New Yorker, the Atlantic, and now a hyped book. I don't usually bother second-guessing other editors. But it's hard not to agree with Daphne Merkin, who told Abraham she thinks Flanagan is the brainy-mag "it girl" of the moment (and, yes, apparently there can only be one) because she's a "throwback to a less threatening, more reassuring kind of woman writer," one who has infinite sympathy for the troubles -- "call it the 'ache,'" Merkin told Abraham slyly -- of being a man.

But rather than inspiring criticism of male editors for advancing Flanagan's career, "To Hell With All That" invites a different kind of editor rebuke: Some editor, somewhere, should have protected the mixed-up essayist from many things in this book, but particularly for congratulating herself on being the type of woman whose husband treats her well while she has cancer. Bad things do happen to good people, as well as to bad people, to feminists and anti-feminists, to women who forgo careers for their families as well as women who just pretend to. Flanagan's book is a sad and scary fable about fear of abandonment, and its supposed happy ending really isn't one.

By Joan Walsh

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