"The Feminine Mistake"

In her new book, boomer Leslie Bennetts warns younger women of the perils of dumping fulfilling careers. I agree, but why are women always told they're doing something wrong?

Published April 3, 2007 11:31AM (EDT)

If female fear and self-doubt were ever eradicated, the publishing industry would collapse. Another day, another book or magazine article about how women can have better orgasms, more money, smarter kids; mix job and family, spirituality and ambition; be a feminist and a stripper. But no matter the issue, the premise is pretty much the same: We're doing something wrong.

Leslie Bennetts' "The Feminine Mistake: Are We Giving Up Too Much?" is a great rejoinder to Caitlin Flanagan's "To Hell With All That: Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife," last year's contribution to the literature of how women are screwing up. Bennetts' book captures so much so well -- the perils of dumping your career to stay home with your kids; the joy of having work you love and excel at -- that it took me a few days to figure out what bothered me. The problem is the so-called mistake at the heart of the book. It made me think about Flanagan's false alarms about what's "lost" when a mother works, and the scary must-read for women from five Aprils ago (is this a Mother's Day thing?), Sylvia Ann Hewlett's "The Baby Panic." Women are constantly being warned about the way we keep bollixing this whole love, work and family thing. But are we? And who's we?

It's true that the women Bennetts, Flanagan and Hewlett are writing about are a tiny, affluent minority, but that's not exactly what irks me. Still, let me say upfront: Any piece about women grappling with the choice to abandon careers for children has to make clear how rare it is to have that option. Nobody's done that better lately than E.J. Graff in the Columbia Journalism Review, writing about the spate of books and articles that began with Lisa Belkin's solipsistic 2003 "Opt-Out Revolution" in the New York Times magazine, and continued through the fantasies of Caitlin Flanagan and her mortal enemy Linda Hirshman (whose "Get to Work" captured the gist of Bennetts' argument with roughly one-third the words and twice the indignation). Such books and articles, Graff notes, "focus excessively on a tiny proportion of American women -- white, highly educated, in well-paying professional/managerial jobs. Just 8 percent of American working women fit this demographic," she says, while "only 4 percent of women in their mid- to late 30s with children have advanced degrees and are in a privileged income bracket" like the women Belkin and other "opt-out" chroniclers are writing about.

Graff calls it "my friends and me journalism," writing that inflates the issues of a tiny percentage of mostly white, straight, privileged women and pretends they're global. Bennetts' book may be the ultimate example of the "my friends and me" approach, and yet I agree with her, and with Hirshman, about why these privileged women's choices matter to all of us: because they're disproportionately visible to the privileged men who run the world -- they are their wives and daughters and, if things continue, their mothers. And as long as affluent women opt out or get pushed out of top jobs and decision-making positions in order to raise children, men with stay-at-home wives and daughters and mothers will continue to make rules that make it hard for less privileged women -- and men -- to balance work and family. So these advantaged women and their decisions do matter.

In her lively book, Bennetts employs her own variation of "my friends and me" journalism: It's "my friends and me" vs. "the women who drive my friends and me frickin' nuts." In one corner, we meet the author and a roster of named and unnamed alpha females, who have great husbands and houses and kids, and fabulous careers, too. In the other corner are women who could be their evil twins, bright, privileged wives who threw it all over to raise their children and enjoy their suburban Colonial houses -- and all too often, lord it over the rest of us. Bennetts brilliantly captures the conspicuous consumption behind at least some of the so-called "opt-out revolution": Where a plump, well-fed wife used to be enough to prove a man's earning power, now it's having a stay-at-home spouse, Pilatesized and pedicured to perfection, who flaunts her unused Ivy League professional degree like a big flashy diamond. And for certain soulless, status-seeking women (yes, they get under my skin, too) it seems that in a world of abundance and excess, the best way to prove your worth is to squander it, to forgo making a difference in the wider world while pretending that raising children is a lifelong endeavor (it isn't) that makes you better than other women (it doesn't).

"The Feminine Mistake" does several other things well. First and foremost, it reminds women that marriage usually isn't a lifelong paycheck. Roughly half of all marriages end in divorce (Bennetts visits the controversy over that statistic but never comes up with a more reliable one, and neither can I), but even if you're one of the lucky ones whose marriage lasts, you're almost certain to outlive your husband. The book is peppered with stories of women whose husbands got sick, developed alcohol or drug problems, lost their jobs or died young. Bennetts doesn't come up with a percentage of women who avoid divorce and the death, disability or unemployment of a spouse, but it's got to be a lucky few. Against that backdrop, she's got good numbers on what giving up work for stay-at-home motherhood costs women: They lose 37 percent of their earning power when they spend three or more years out of the workplace. Elderly women are twice as likely as elderly men to live in poverty.

Bennetts depicts the blithe self-confidence of privileged women who don't believe these troubles can befall them. Over and over the women she interviews tell her they simply haven't given a thought to the chances their husbands might die young or leave them. "I don't feel like I'm approaching these choices expecting the worst," says one. "I don't look at my life in a defensive way." She explores the fear at the bottom of why many women simply give up pursuing a fulfilling work life. Life and work are hard; some women don't want to be corporate cogs, and that's admirable; some can't find careers that let them balance work and family, and that's lamentable; and some just don't want to do the hard work of finding a career they love and getting good at it, and they use kids as an excuse, which is deplorable. For such women it's easier (in the short run; back to those actuarial tables) to pretend you never wanted to succeed in the first place, and to let your husband do the hard work of building a rewarding career. Bennetts' last chapter borrows Simone de Beauvoir's great phrase "the anxiety of liberty" as its title, and exhorts women to live through that anxiety to embrace a full and complex life of work and family.

Finally, the book does something crucial: It reminds women that the absorbing, exhausting, exhilarating years of tending to small children actually make up a relatively small portion of your adult life. Whether provoked by baby lust or sleep deprivation or an inability to get husbands to share childcare, women often abandon their careers in the early years, not knowing that things are going to get much easier. Bennetts offers women "the fifteen year paradigm" for the time it might take to juggle work and family and successfully launch two or three children into the years (we can fight over which they are) they need their mother less. Maybe most important, Bennetts is a champion for finding work you love. You rarely read ambitious, successful women talking about how much they love their work, and love being good at it. Bennetts frequently quotes Anna Fels, whose "Necessary Dreams: Ambition in Women's Changing Lives" explored how admitting that you want success, even greatness, is one of the last taboos for women.

"The Feminine Mistake" fell short, however, in its over-reliance on repetitive anecdotes about the many, many, many ways husbands fail their wives. It reminded me, oddly, of Hewlett's "The Baby Panic," where on almost every page we met accomplished women with fabulous careers who nonetheless pine for the children they didn't have. In Bennetts' book we're constantly encountering accomplished women without careers who pine for the security they lost when their husbands dropped dead or became alcoholics or lost their jobs, or most frequently, ditched them. I got the point about a quarter of the way through, and started skimming when I met yet another desperate former housewife.

Plus, all books like these tend to come with a side order of smug. Caitlin Flanagan's was supersized; Bennetts' is more modest but still unmistakable. Maybe it's a necessary corrective to the opt-out myth, to set out these stories of superwomen married to terrific men and balancing work and family, never effortlessly but with little evident doubt or pain or sacrifice. But I found it just more myth-making. Bennetts is trying to rehabilitate "have it all" feminism, which I think was retired with good reason years ago. It's very, very tricky to have it all -- great careers, great kids, great marriages. It's possible to have all three, but rarely all three at once. I'd rather not establish a new paradigm for feminine success that many young women will be unable to attain.

And while Bennetts wrote the book with the admirable intent of helping young women, there's a little too much visible pique at their confusion about these issues. For me, the only debate more deadly and futile than the Mommy Wars is the Generation Wars, in which baby boomers and those who've come after them battle it out over who's more selfish and clueless. The last chapter of "The Feminine Mistake" simmers with the irritation of baby boomer feminists tired of hearing younger women complain that "the system is rigged against us" and retreat to their homes. The book sometimes feels like a feminist "Greatest Generation," exhorting younger women to both appreciate and emulate these brave role models who came before them. It closes with this cranky challenge on its next to last page: "If younger generations don't think that Baby Boom mothers with thriving careers are good role models, maybe they're using the wrong criteria to make that judgment. We may not be invincible, and we're certainly not perfect, but we are strong, we are self-sufficient, and we are prepared to handle whatever challenges the future might bring. Are you?" Bennetts means well, but I know if I talked to my teenage daughter that way, she'd turn up the volume on her iPod.

In the end, I'm not sure the book's bravado will be entirely convincing to all of the women she wants to persuade. It's deaf to the way a child and family-centered life calls out to a lot of women, and to some men. When I've written on these topics before and gotten shrill about the importance of having a career and keeping maternal urges in check, I've gotten thoughtful and sometimes persuasive letters from women and a few men who derive more joy from family than from work, who've sacrificed to make sure at least one parent is regularly home with their kids, who take the time to make their house a home, not in a competitive or compulsive way, but out of love and longing. I no longer dismiss them as victims of a new feminine mystique.

Still, I'm glad to have "The Feminine Mistake" reminding women to protect their future and that of their kids. In the end, women have to search their hearts, and not merely books, to find the right balance of child rearing, work and home for their own lives.

By Joan Walsh

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