Monday, May 15, 2006

What the Hell is Caitlin Flanagan Talking About? The Good the Bad and the Baffling!

To Hell with All That: Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife by Caitlin Flanagan is a beautifully written, very interesting and often entertaining book.

“… Amanda Beesley describes a moment of clarity in which the economics of her planned event came into sharp focus: she had spent a month’s rent on her dress, and “the ‘deluxe’ Porta-Johns, with mirrors and running water,” that she had selected “would have paid off two months’ worth of my student loan.” Setting aside the advisability of buying an expensive dress for anything that is going to involve Porta-Johns, no matter how whiz-bang, the confession is hardly unusual: young people routinely engineer weddings that are well beyond their means.”

Now that is pitch-perfect prose.

Flanagan begins with an insightful, right-on-the-mark commentary on the modern American wedding, complete with bemoaning that people are not virgins on their wedding days (and the sheer likelihood that the blessed event will end in divorce court). Yet she admits she’s been married twice.

She then moves on to rightly say that sex is important in marriage and stay-at-home moms (surveys indicate) have more of it than working moms do. Exhaustion maybe? Bitterness over having to make dinner, clean up and tuck the kids in while he sits on the sofa? Not according to Flanagan. The problem, she says, is women who are working don’t have time to “seduce” their husbands. I’m sorry, but if you have to go to great lengths to interest your husband in sex, he’s either suffering from a medical problem (depression or low testosterone perhaps), he’s gay or he’s getting it somewhere else. And if any of those are the case, no amount of lip gloss and lingerie is going to help. A healthy straight guy is happy enough to yank down the sweatpants of a willing wife. No candles required.

Things get particularly interesting when Flanagan suggests women don’t necessarily have to be tied to the house to be “good.” It’s perfectly fine for them to get involved politically and organize boycotts and the like. The important thing, evidently, is that they’re not getting paid for the work they do. Paid work = bad mom, under-sexed dad. Unpaid work = kick-ass housewife, satisfaction all-around.

She goes on to imply that any old housewife can just march down to the local paper and become an overnight sensation like Erma Bombeck, (oh how I wish!) so who needed “women’s lib” anyway? Interestingly, Bombeck already knew people at the paper, which is likely how she got the job. Kind of like how Caitlin Flanagan got her job at the New Yorker, no? What’s most interesting about the chapter on housewives is that Flanagan seems to glorify the housewife, all the while believing she’s far too good for the task.

The book includes a riveting history of the British nanny, Mary Poppins and the rise in the use of nannies among the American middle class, and she makes it clear that not only did she have a full time nanny when she was allegedly being a “housewife” and her twins were babies, but she still has a nanny now that they’re in elementary school. Flanagan implies that nannies are at once terrible and indispensable. And she seems to pat herself on the back as being somehow better than the woman who’s a doctor and leaves her kids with the nanny, because by God, Flanagan may not have been changing the diapers, feeding the bottles, taking care of the vomiting child or rocking the baby to sleep, but she was standing in the doorway lending moral support!

Not only does she have a nanny for her children who go to school all day, but she leaves them in the “after school” program too, according to her chapter on over-scheduled children. I almost forgave her for calling Erma Bombeck a “hack” due to the impeccable job she does ripping Stephen Covey’s (7 Habits of Highly Effective Families) assertion that you need a “business plan” in order to raise a great family. She nearly steals my heart in this chapter until she says that a happy family is dependent upon a mother who is “willing to endure the humiliation of forgoing a career and of raising tots bound for state college,” because elite private colleges and stratospheric professional success both “may hinge on tremendous achievements in the world of extracurricular activities.”
Really? Try telling that to Albert Einstein or the guy who invented the wheel or the successful baby boomers who played kick-the-can in the road after school every day as kids. What a bunch of elitist tripe. She should know better than anyone that getting elite jobs and attending elite colleges have everything to do with who you know and how much money you have and very little to do with how many after-school activities you had in the first grade. There could be a correlation, but that doesn't equal cause and effect.

She goes on to really annoy me by idealizing the “good ol’ days” and has the audacity to suggest that she’s living in the more “brutal of times.” The society in which women put out whether they wanted to or not and mothers (including her own) had no financial say in their own homes was a “less brutal” society than the one poor Flanagan has to endure. She says this in answer to those 1970s feminists for whom the division of household labor was a priority. She single-handedly dismisses their struggle, not because she thinks women ought to just suck it up and do the work at home, and not because she’s lucky and married a man who does his share around the house, but because neither she nor her husband have to do any household labor, so frankly, my dear, she doesn’t give a damn. A further misunderstanding of feminist struggle appears on page 175 where she claims that everything the feminists “dreamed of has come to pass,” and among the things on her list is “maternity leave.” Those six weeks of unpaid leave are a real dream come true aren’t they?

She does hit the nail on the head when she says we all have an inexplicable love for Martha Stewart. Even those of us who have no interest whatsoever in attempting any of the projects she does. Flanagan attributes this to women’s “deeply felt emotional connection to housekeeping.” Say what? Now I do know a woman or two who love to make jam, but I know even more who, like me, don’t really understand why anyone would go to the trouble. I mean there are well over fifty kinds to pick from at the store.

Then she attacks clutter-mania to perfection. How many experts do you need to tell you to throw away crap that you don’t need or love? While there are several things to which I would attribute this phenomenon, here’s Flanagans take:

“What’s missing from so many affluent American households is the one thing you can’t buy: the presence of someone who cares deeply and principally about that home and the people who live in it; who is willing to spend a significant portion of each day thinking about what those people are going to eat and what clothes they will need for which occasions; who knows when it’s time to turn the mattresses and when the baby needs to be taken out for a bit of fresh air and sunshine.”
That’s not missing from my house. And working moms take a deep breath, it wasn’t even missing from my house when I was being raised by a single full-time working mother. Perhaps Flanagan is projecting her own lack of interest in caring for her family and home on the rest of us. She further suggests that some women really miss housework and that’s why they’re obsessed with decluttering. (?????) Please, if you’re lucky enough to not have to do it, spare the majority of us your complaining about it. That or come on over and scrub my toilets if you miss it so badly. I won’t mind.

Toward the end of the book Flanagan really goes to the heart of what exactly I think her problem is. She keeps a romantic notion in her head that her mother was “happiest” while standing at the ironing board with a big basket of laundry nearby, while also admitting that when she went back to work she was no longer “gloomy and sulking.” She seems bitter that her mother went back to work when she was in junior high school (for crying out loud) while admitting that her mother would have been better off all along had she had a job and money and power of her own. In other words, I think she's confused about her own upbringing and has some issues to work through.

On page 217 she talks about her and the other working mothers making fun of a stay-at-home mom who did a lot of work for her kid’s school fundraiser, going on to say there’s no obvious tangible value to having a mother at home. In the next breath she concludes by saying that it’s just important to have one anyway. Now she’s a beautiful writer but perhaps she should go back to Composition 101 and re-learn that your conclusion is supposed to be supported by the body of the paper, not refuted.

And she ends with sharing the story of how she beat breast cancer, which is wonderful to hear. But she feels that her husband took care of her when she was sick because she’d been a good wife and mother. What a sad and warped view of married love. If he did take care of her when she was sick, it’s because he loves her, he’s a good husband and/or he’s just an all around stand up guy. And she should feel lucky and blessed, not smug. Really, a little gratitude goes a long way.

Of course after nearly dying she wants to go home and be with her family, the implication being that this is why women shouldn’t bother working (because work is not as important as your family). And of course it’s not, everyone knows that. But that didn’t stop Flanagan from going on to write a book after she was well or from continuing her position at the New Yorker did it?

In the end, it's hard not to recommend everyone read this book based on great writing and excellent commentary. Had Flanagan left her own convoluted personal life out of it, it would have been both humorous and thoughtful. And that's the biggest weakness of the book, she makes a strong statement or two, but they seem to come from nowhere and have little to do with the issue at hand. As if she wrote her personal memoir and some great articles and then just cut and pasted them at random. She doesn't seem to have a point or if she does, she's not entirely sure what it is. If she made only a few small changes she could be a Linda Hirshman-style feminist instead of a... an I don't know what... that's the problem!

If you read it (or have read it) please come back and tell me what you think! Posted by Picasa


Sandy said...

You know, I think I'm about the same age as Flanagan - 43 - and my mom went back to work when I was in jr. high school in the 70's. So when I do read it (eventually, I can't bear to pay full price for it) I think that will make for an interesting comparison. Of course, I've never had a nanny, I've been a sah mom for ten years now, and have just started working for pay again. And I have NO reverence for housework at all...and I'm a feminist. ;-)

Anyway, having just finished a history book on American childhood (Huck's Raft, by Steven Mintz), I'm wondering where if Flanagan's idealization of sah-momdom doesn't come from 50's & 60's sitcoms as much as her own experience with her mom. I'm fairly certain she has never read Stephanie Coontz's "The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap", at any rate.

Redneck Nerdboy! said...

I have not read it, Staci, but reading your post was enough for me. I can see her points, don't agree with some, and I agree with others, same as you. But it isn't one I'll be checking out soon. Thanks for the review!

MommyWithAttitude said...

Sandy I was thinking of you when I posted this, wondering if you were going to review it too. I get the impression that Flanagan has idealized a childhood for herself that didn't actually exist. But there is a lot of good in there to check out!

Susan said...

Sandi, I think you are dead on here, about so many things, particularly that sense that Flanagan has idealized her childhood so much that she's not talking about any "real" place or time any more.

I think Flanagan is a talented writer, and while I disagree with her politics, I think she is on to something here. But the book suffers from being primarily Scotch taped together from Atlantic Monthly and New Yorker essays; there is no real coherence to it. It also suffers from Flanagan's own sense that losing her mother and then being diagnosed with breast cancer EXACTLY two years later pulled the rug out from under her. And while I can sympathize with that, I still wish she had done more in this book.

ninepounddictator said...

Yes, thanks for the review! Loved it.

I don't think this book is for me...It's funny that even one comment that she makes that I so strongly disagree with will make me NOT want to spend money on the book.

I can't wait to read the rest of your reviews!

I love reading. Before I had baby, I could read two or three books a week. Now I read that a month. Sigh.

(Can you do some fiction too???)

Jane said...

Excellent review, thanks!

Big Orange said...

I've not read this yet, and frankly, I'm not sho' I wanna: seems like it might piss me off too much for the reasons that... uh... ::scroll, scroll:: SUSAN said. A lot of commedians have done the same thing: cut n' pasted books together out of their other standup material, and it's not only poorly sewn together (more like Frankenstein) but as a reader I felt kinda' cheated, like "HEY! I've READ 'dis befo'!!"

Excellent review, tho!!

Her Bad Mother said...

Great review. It is such a funny thing about this book - that she is such a good writer and so engaging but so often off the mark. And, apparently, not remotely self-reflective. She's aware that she's a contradiction in terms, but doesn't seem to see a problem with that.

Food Mum said...

I love your review, better than I would the book I think - made me laugh out loud. Thanks for linking to my blog too. I haven't read nearly so much since I started blogging, it's stolen my reading slot after the kids are in bed!

Anjali said...

Great review. It's not our differences in philosophies of the role that mothers should have in a family that causes me so much ire, it's Flanagan's utter and complete hypocrisy. You are not in a traditional marriage if you are a mother who has a full time nanny and a housekeeper, and you work for pay at one of the most prestigious publications in the world. So please, Flanagan, don't pretend you are!!!

So, no, I won't be purchasing or reading this book :) But I certainly appreciate the fact that you did!

Meg said...

Very interesting review. I like how you broke down her arguments and argued against so many of them. It is such a shame that her book is getting so much attention while many truly wonderful books that aim to unite mothers are ignored by the media.

mothergoosemouse said...

Thanks for the review. I've read a little about Caitlin Flanagan, and her stance on mothers who work outside the home is so close-minded and off-putting to me that I'm really not interested in reading anything that she's written, no matter how talented she may be.

Lauri said...

"A healthy straight guy is happy enough to yank down the sweatpants of a willing wife. No candles required."

Goodness sakes, you are now my second favorite writer!

Sandy said...

That sweatpants quote is a great one. I came back to re-read your review, Staci, after doing my own. :-)

I didn't really tackle the elitism, but it really struck me in Darla Shine's book, Flanagan's, *and* in everything I've read by Linda Hirshman. Good God, does every writer out there have a cleaning woman? And a gardener?

I laughed my ass off at the "deeply felt emotional connection to housekeeping".