Sometime last month, two mothers made time to drink coffee together and talk about one of their favorite subjects: national magazine writer Caitlin Flanagan, whose new book, To Hell With All That, was published by Little, Brown this month.
Flanagan’s pieces on “modern domestic life,” first in the Atlantic Monthly and then in the New Yorker, got people’s attention. Some people, like Kris, loved her unorthodox stance on motherhood and her acerbic style. And some people, like Tricia, well, they just loved to hate her.
“To hell with it” is what Flanagan’s mother said sometime in the 1960s when she put down a bucket of dirty water, picked up the employment ads, and left her role as a full-time homemaker forever. Flanagan’s own “to hell with it” means going public with what she values: her “unwavering, lifelong certainty that running a household and being a wife and mother would land me exactly where I wanted to be – in the center of a world where I am depended on, and considered irreplaceable, by the people who love me.”
To Hell With All That is a series of essays, many based on magazine pieces, about marriage, sex, housekeeping, and her decision to stay home with her children.
Kris: The book was a great read. Flanagan tells a darn good story about her own and her peers’ mothering experience, all in the shadow of the previous generation.
The part that made me uncomfortable was her essay about her relationship with her nanny. I really respect that she started paying Social Security and FICA taxes for Paloma. But, in her own words, the relationship was “like a love affair.” Flanagan bought her gifts and would “press a glass of wine on her” for some Friday afternoon girl talk. She advocated for Paloma’s kids in the American school system. But the two women were never on equal terms. In fact, there is an uncanny ring of historical familiarity to this sort of domestic arrangement and we all – including Flanagan – know it.
The book I want to read is the one Paloma’s own son or daughter writes 20 years from now.
Tricia: You know what I couldn’t get past? She has a nanny. She has a nanny. Flanagan has openly speculated, in interviews, about whether working mothers love their children as much as she does hers. And she has a nanny.
When I read her description of watching Paloma change the sheets after one of her sons had vomited, I had to put the book down. I actually said out loud, “I never did that!” According to Flanagan, as a working mother, I am deep in the motherly-love deficit column, and yet I have never stood by while someone other than my husband cleaned up my sick child.
Wow. It’s easy to take this stuff too personally, isn’t it?
Kris: Well, she definitely doesn’t seem to have a lot of respect for the scut work of mothering, does she? It seems like nannies are better suited to do dirty work like that than educated, witty mothers. In fact, at some point, she describes women who earn income outside the home as “people whose days are filled with actual work.”
I assure you that my days at home with my children felt like actual work. Because housework and childcare and changing dirty sheets is, in fact, actual work. But does it only count when someone gets paid to do it?
Tricia: She does like to go on about the joys of homemaking – fresh sheets and homemade pancakes and making a comfortable, happy home for her family. Strangely enough, those were the passages where I found myself really identifying with her!
Kris: You know what’s strange? She pretty much ignores the role of fathers in the whole domestic equation.
Tricia: That’s right! There are no men in the whole book. Except in the chapter about sex. That chapter is filled with men who aren’t getting enough sex. And, because of the filter I read through, I can’t help but hear her saying, “It’s all the fault of working women!”
The best section in the book is the part where she writes about Erma Bombeck and the other early “housewife writers.” Bombeck, in Flanagan’s own words, was a champion for both stay-at-home and working mothers. And yet, Flanagan just doesn’t seem to be able to get past the divide between them.
Kris: I see my modern motherhood in a different light. I have a lot in common with Flanagan – we’re about the same age, we were brought up Catholic, we’re both writers, we both pored over The Joy of Sex after the kids we were babysitting went to bed. But I see all of my work – parenting and writing and community involvement and creating a reasonably orderly household – as valuable. Some I am paid for and some I’m not. But it’s been my choice and my privilege to have the choice in the first place.
I have interviewed parents and written about family life and culture for almost as long as I’ve been a parent, which is a decade and a half. One mom in very modest financial circumstances who stayed home with her three children told me, “Just because it’s hard doesn’t mean I shouldn’t do it.”
I say, to hell with guilt about our choices, reinforcement for competitive parenting, and these manufactured “Mommy Wars.” Instead, let’s all have confidence in our own choices and our own children.
Tricia: There’s a van that parks in my neighborhood with the bumper sticker “Every mother is a working mother.” So true! And yet, every time I pass it I am sorely tempted to sneak up in the middle of the night and slap another one right beside it: “Every mother is a full-time mother.” Of course, now, they’d know who did it.