As we’ve reported here at InkWell, former Atlantic Monthly contributing editor Caitlin Flanagan has been vilified by the feminist establishment for–horrors!–noticing that small children raised by nannies and day-care workers don’t bond with their mothers the way kids do who are raised by stay-at-home moms, and also for agreeing with Dr. Laura Schlesinger that parents ought to stay married if possible for the sake of their kids. (For a sample of the feminista rage, click here and scroll down to this Slate conversation between Caitlin and ultra-rad Barbara Ehrenreich in which Barbara insists: Yes, you can too force your husband to do the housework! For another sample, click on this blast at Caitlin from Women’s News.)
Now, though, Caitlin’s been hired by the New Yorker as a staff writer, and sad to say, the feministas seem to have got to her. In her maiden article, “To Hell With All That,” in the July 7 issue (sorry, can’t be linked; you must buy the mag), Caitlin writes approvingly of her own mother’s Betty Friedan moment in 1973 when she decided she’d had it with life as a full-time homemaker and decided to resume the nursing career she’d abandoned when she married Caitlin’s father. Nobody in the family seemed to mind that Caitlin’s mother had gone back to work–except Caitlin, age 12, who was miserable:
“To my thinking, my mother’s change of heart constituted child abandonment, plain and simple.”
Caitlin suggests, however, that her adolescent reaction to her mother’s decision to return to work was purely subjective and selfish, and that her own experience staying at home with her twin sons for their first six years might have been fine for the kids but was a lonely, boring, miserable experience for her. She also says that she discovered that her sons’ nursery-school classmates who’d been raised by nannies while their mothers worked outside the home were no worse off in terms of behavior or mental acumen than her own boys. She writes:
“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 quanitfiable value–no head start in life assuring them some prize that forever eludes the children of working mothers. All they gained was an immersion in the most powerful force on earth: mother love. And perhaps there is something of worth in that alone.”
There’s some confusion here. First of all, there’s Caitlin’s age when her mother resumed her career in medical services. Caitlin was not a toddler but 12 years old, nearly a teen-ager, and the youngest child in the family. It was not surprising that her mother was looking around for something extra to do. My own mother, in fact, made exactly the same decision in exactly the same year–1973–when her own youngest child (out of five) reached age 13. My mother decided to go to law school. That was a daunting goal, because Ma had never graduated from college. It took years to accomplish, but my mother made it through, passed the bar exam, and went to work for another woman lawyer. The Betty Friedan nightmare–being trapped at home with screaming small children–was not a factor in my mother’s case, as it was not in Caitlin’s mother’s. I suspect that a great many of today’s stay-at-home mothers will follow my mother’s sensible trajectory; not all conservative women are anti-feminist troglodytes.
Interestingly enough, Caitlin reports that her mother didn’t stay in the job force long; her father became a best-selling novelist, and her mother quit to manage his career. Likewise, my mother quit the law business after a few years–the endless phone calls from her demanding divorce and estate-planning clients got to her–and immersed herself in volunteer civic and charitable fund-raising. The working world is never as much fun as it’s cracked up to be.
Finally, Caitlin suggests that the benefits of stay-at-home motherhood are strictly subjective, and women’s real satisfaction comes from “the work they love”–that is, the job they hold outside the home. That may be true for some–such as New Yorker staff writers and other holders of high-status positions like Caitlin. Certainly some women aren’t cut out for full-time motherhood (I know that if I had kids myself, I’d find it tough to spend my days immersed in the hothouse, labor-intensive parenthood that seems to be de rigeur for the upper middle class these days). But I do know one thing: Not a single woman with small children (not teen-agers) of my acquaintance–and that includes some pretty smart gals–holds a full-time job outside her home, except for the ones who, because of the vagaries of fortune, lack husbands. They don’t seem to have bought into Betty Friedan, just as Caitlin’s mother in the end didn’t, no matter what Caitlin says.