My friend Sandra Tsing Loh, the author, stage performer and public radio commentator, used to have regular gripefests with me about the writing life; in fact, she coined one of my favorite terms, Crappy Hackington, to describe a particular kind of freelancer. Her material typically revolves around family: the adventures of her eccentric, 80-something, hitchhiking Chinese dad; or being a harried mom of two small girls ages three and four, with a musician husband often on the road for weeks at a time.
Sandra almost never hires babysitters and often minds her brother’s three small children as well as her own. So she’s regularly approached by publishing mavens who hope she’ll contribute to anthologies about the anguish of balancing their well-compensated work with nanny-assisted motherhood. Perhaps because she’s on public radio (and is, in fact, generally liberal politically), perhaps because she’s “of color,” they assume she’ll be sympathetic. They couldn’t be more wrong.
Like many women outside the major media circuit, Sandra has managed to combine career with motherhood by cutting back on work and living quite modestly. To twist the title of Allison Pearson’s “I Don’t Know How She Does It,” the much-hyped novel about a busy mom with a glamorous job, I do know how she does it: by living in a small house and spending very little on shopping or travel or eating out or child care.
“Do people have unlimited money or something?” Sandra once remarked, about the surprised reaction she often gets from fans who can’t believe that the author of “A Year in Van Nuys,” a Southern California bestseller, still actually lives in Van Nuys, a decidedly downmarket L.A. suburb. So she has little patience with women whose typical “nightmare day” involves a banker husband who’s not home in time to read the kids a bedtime story and (can you believe it?) the cell phone broke down again.
We had begun bitching about “The Bitch in the House,” the collection of essays by women journalists complaining about the difficulty of combining domesticity with their glamorous, high-powered New York media jobs, since the book was published a couple of years ago to a lot of approving attention. “Who are all these highly paid careerist magazine women complaining about their luxurious lives while talking about their grosgrain ribbon-trimmed shoes?” she yelled to me at the time. “It’s heinous! I want to get out my Uzi!”
The December Atlantic had half-a-dozen letters responding to Sandra’s essay this fall about “The Bitch in the House” (and its sequel, “The Bastard on the Couch”) — including one from the book’s editor, women’s magazine veteran Cathi Hanauer. Hanauer took issue with Sandra’s idea “that mothers of small children simply stop working…like the vast majority of ‘Bitch’ contributors, not to mention mothers in general in this country, I didn’t have that option.”
Sandra’s response: “I think Hanauer’s suggestion that most of the Bitches somehow had their economic hands tied behind their backs is disingenuous and possibly even insulting to the teachers, plumbers, and bank employees she speaks of so passionately. After all, unlike several author friends I have on both coasts, bank employees rarely sour the moods of their fellow men with Camille-like complaints about the hectic publicity schedule of (and possible airport allergens encountered during) their seventeen-city Knopf-funded book tours…”
And yet the offers to contribute to “Bitch in the House”-style anthologies just keep coming. Sandra was so annoyed by one proposal (topic: ending the quarrel between working and stay-at-home moms) that she sent me a 20-page fax annotating the upcoming book’s earnest and treacly introduction, noting that “this may turn me Republican yet.”
The proposal complained that too many people framing the debate about working vs. stay-at-home motherhood are politicians and academics; many aren’t women, or even parents. “Many of them aren’t even humanoid,” added Sandra sarcastically. “Many lack a head.”
Still, that book proposal is onto something: there is tension between working and stay-at-home moms; there’s tension around the entire issue, in fact, and perhaps that’s because that even “Bitch in the House”-style complainers may suspect, deep down, that their stressed but fabulous lifestyles don’t work so well for kids.
The Hoover Institution’s Mary Eberstadt, who’s managed a part-time writing career around her four children, makes a convincing argument about all this in the new book “Home Alone America: the Hidden Toll of Day Care, Behavioral Drugs and Other Parent Substitutes,” the best I’ve read on the subject. Eberstadt acknowledges that obviously many women have no choice about working full-time. But many do, so she asks that we consider that despite anecdotal evidence or individual experience about day-care-raised children who have turned out fine, a street lined with two- (or three-) car garages but almost no parents at home when school lets out is probably not the greatest thing for society.
“Essentially, advocates have settled for this position: If it doesn’t lead to Columbine, bring it on,” Eberstadt writes.
And she has a theory that makes sense to me about these endless treatises by working women who just wish everyone would be nicer about their problems and conflicted feelings: “Perhaps continuing complaints about the guilt felt by absent mothers says more than we think it does — that those mothers feel the need to spend more time with their children whether they have bought into the separationist movement or not. Perhaps their well-publicized feelings of guilt are further proof of a social experiment run amok.”
Catherine Seipp is a writer in California, and she blogs at her website “Cathy’s World.”