Is stay-at-home motherhood only ‘half a life’?

Two new books implore women to ‘get to work!’ instead of staying home as dish-cleaning, hands-on mums. But it will take more than slating women’s personal choices to change women’s social roles.

Nancy McDermott

Topics Books

In October 2003, the New York Times published an article by the journalist Lisa Belkin, entitled ‘The Opt-Out Revolution’. In it she suggested that almost 40 years on from the start of the women’s movement, the best and the brightest of the American women are abandoning their careers, moth-balling their Ivy League educations and choosing to stay home with the kids.

It did not go down well. Critics accused her of extrapolating a trend on the basis of a few interviews with her fellow alumni from Princeton. Others pointed out that labour statistics show that changes in women’s employment are superficial and could be put down to the recession. There was at least a grain of truth in all of these criticisms – and yet, the article struck a chord with many women who, having been brought up with the expectation that they would be on an equal footing with men, never expected that balancing work and family life would be so hard.

Suddenly everyone seemed to be writing about motherhood. There were serious books, like Judith Warner’s Perfect Madness, and an endless stream of ‘momoirs’. Publications from the New York Times to Slate and Salon extended their coverage and began running regular columns devoted to the conundrum of modern motherhood. ‘Mommy blogs’ and specialist publications like Brain, Child magazine sprang up to cater to a new generation of highly educated mothers.

Most contributions to the discussion have been well received. But two books, Leslie Bennetts’ The Feminine Mistake and Linda Hirshman’s Get to Work, have provoked reactions of skepticism and outright hostility. Why? Because both authors are unequivocal in their belief that women should work.

In many respects, Leslie Bennetts could be the poster child for combining family and career. Married with two children, she is a professional journalist with an impressive CV. She is a contributing editor for Vanity Fair and was the first woman to cover a presidential campaign for the New York Times. Her book grew out of her frustration with the ‘public glorification of stay-at-home-motherhood’ without reference to the risks mothers face when they give up their financial independence. She describes The Feminine Mistake as her attempt to give women better information about the downsides of dependency and the rewards of paid employment. Her book is divided into two sections: the first looks at the reality of economic dependency, and the second, ‘the good news part’, sets out her case for the benefits of combining work and motherhood.

When women make themselves dependent on a man, she cautions, more than half will end up on the wrong side of the odds. This is not startling news. Authors like Ann Crittenden, in her book The Price of Motherhood, have written in great detail about the huge inequalities women face as a result of becoming mothers. It’s also no secret that women are far worse off following a divorce or the death of their husbands. And yet, Bennetts somehow manages to make it seem all the worse.

Reading her interviews with women who have chosen to stay at home is almost painful because we know what’s coming. They sit in sunny kitchens explaining why they’ve chosen to quit their jobs; they talk about their happiness at spending time with their children, the seriousness with which they take their role as mothers, and how relieved they are to be out of the rat race.

It’s not all sun beams and dew drops, of course. Some feel frustrated with the isolation, and couples struggle to make ends meet on a single salary. The trade-offs are hard but it seems like the right thing to do, a lifestyle choice that Bennetts believes enjoys widespread approval. But are they thinking about their long-term security, she wonders? Do they know what they would do if their partners died or divorced them? They have no answers. They haven’t even thought about it. That’s when Bennetts lets the hammer fall – interviews with a different tale to tell.

Interviews with women who fell, as Bennetts puts it, ‘on the wrong side of the odds’ make grim reading. In contrast to the first set of interviewees, these women counted on their spouses to support them, and then when they were divorced or widowed they were left with little or no income, few prospects and no social status. And though many say they wouldn’t trade the time they spent with their children, stay-at-home motherhood is definitely not what they want for their daughters. Bennetts’ message comes through loud and clear: Wake up! Think ahead! This could be you!

The second part of the book is all together different. In it, Bennetts makes a passionate case for continuing to work. The increased financial security, and status women gain through paid employment is good for them, their marriages, and their children. It’s doable if you get your priorities straight, lower your expectations in the short term, and tough it out. What’s more, it is good for society. If women ‘bag it’, she argues, proclaiming ‘the necessity of caring for their children round the clock and retire to a domestic life’ , there will be implications for all women: fewer university places, fewer employers willing to hire women at all, and fewer women in positions of power. And though she would argue that her case against stay-at-home motherhood ultimately boils down to economics, not value judgments, Bennetts’ final exhortation not to ‘jeopardise your future by settling for half a life’ has made mothers hopping mad.

In her earnest desire to tell an unwelcome truth, Bennetts manages, perhaps inevitably, to alienate much of her potential audience. For stay-at-home mothers who have invested so much of their identity into caring for their children, The Feminine Mistake strikes at the very core of their lives and implies that they have been duped. Many have reacted with anger and frustration. The problem is that it is usually Bennetts herself who is the focus of their rage.

In an interview on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer radio show, Bennetts told how, after her first public appearance on the Today television show, the station was ‘flooded’ by angry comments from women who assumed ‘I must be divorced, bitter, lonely, that I’d been dumped by my husband, I’d been angry and that obviously I don’t have children. None of those things are true! I’ve been married 20 years to my husband, and I have two wonderful kids. We have a very happy home life!’

‘I’m not devaluing motherhood’, she continued in something approaching exasperation. ‘I’m a mother! I talk a great deal about the satisfactions of motherhood. I talk about the fact that my children have always been my own top priority.’

It is because these matters are so personal that people tend to take anything that casts doubt on their choices, well… personally. It is easy to lose sight of the fact that choice is constrained by larger social factors such as the lack of affordable childcare or reasonable employment rights. More importantly, choice today is inherently paradoxical. It is personal and intimate, but it has also become one of the main yardsticks by which society judges individuals. It is the confused nature of choice that leads people to interpret Bennetts’ work as a product of her personal circumstances and preoccupations rather than her investigation of the subject of motherhood. One can’t help but feel for Bennetts, whose serious approach to her subject has been rewarded with puerile speculation about her personal life.

Linda Hirshman, in contrast, seems to thrive on controversy. She’s also on familiar terrain when it comes to the politics of personal choice. In fact, it’s completely integral to her political perspective. Hirshman is a former labour lawyer and a feminist academic concerned with the sexual division of labour between men and women. In Get to Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World, she argues that when individual women choose to leave work, they are harming other women and society as a whole.

Get to Work grew out of an article for the American Prospect entitled ‘Homeward Bound’, which elicited responses like ‘Linda Hirshman makes me vomit’ or ‘FU Linda Hirshman’! The book has been every bit as controversial as the original article, not least because Hirshman doesn’t exhibit the slightest sympathy for mothers who choose to stay home, even going so far as to refer to a Harvard graduate who wrote to her – and who defended her life at home, climbing trees with the kids, listening to public radio and writing letters to her congressman – as ‘the merry maid’.

Hirshman doesn’t like what she calls watered-down ‘choice feminism’. ‘Choice’, she writes, ‘or even its pumped-up cousin “personal choice”, does not remove decisions to a special realm where they cannot be judged… A woman who decides staying home with her children is more important than the fate of other women ought to be prepared to defend that position.’ Hirshman’s alternative is a return to the roots of feminism, what she calls ‘values feminism’, in which personal choice is shaped by the wider feminist social agenda. For Hirshman, the personal is deeply political, and if women take criticism of their decisions personally, so much the better.

Her manifesto is made up of four simple rules: don’t study art, study serious things like law; take work seriously, aim to make good money, and don’t do the poorly paid work of the idealist; don’t do all the housework; don’t have more than one child. They have a slight tongue-in-cheek feel, but she is actually quite serious. Hirshman is focused on personal choice because she believes the glass ceiling is at home.

Feminism has unfinished business with the family, she writes: ‘[It] is a necessary part of life and has obvious emotional and immediate rewards, but it allows fewer opportunities for full human flourishing than spheres like the market or government.’ Women can’t realise the promise of feminism because they are being held back by the division of labor within the family, Hirshman argues. It is only by achieving equality at home, she says, that they will be free to live flourishing lives. If women devalue work and glorify the private sphere, more will end up opting out. If more women opt out, they will ‘contribute to perpetuating a mostly male ruling class that will make mistakes; being rulers, those mistakes will be enormous’.

For both Bennetts and Hirshman, change comes about through the amalgamation of many individuals making choices. If many women make the ‘right’ choice, then all of society benefits and things will change for the better. Perhaps this is why Bennetts spends so much time discussing individual strategies for combining work and family, and why Hirshman is so dismissive of calls for reduced working hours and more flexible daycare as ‘just a cruel diversion from what can be done now’.

The problem is women make choices within the context of what seems possible. When being a good mother is paramount, childcare options expensive and employment policies downright hostile, it is not surprising that many women aspire to staying home with their children. By focusing her efforts on the balance of power within the home instead of the larger question of the role the family plays for society, Hirshman exhibits the lowest expectations of all. The ‘cruel diversion’, it turns out, is advocating strategies for reorganising domestic life based on the idea that what individuals do with their private lives matters in the wider world.

Leslie Bennetts and Linda Hirshman need to take a leaf from their own books. They are absolutely right when they say that there is a qualitative difference between the public world and the domestic sphere. What happens at home is simply incidental. Who does the domestic work in an individual household, or even lots of individual households, does not change the social consensus about whose role it is.

The gender division of labour will persist until the social functions the family fulfills are dealt with in some other way. This is not unprecedented. Many things we take for granted were once associated with one gender or the other. For instance, collecting and managing the water supply was traditionally (and still is in is in some places) women’s work. But when population density made it necessary for the water supply to be organised on a mass scale, its association with women fell by the wayside. So it could be with childcare and other privatised tasks that now fall to women.

The Feminine Mistake and Get to Work have become flashpoints in the battle over personal choice. Women who work like these books better than women who don’t, and women who stay at home tend to see them as an affront. This is a pity because the best part of what they have to say gets lost in the shuffle. Both authors are at their strongest when they write about what constitutes a full life from a human perspective. It isn’t work in and of itself that matters so much as the recognition that the human potential of every individual is intimately bound up with access to and engagement with the public sphere. This is an important corrective at a time when, for women in particular, working life takes a back seat to lifestyle.

Where both go wrong, however, is in their understanding of the relationship between the public world and the private sphere. While the decisions we make in our private lives will not change the world, the existence of the private sphere as a separate arena free from the pressure of the social world is absolutely crucial for a flourishing life.

Ultimately, the reactions to these books and the fact that much of what their authors have to say has been dismissed, should serve as an illustration of how focusing on personal choice just makes things worse.

Nancy McDermott is a writer and mother based in New York.

The Feminine Mistake: Are We Giving Up too Much? by Leslie Bennetts is published by Voice. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Get to Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World by Linda Hirshman is published by Viking. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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