Book Review: To Hell With All That: Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife

Housewife

Ambitious, career-driven women who also want to have kids face hard choices.

If you aggressively pursue a career, have kids, go back to work and install a nanny, you are forever wondering (in ways men do not) whether you shortchanged your kids. Yet by working outside the home — “taking part in the commerce and traffic of the adult world” — you develop an identity all your own, and offer your children a model of real-world success.

If you stop working and raise children, there’s a sense that you’re somehow letting down the feminist movement by not taking advantage of professional opportunities newly available to your generation. Your childhood professional dreams wither at the feet of your kid’s soccer regimen. Yet as a full-time mom you experience the primal pleasure of bestowing motherly love every single day, providing great emotional lift to your child. And you can shamelessly embrace the idea that Martha Stewart has made a Truth but that old school feminists still deny: “that a successful, liberated woman can care deeply, meaningfully, spiritually about the precise state of her linen closet.”

Yes, it’s a tradeoff relevant only to affluent women (most have to work) but for these select women it’s a deeply stressful issue.

Caitlin Flanagan has made the stress that comes from choosing to be a housewife — loving and loathing our inner housewife, as the subtitle puts it — the focal point of her recent writing. Her book is titled To Hell With All That and the paradox on the examination table is:

As women have achieved ever more power in the world — power of a kind my mother and her friends from nursing school could never have imagined — they have become increasingly attracted to the privileges and niceties of traditional womanhood.

The book is a series of essays. One’s on the complicated relationship between mothers and the nanny — the never-quite-resolved fear that your nanny knows your children better than you; that your child might even love your nanny more than you. So you at once love your nanny and are deeply grateful for her services but you also “possess a quietly burning antipathy” toward her. One essay’s about feeling abandoned when her own mother began working again in the seventh grade. One’s on the epidemic of sexless marriages. All convey Flanagan’s genuine fascination with the “places women love and loathe: laundry rooms and nurseries, sunny kitchens and dark ones, the marriage bed.”

Together, the collection gently advances Flanagan’s positive view of traditional motherhood and homemaking. This will continue to infuriate her critics. A lot of feminists hate Flanagan. They hate the fact that she would suggest women have a more natural connection than men to the “shit work” that needs to get done around the house. They hate that she would speak warmly of division of labor within the family: one person earns money for the family’s keep while the other provides the actual keep. Where the haters see flaws in Flanagan, I see a perspective — traditionalism — worth hearing even if it’s politically incorrect in the modern feminist context.

To be sure, it’s not a perspective informed by original journalism or the parsing of scientific literature on parenting / mothering. Instead, we get unsupported assertions about the glories of motherly love and the not-so-subtle implication that children of stay-at-home moms benefit accordingly, but there’s no evidence presented to support this. Yes, motherly love is a beautiful and singular thing, but for the woman agonizing over whether to abandon a career for her children she would be better served with research-based insight on how her decision will impact the long-term prospects of her children, if at all. Also, if you’re young and looking to Flanagan for resolution to the dilemma which I articulated at the outset of this post, you’ll be disappointed. She doesn’t really offer advice to young women who want it all: kids and career, guilt-free.

All books have shortcomings. Books that fail do so less because of an overwhelming number of shortcomings and more because it doesn’t understand what its inevitable shortcomings are — the book mis-understands the ground it is covering. Flanagan knows exactly who she is and what she is doing and that’s why I’m sure she would be satisfied (not that she would care!) with my description of her book as a chatty, entertaining, often very funny, witty, but not altogether rigorous look at what it means to be a twenty-first century housewife, or a confused feminist, or a maybe-housewife.

I recommend this book to women and men alike, perhaps especially to men who want a straight scoop from a funny female guide who’s not overly hostage to blah-blah-blah psychobabble. She is illuminating about heartstrings and marriage and child rearing and other wired female (and male) yearnings which cause all sorts of intractable dilemmas.

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Other choice sentences from Flanagan:

“Weddings today are often made comical or ghastly by their obvious overtones of strenuous social climbing.”

“Like most contemporary writers on family life, Stephen Covey is mesmerized by the practice of sitting down to dinner, a custom he imbues with almost magical properties to bind and focus a family.”

“Public events are central to what we tell ourselves and one another about how much we love our children: Look, I’m here! I stopped everything just to come.

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I’ve written about this topic over the years.

Here are other posts of mine on Caitlin Flanagan. Here’s my book review of Female Chauvinist Pigs by Ariel Levy. Here’s my post on motherhood vs. womanhood. Here’s my post on progressive feminists and happiness. Here’s my post about physical attractiveness and feminism. Here’s where I call bullshit on strippers who say they feel “empowered” in a post-feminist way. Here’s an old Ross Douthat post on two ways of looking at child-rearing; highly recommended. Here’s where I quote Ross on why we shouldn’t separate the sexual revolution and achievement of certain feminist goals with Joe Francis and a Duke frat on a Saturday night. Here are 29 bookmarks tagged “feminism.” Here are 45 bookmarks tagged “gender.”

5 Responses to Book Review: To Hell With All That: Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife

  1. Erik says:

    “If you stop working and raise children, there’s a sense that you’re somehow letting down the feminist movement by not taking advantage of professional opportunities newly available to your generation.”

    Ben, this statement sheds light on the source of this dilemma for many women. In my own experience, “traditionalism” (a domestic focus rather than an aggressive pursuit of career) is the primal, personal desire of most women I know (especially those in their 30’s or older), and the dilemma of pursuing a career is one of obligation to the feminist movement. So it is now the society obligation and perceived norm for women that is the cause of this dilemma, rather than the actual desire of what many women want, that causes this dilemma. Perhaps it’s time for something like traditionalism to become politically correct? As a society we shouldn’t shame people for pursing what is meaningful for them, even if it doesn’t match what is meaningful for ourselves. A more open acceptance of the traditional role of women, especially by other women, would allow many to embrace happiness without guilt.

    You also mentioned “most have to work” – I’ve often wondered that if more women choose not to work, whether that would keep the prices of things like housing lower (less income chasing scare goods), and actually enable more women to choose not to work by making a single income family more affordable. Perhaps there was more wisdom in the traditional way of things then we now realize?

  2. Ben Casnocha says:

    Yes, one interpretation of feminism is that it’s about “making a choice” and
    so we should support whatever choice is made as taking advantage of that
    ideal.

    To your second point, I think it’s off. The traditional family dynamic
    doesn’t have much to do with limiting economic growth, in my view.

  3. I came from a family where my mother was a miserable stay-at-home mom. When I was in fourth grade, she went to grad school for a master’s degree, then became a public school teacher.

    Yes, I did feel a bit left out when she became so busy with her teaching responsibilities, but no, I didn’t turn into an axe murderer.

    Matter of fact, I remember getting quite annoyed with college classmates who’d take their laundry home for Mom to do. Like she was their maid or something. It wasn’t like we didn’t have laundromats in the dorms, and it wasn’t like doing the wash was hard to figure out.

  4. Erik says:

    On my second point is actually the other way around – the modern family dynamic has inflated the economy to the point where the traditional family dynamic is unaffordable for most:

    The majority of women now don’t have the option to make a choice on whether or not to work. They have to in order to help pay for what is considered a normal standard of living (good house, college for the kids).

    This wasn’t the case before women entered the workforce. Ironically, with women earning their right to choose to go to work, and by opting for that choice in the recent past, they’ve now eliminated the choice for most not to work. The addition of women to the workforce may have caused inflation in the cost of the American standard of living, to the point now that it takes two earners in a family to afford a house and to send kids to college – what once upon a time only required a single earner to afford.

  5. Ms. Yingling says:

    I have somehow missed Caitlin Flanagan, and having just read the very good When Everything Changed, I may pick up her book just to see how, somewhere, something has gone wrong with women’s rights. I love working, and my own children know that I would be miserable at home all the time. Thanks for the heads up and the reasonable discussion of a difficult topic.

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