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Balancing Acts

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It's become an annual ritual: the knife-sharpening, chest-beating and navel-gazing occasioned by a new crop of books about work and motherhood. Past examples include Judith Warner's Perfect Madness , Cathi Hanauer's The Bitch in the House , Ann Hulbert's Raising America , Anne Roiphe's Fruitful , even Allison Pearson's novel I Don't Know How She Does It , -- and, of course, the seminal (ovular?) text of the genre, Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique . As the list grows, the standards for inclusion should rise. Does an author have something new to say that makes her book a keeper? This year's entrants make their bids differently. Caitlin Flanagan offers her inimical flair for making enemies and making fun. Leslie Morgan Steiner provides a more earnest, anthropological array of perspectives. Ruth Sidel gives single mothers a space to tell their stories.

To Hell with All That is a collection of some of Flanagan's best essays for the Atlantic Monthly and the New Yorker. One reason to buy the book if you've already read these pieces in the magazines: They've been recast to curb excess Flanaganian shrillness. Most notably, the Atlantic Monthly cover story "How Serfdom Saved the Women's Movement" -- in which the serfs were nannies -- has morphed into a more thoughtful essay about Flanagan's own experience of employing a nanny. Along the way, she calls the magazine version "convoluted and slightly insane," which is practically worth the price of admission.

Disillusion to Self-Satisfaction

Mommy Wars is also a collection, but its 26 essays were written by a cast that Steiner, an advertising executive at this newspaper, assembled to represent many points on the work/home continuum. The more interesting line to plot them along, however, may be the one that runs from disillusion to self-satisfaction. "I Hate Everybody" is Leslie Lehr's apt title for her description of life as a "work-at-home" mother. "I Do Know How She Does It," by contrast, is the calling card of Ann Misiaszek Sarnoff, chief operating officer at the Women's National Basketball Association. Lehr is a well-published author; she's also home in the afternoon when her two girls arrive from school. But money is tight, and her husband's work takes him away for months at a time, including the night an earthquake tears chunks of plaster from the walls of their house. Worse, she worries that her daughters don't think she's a good mom.

Sarnoff, on the other hand, has a helpful husband, a high salary and no guilt whatsoever. "I am not conflicted; I love working," she writes. "Loathe the WNBA lady," a friend told me as she made her way through Mommy Wars . I did too. Like Sarnoff, my friend and I are working mothers. But we're eternally ambivalent about our trade-offs, whereas she is smugly sure that her and her husband's professional ambitions exact no price from their kids. "Don't miss the dinosaur lunches," Sarnoff instructs; the idea is that if you show up at your kids' "can't miss" events, they won't miss you the rest of the time. Hooey. The price of full-time work for both parents may be worth paying -- and as other Steiner contributors remind us, for many families it's an economic necessity -- but it can't be wished away. When both parents work hard, they ask a lot of their kids.

This reality explains my unbidden attraction to Caitlin Flanagan. She is loathsome, too. But she knows it; self-deprecation (along with hilarious writing about sex) is one of her sharply honed tools. She makes short work of the "dinosaur lunches" approach: "This is appointment parenting, in which simply being around for the kids day in and day out is not important . . . . Scheduling is everything." But Flanagan also mocks the superiority of stay-at-home mothers. Her time at home with her sons "was an investment of sorts, the value of which would be revealed when they got to nursery school." There, the children would neatly divide: "wan and neurotic" kids of working mothers vs. "emotionally robust, confident" kids of stay-at-homes. "What a bust," Flanagan writes of her theory. "There was no difference at all that I could divine. If anything, the kids of the working mothers seemed a little more on the ball . . . . They looked, in fact, as if they were ready to take over the world."

In the end, Flanagan puts a thumb on the scale for the stay-at-home mother. This seems to be due to her idealized memories of her own mother, who haunts the book like the Ghost of Motherhood Past. But it's hard to believe that any human being could be the patron saint of domestic bliss that Jean Flanagan is made out to be. Indeed, there are hints that she would not want to be remembered that way. When her daughter was 12, Jean got a job. "To hell with it," she said, abandoning a plan to wash the kitchen wallpaper. And when Caitlin's twin sons were toddlers and she was feeling discontent, her mother thought she should go back to work. Never mind -- Jean stands for "a bygone age, as remote and recoverable as Camelot: a world of good meals turned out in orderly fashion, of fevers cooled without a single frantic call to the pediatrician."

Flanagan is tediously 1950s about gender roles: Girls should take home economics; boys should take shop. Also maddening is her penchant for whittling down her audience to a very small number of wealthy Americans. Forget the high-end preschool that her sons attend; this is a woman who writes of herself and her husband, "To my certain knowledge, neither one of us ever has changed the sheets." Ever?

Living on Waffles

Ruth Sidel's Unsung Heroines is a welcome antidote to all of this privilege. Sidel is a sociologist who studies single mothers; her book is a series of snapshots of women who are doing their best -- and often succeeding -- in circumstances that put in perspective the dilemmas of upper-middle-class families. One woman had six children in seven years. Then her husband walked out. She went on welfare, got a college degree and then a master's, remarried and became a "well-respected" professional, according to Sidel. "I had no money," the woman, now 62, remembers of the difficult period in her life. "For a time I lived on Pathmark waffles."

Steiner's book also does a good job with this broader terrain, most memorably in an essay by Jane Juska, a teacher and writer, about raising her son on her own. "I did what I had to do -- sent my sick child to school -- and it was wrong," she writes. Steiner says she wrote her book to help end the mommy wars. Women would "be far better off if we accepted and supported all good, if disparate, mothering choices," she argues. Well, sure. But do women (men, it's safe to say, aren't the audience) really read mommy lit to find or make peace? More likely, they read these books because they know their own choices are necessarily flawed, and they want to hear about the muddles that other women are in.

In one of the closing pieces in Mommy Wars , Anna Fels writes of the collapse of her friendship with Julia, a fellow pre-med major who stayed home with her kids while Fels went on to work as a psychiatrist. "In the end, we had made radically different choices that left us both uneasy," Fels writes. And she is brave enough to admit to "an inexcusable moment of schadenfreude" when she hears that one of Julia's children has a drug problem.

Then Fels analyzes the economic and structural impediments that mothers -- and fathers -- face in finding work that pays off financially and emotionally and intellectually without draining every drop from them. She talks about how the structure of work could change -- and how much further we are from that goal than the women who entered the workforce decades ago would have imagined. And she concludes: "There have got to be other choices. It is the losses built into women's current options that generate the defensive hostility of the 'mommy wars.' " She's right. The books are neither the problem nor the solution. They are a reminder of a half-finished revolution. ยท

Emily Bazelon is a senior editor at Slate.

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