Women's Work

(Christopher Buzelli)
Reviewed by Rachel Hartigan Shea
Sunday, April 15, 2007


Are We Giving Up Too Much?

By Leslie Bennetts

Voice. 350 pp. $24.95

A pregnant friend once asked me why all the mothers she knew seemed so angry. "Lack of sleep and time," I shrugged. But that's not the reason, or not entirely. New mothers, or at least some, are angry because for the first time they've come up hard against the fundamental inequity between men and women. The biological differences -- excruciating childbirth, endless late-night nursing -- are stark enough, but the societal expectation that child care is a "women's issue" feels worse. After all these years of supposed equal rights, it seems men still have more important things to do than watch their children, a message relentlessly hammered home by the insufficient day care, inflexible employers and pressure to take "mommy-tracked" jobs that burden so many mothers' working lives.

It's enough to make a woman quit her job and retreat home, which is what an increasing number of well-educated and well-off women appear to be doing. Though the dip in the numbers of working mothers could be the result of the recession in the early part of the decade, it has been reported (even lauded) as a sign that women, no matter how accomplished, are returning to their traditional role of child rearing. Apparently the idea that women can balance work and family was just a silly fad.

Whether having their mothers focused solely on them benefits children is a topic of interminable and sometimes nasty debate, but Leslie Bennetts makes it absolutely clear that abandoning the workplace is not good for women. "It's hard to understand why so many women are willing to turn over their very ability to feed their children to another person who -- if history is any guide -- may not always live up to that responsibility," writes Bennetts in The Feminine Mistake, her important but flawed book.

Staying at home deprives women of the real satisfaction that outside work can bring, which Bennetts captures eloquently. But even more perilous is the threat that husbands can die, lose their jobs or move on to younger, friskier mates, all of which leaves women and their children vulnerable to financial disaster. A feminist slogan from the 1970s warned that women were "one husband away from welfare." Bennetts takes up that placard, pitching her polemic against stay-at-home motherhood not as a skirmish in the culture wars but as an attempt to save women on the brink of ruin.

Bennetts's ambitions are evident in The Feminine Mistake's title, which puts a twist on Betty Friedan's classic call to arms. A longtime journalist for the New York Times and Vanity Fair, Bennetts makes her argument with an onslaught of research as well as extensive interviews with women -- mostly from her own professional, East Coast milieu. The stories she recounts of divorce, widowhood and financial struggles by once secure, now panicked and floundering women are compellingly grim, if breathlessly repetitive. Bennetts, whose grandfather deserted her grandmother when Bennetts's mother was 9, obviously finds the idea of being dependent abhorrent and terrifying; she is barely able to conceal her disdain for women whose "willful ignorance" blinds them to the power, the self-sufficiency, that they've given up to stay at home with their children.

With anecdotes and bleak facts, Bennetts dispels the romantic fog that clouds clear thinking about marriage and motherhood. Let's start with the obvious: Nearly half of all marriages in America end in divorce. The rate is a bit lower among college graduates, but still a legitimate source of fear for those whose spouses are the sole breadwinner. Men tend to benefit financially from divorce, while their ex-wives usually see their standard of living sink by more than a third.

But that wouldn't happen to you, would it? If your husband left you or got hit by a bus or was thrown out of work, you'd just go out and get a job, right? Here's where The Feminist Mistake delivers a slap in the face: Only 74 percent of stay-at-home mothers who want to return to work land jobs; of these, only 40 percent are able to find full-time, professional employment. And that's after being out of work for an average of just 2.2 years. Women who expect their law degrees and MBAs and professional credentials to protect them are sadly mistaken: The study by the economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett that generated these brutal figures focused on "highly qualified women." While it's true that professional women may miss major developments in their fields during the time they've opted out, their career woes are rooted in employers' beliefs that mothers who have stayed home just aren't as serious, as committed to their work, as men are.

So mothers, whether stay-at-home or working, have plenty to be mad about. The condition of motherhood -- the embodiment of all the "family values" about which our politicians sermonize so odiously -- will make them either dependent on their husbands or subordinate to men in the workplace. And though fathers don't pay a career penalty for procreating, the current state of affairs hurts them as well: They're stuck trying to make enough money to cover the two incomes that today's economy requires, or they're as frazzled as their working wives, whom they barely ever see.

None of this is good for children. And Bennetts -- whose own children had the same paragon of a full-time babysitter from cradle to college -- doesn't provide a convincing answer to the question of who should watch the kids when their mothers work. Nor does she acknowledge how truly difficult the logistics of working and caring for children can be, especially for people at the lower end of the income scale. (As the mother of a preschooler, I know this all too well.) And she doesn't admit that some women may legitimately decide that caring for their children themselves is worth the financial risk. But Bennetts does make clear that if mothers continue to leave their jobs, instead of forcing employers and policymakers to address the real needs of real families, no solution will be found. Thanks to Bennetts's ferocious analysis of the economic realities that mothers face, the precariousness of their children's lives should be all the more difficult to ignore. *

Rachel Hartigan Shea is a contributing editor at Book World.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company