By Ron Charles
Wednesday, August 18, 2010; C01
By Mona Simpson
Knopf. 369 pp. $26.95.
Almost 50 years have passed since Betty Friedan published "The Feminine Mystique," but just last month we ran this headline in The Post: "Working mothers not necessarily harmful to children's development." How's that for reassuring when you're running off to a conference with mashed banana on your blouse? Loaded pistols in the nursery aren't necessarily harmful either, but good grief, lady, why take that risk! And by the way, what's for dinner?
Plenty of feminists have noted that, having failed to keep women barefoot and pregnant, we've switched to another crippling strategy: waving them off to work with a purse full of guilt and apprehension, encouraging them to worry they're not good mothers or competent employees. Men have similar worries, of course, but that just means they're great dads and conscientious workers. Besides, we're all thoroughly modern, liberated partners now, so any anxieties mom might be feeling are entirely in her imagination. Glass ceiling? No, no, that's a Tiffany skylight.
Especially in a high-powered town like Washington, we're unsettled about the economics of parenting and the politics of child care -- who should do it, who should want to do it and what it's worth to us. Not much, according to recent data: about $11 an hour, usually without health insurance. It's more lucrative to take care of a couple's car than their child. Who knows what else Mary Poppins is swallowing with that spoonful of sugar just to get through the day.
My favorite novel last year, Lorrie Moore's "A Gate at the Stairs," had a lot to say about the strange tensions of parenting and child care, but it didn't focus on the issue as intensely as an engaging new novel by Mona Simpson -- her first since 2000 -- called "My Hollywood." It takes place in the late 1990s, when mothers have already been working for decades. Anyone still moaning about gender inequality sounds shrill or incompetent because women can have it all! In fact, they've got to: Take care of the house, raise the kids, work full time and feel grateful when their modern husbands condescend to clear the table.
The story, which is vaguely autobiographical, is partially narrated by a successful composer named Claire, who finds parenting nothing like what she imagined. "I assumed I'd have children and work," she says. "He, the putative he, would work a little less and I'd work a little less and the kid would have long hair, paint-spattered overalls, and be, in general, a barrel of monkeys." Sitting home alone with her baby, she recalls that on their very first date, the man she eventually married understood exactly the child-care arrangement she wanted: "With a woman who worked, it'd have to be fifty-fifty. . . . Of course."
Fifty-fifty. Of course. How easily we can all agree on that equitable division of labor. And yet how exactly does that work once the stork drops down an actual, screaming, pooping baby? Claire's husband, Paul, is a TV comedy writer -- a high-income but precarious job that keeps him at the network late every night. (Simpson was once married to Richard Appel, a writer on "The Simpsons," who named Homer's mom after her.) When Claire complains that her music requires hours of quiet, uninterrupted time, Paul has an easy remedy (he always has an easy remedy):
"Just give him to a babysitter and get to work."
"But he cries," Claire says.
"Then let him cry."
The success of this absorbing novel rests on Simpson's ability to make that well-worn marital argument just as uncomfortable and perplexing as it was when you were having it with your own spouse. The tyranny of La Leche fanatics, the reduction of one's career to a hobby, and the futile competition with tight-tummied moms who always have Ziploc bags of organic apple slices -- all the withering insecurities of motherhood are captured here in Claire's stream-of-conversation patter, a mixture of acerbic wit and nervous despair from a smart woman who can't figure out how she can write music and care for a child without growing shrewish and unpleasant.
Simpson is particularly astute with the depressing logic of dad's need to work late at the office. "My Hollywood" never demonizes Paul or even subjects him to particularly harsh satire. The point, after all, is that he's perfectly normal -- devoted, charming and great with children. And, anyway, Claire thinks he's right: He's the breadwinner, he has important meetings to attend and tough deadlines to meet. In the end, it's a game of marital chicken, and the spouse with the flexible, stay-at-home job always yields first. "He proved able to live with my regular disappointment," Claire confesses with the irritation that will eventually consume her. "I could, apparently, live with his working whenever the hell he wanted."
What really invigorates this novel, though, is the way it alternates between Claire's chapters and chapters narrated by Lola, her 50-year-old Filipino nanny. I was worried early on that Lola would be a Southeast Asian version of the Magical Negro, who exists merely to help some self-absorbed white person reach enlightenment. But she's entirely her own wonderful, troubled character, and her relationship with Claire remains complex and unresolved. In lightly fractured English, Lola describes the constant pressure to send more money back to her own children while farming out her affections to high-income Americans who speak of her as one of the family (like a kindly aunt you can fire at will). "We are status symbols," she jokes with her fellow nannies, "like a BMW." She comes to play a crucial role in Claire's life and the life of Claire's rambunctious son, but she never forgets that "raising children, it is all the same story -- they grow above you. And you are no longer needed. They have a name for that here -- obsolete. Things outlive their use, even people."
Through Lola and her friends, we're introduced to a tight network of immigrant child-care workers, women charged with the ultimate responsibilities but subjected to casual humiliations, plied with lavish compliments and stung by racist assumptions, exhorted to stay except when they're being threatened with deportation. They're an agile, wary group, these nannies, sometimes servants, sometimes teachers, stand-in mothers and pinch-hitting maids. It's a poignant vision of the upstairs-downstairs structure that persists in our officially classless society.
Some of the best chapters here, in Lola's voice, stand alone as powerful short stories; indeed, parts of this novel have already appeared in Harper's, the Atlantic, "The Best American Short Stories" and on "This American Life." Simpson may seem focused on the peculiar troubles of the rich and their servants, but with her incisive portrayal of the frustrations felt by working parents, "My Hollywood" could easily be "Our Country."
Charles is the fiction editor for The Post. You can follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/roncharles.