I listen to "Dr. Laura" on long car trips when suffering a burst blood vessel to the brain seems preferable to falling asleep at the wheel. I find her bombastic, moralistic, insulting, hypocritical and utterly infuriating.
So I expected to be outraged by her two newest books: "Woman Power" and "The Proper Care & Feeding of Husbands" (HarperCollins, 2004). And the good "doctor" (she's not a medical doctor or a psychologist but she plays one on the radio) didn't disappoint.
The titles are such obvious taunts, and lines like these -- " 'Liberated' women have created wussy Frankensteins out of men" and "Far from being oppressed in their marriages, most wives are the oppressor" -- just whet my whistle for a righteous tirade.
I expected to shake my head in disbelief. What I didn't expect was to nod my head, occasionally, in agreement.
Let's call this a woman-bites-dog story.
Laura Schlessinger, 57, calls herself a "recovered feminist." Caught up in the early days of feminism in college in the 1960s, she got a Ph.D. in physiology at Columbia University and a license in marriage and family therapy. She married and divorced in her twenties, impressed a much-older radio talk show host (the one who sold the infamous nude photos of her a few years back), and launched her radio career.
"At age 35," she writes, "I had an epiphany and accepted that success needed a context to be perfected; the context was family." She married a divorced father of three, and had a son, now in his late teens. After she became a mother, she says, "all that feminist stuff fell off me like bad dandruff."
In its place: a yearning for the (alleged) good ol' days when men's and women's roles and priorities were clear and pure and right.
"There was a time, in our grandparents' generation," she writes, "when men were not seen as the evil empire, the source of a woman's misery and lack of accomplishment and happiness." The wicked feminist movement, she posits, changed all that.
In "The Proper Care & Feeding of Husbands" and its companion workbook, "Woman Power," Schlessinger says that "disrespect for men and disregard for the value, feelings and needs of husbands has fast become the standard for male-female relationships."
By taking good men for granted, Schlessinger argues, we doom ourselves to unhappy marriages. If we simply played our cards differently and more traditionally -- dinner on the table, no whining or sweatpants, lots of compliments and never too tired for sex -- we would retrain our puppies, er, husbands, they would worship us and everyone would be happy. (I'm humming the theme from "Happy Days.")
Still, Schlessinger cautions, no matter how nice we are, some husbands won't make the cut. Divorce them if they're alcoholic, abusive or adulterous, she advises (now that's going out on a limb). The rest can be coaxed with the honey she calls "woman power." As she writes, "When it comes to home and relationships, women rule."
Forgetting all the antifeminist bile, the wild generalizations and the rest of the crazy stuff in these two books (a feat possible only with advanced age), could that last sentence be true?
And if it is, what else does Schlessinger have to say that might actually make sense?
I dug through the radio doc's dumpster, and here's what I found:
1. "A good man is just that -- a man. A good man is not a best girlfriend." Well, I have noticed that my husband is not at all interested in debriefing after a party (i.e., making snide remarks about people's clothes, hair or taste in art), discussing the real meaning of a movie ("Was it about man's inhumanity to man?" he teases) or analyzing how our relationships with our own parents might be affecting our parenting ("What did I do this time?" he groans).
Schlessinger's advice: "Don't badger your husband for female-like expressions of feelings." In other words, accept him for who he is. Learn to "respect his masculine approach to life, family, challenges and problems."
As she told one radio show caller: "Honey, you've got to learn to accept what kind of animal you brought home. You can't knowingly bring home an elephant [or, in my case, a donkey] and then expect it to curl up in your lap and purr."
It's okay, admit it: That sounds almost wise.
2. "You're going to get a lot of love reflected back to you if you concentrate on the giving rather than nag about receiving." This seems ridiculously simple, Biblical even, but I find it hard to put into practice given all the years I've spent learning to ask for what I want. Is that nagging?
Schlessinger doesn't see the nuance. "All of this nagging, nitpicking and criticizing that men routinely get from their wives (be honest, girls, this is what we do) does not do much for their egos, which in turn results in them trying harder -- for a while -- and then giving up."
Instead, she encourages women to "approach this problem as they would a new puppy. I tell them that instead of constantly screaming 'No!' to every little annoyance, transgression or difference of perspective, opinion or style, they should compliment the heck out of the things they like and want. Betcha that way you'll get more of it!" My son's pediatrician, Dr. Dan, used to call this, "catching 'em when they're good."
Puppies, children, husbands, whatever. If it produces the desired result, why fuss about tactics?
3. Wives should take the first steps to reverse a bad dynamic "because we have more power to transform our men than they have to transform us." I take this to mean that men are both simple (Schlessinger's word) and malleable, and that if we women want changes, we should stop waiting for Godot and make them ourselves. If we do it right, Schlessinger promises, our men will be putty in our hands.
Yeah, but . . . what if we don't want to go first? What if we're sick of making the first move? (No, not that first move.) What if we're tired of being vulnerable and being nice when we feel like we're not getting any return on our investment?
Get an attitude transplant, Schlessinger would say. Women are more suited to the task, she writes -- we're more verbal, all this stuff is more important to us anyway, and men "forgive easier and are more easily corrected in their behaviors with positive feedback." [That puppy thing again.] And, besides, making nice first isn't a burden. It's our "awesome power."
Okay, I admit it, the standoff doesn't do anything for anybody. And it's possible that using our power to encourage, instead of our need to knock some sense into him, is a more effective way to get the changes we want.
4. "Marital communications would go much better if women would accept without rancor that men simply have different communications styles and imperatives." Enough begging for better verbal communication. Men aren't so good at the speaking parts. Instead, Schlessinger offers advice on interpreting men's nonverbal cues, particularly when it comes to love.
In other words, listen to what men do, not what they say.
"When he scrapes the ice off your car windshield," Schlessinger says, "that is love-speak. Men are made of action. Action is largely how men communicate."
When I think of men of action, I think of Spiderman and Batman and those goofy action figures my son used to play with. But I guess the radio doc is right about seeing men's actions as expressions of love equal to anything Cary Grant might say in the same circumstance.
Of course, if he's not speaking with actions or words, then you have another problem. Which, luckily, can easily be solved:
5. "Remember Mother Laura's prime directive: Never turn down a perfectly good orgasm because you're annoyed . . . or moody." Well, it's hard to argue with that. A good orgasm, like a good man, can be hard to find. Turn one down for a silly reason (like you're not on speaking terms with your husband), and you'll miss out on two things -- the potential for pleasure and a chance to connect on deeper terms.
"In addition to the obvious physical pleasure involved," she writes, "men desire sex in order to feel emotionally closer to their wives." For many women, the emotional closeness comes first, then the sex. But in the context of a long-term marriage, it may be useful to realize that for many men, it's sex first, intimacy later. In other words, instead of making closeness a condition of having sex, it can be a result.
As Schlessinger says, "Never stop being your husband's girlfriend and lover; and you will have the best of him as a man." Despite my initial nausea (and the serious misuse of a semicolon here), I believe this is probably true.
6. "I consider my first and foremost responsibility to be 'my kids' mom.' " Me, too. And so does every other working woman I know. I'm agreeing with Schlessinger here, but I get the obvious dig: Too many working women put their children in day care (call the police!) and aren't giving them the time and attention they need.
Puh-lease! Every working mother I know works hard to make the best choices she can for her children. Every working mother I know puts her kids first.
But I'm less hostile about Schlessinger's secondary point that "there are only so many hours in a day and only so much we can put our energies into. We have to make choices. And if you don't pick your husband as #1, that favor will, sadly, be returned."
Given the kid and the job and the commute, it's too easy to neglect the husband and the relationship. I plead (occasionally) guilty. Which leads me to my last point of begrudging agreement with Schlessinger:
7. "Many women actually believe they can have it all, and do it all well. Nope." I'm afraid she may be right on this score. We really can't have it all, at least, as others have said before me, not all at the same time. We can keep trying, and I will. But we have to be aware that something is always a bit neglected (including our own health: it's been so long since I've been to the gym, they've filed a missing persons report). I agree with Schlessinger when she says, "choices leave something behind."
But I thank the generations of feminists before me for ensuring that I have choices to make.
That's one point where the radio doc and I will have to agree to disagree. So many more, so little time.
Stefanie Weiss, a regular contributor to Health, last wrote for the section about menopause.