Desperate to be a housewife

  • 25 April 2006
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Caitlin Flanagan believes a woman's place is in the home, cleaning and minding the children. A former teacher and New Yorker columnist, her newly-published book of essays on matrimony, housewifery and child-rearing is causing chaos among American working mothers. She talks to Ailbhe Jordan in New York


It can be difficult to know whether women in the United States should be encouraged by or despairing of how society views them. We can see the success of women like Hillary Rodham Clinton, whom it is widely expected will run for president in 2008, and Katie Couric, who recently became the first female in American television history to anchor a night-time news programme after she nabbed the coveted anchor position at CBS evening news, a position once held by Dan Rather. On the other hand, the recent passing of a law in South Dakota that criminalised abortion except in the case of rape, incest or danger to the life of the mother highlighted how women's rights cannot be taken for granted, even those enshrined by the constitution.

Then there is the fact that, in the last year, two respected female American journalists have published books that deal with gender equality in a way that would not look out of place in a 1950s home-economics manual.

In her recent book, Are Men Necessary?, Maureen Dowd, columnist with the New York Times, deduced that women in search of partners were doing themselves no favours by having career ambitions or strong opinions.

Last week, To Hell with All That: Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife, by Californian writer Caitlin Flanagan, hit American book shelves – and something else hit the fan.

Unlike Dowd, Flanagan is a self proclaimed anti-feminist who makes no bones about the fact that she believes a woman's place to be in the home. Her articles, which focus on domestic life, the family and husband-wife relationships, have been enraging feminists and working mothers since they first started to appear in US-based current affairs magazine Atlantic Monthly five years ago. She is currently a staff writer for the illustrious New Yorker magazine.

"When a woman works, something is lost," she once proclaimed in an article, and that contention is the foundation upon which she builds most of her arguments about family life.

To Hell with All That is a collection of essays in which Flanagan opines on subjects ranging from sexless marriages to mother-nanny relationships, to the irony of traditional white weddings, which she describes as "a piece of theatre".

Last week, Flanagan travelled to New York from the wealthy Los Angeles suburb of Hancock Park, where she lives with her husband Rob Hudnut and their eight year old twins Patrick and Conor (named after Conor Cruise-O'Brien, whose wife is Flanagan's godmother).

"I'm here in New York for four days and that's my entire book tour," she says as firmly as her high, cartoonish voice would allow.

Flanagan is sipping a cup of tea in the plush Park Meriden Hotel, having just returned from an appearance on Today, America's highest-rated morning talk show.

Dressed in a pink cashmere cardigan buttoned over a high-necked white t-shirt and sensible grey trousers, she looks every inch the suburban American mom. A huge diamond sparkles on her slim, perfectly-manicured ring finger as she lifts her cup delicately, holding the saucer in her other hand.

"This is a big book, but I'm not going to one book store," she continues. "My publicist's not very happy about that but I have to be home – want to be home – with my children. I have to tell you, last night I called home and ... we have this thing at the dinner table every night called 'highs and lows'. My son Patrick got on the phone and I said: 'Hi Patrick, you know, high-low?' And he said: 'High is that I'm talking to you right now and low is that you left.' There it is, you know?"

Flanagan had what she describes as a traditional upbringing in Berkeley, California. Her father, Thomas Flanagan, was a professor of Irish literature at the University of California, who also wrote novels and contributed regular pieces to the New York Book Review. Her mother, Jean, was a trained nurse but did not work while Flanagan and her older sister were children.

"The person who had the skills set that I wanted was my mother," she says. "I really wanted to be, like, a really good cook and a really good homemaker. The last thing I wanted to be was a writer. My father was in Berkeley, his study was at the top of the house and you had to be very quiet when he was writing, you could never disturb him. There was a big tree right outside his window and sometimes I'd climb up so I could wave at him and he'd kind of wave at me and I was like: 'Who in the world would want that to be their life? Cloistered away from everybody, surrounded by books and typing?' So I guess I didn't want his skills set. I got it. So then I put my longing for this together with my ability for that and there was my subject."

When she was 12 years old, Flanagan's mother decided to return to work, much to her devastation.

"To my thinking, my mother's change of heart constituted child abandonment, plain and simple," she went on to write in a New Yorker piece.

"I missed her presence in the home, even though I was 12, and I missed the way that our household was when she was at home full-time," Flanagan explained.

Flanagan's critics have accused her of being a hypocrite. As a successful career woman herself, why criticise other mothers for wanting to work?

"I get what my critics are saying," she admits. "It's like: 'You've got this big book deal, you're a writer for the New Yorker but you're an at-home mother.' But I got this opportunity to write this column when the boys were two years, five months old, which was right when they were starting two hours of nursery school five days a week. It basically all flowed organically from there. In the beginning it was just, like, every now and then I'd write a column, news from home, you know? And then it grew and grew."

Flanagan insists that her criticisms are focused on working mothers who can afford to stay at home, but she has no advice to offer families where both parents must work to maintain economic stability.

"I'm not saying, like, I'm every woman, I don't think I stand for anyone," she says.

"I'm just telling you the choices I have made within the context of the luxury I have that my husband supports me. I can understand why someone in the lower income bracket has to work these hours, but why would two people at the top choose that? Their children must not be as important to them as their work. If you spend an hour in the morning and an hour at night being a brain surgeon, what kind of brain surgeon would you be? What always amazes me is people at the top of the pay scale, two-career couples, that they are allowing themselves to be worked that hard when they don't have to, economically."

Flanagan's enthusiasm for the stay-at-home life must also be assessed in the knowledge that it does not involve cleaning, cooking or gardening, for which she hires staff.

Whilst Flanagan may not please everyone with her subject matter, even her harshest critics have conceded that she writes with wit and intelligence. In a relatively short career span, she has earned two National Magazine Award nominations.

In the final, poignant chapter of her book, Flanagan describes her battle with breast cancer. She was diagnosed in January 2003, two years to the day after her mother's death.

"I don't want my husband now, I want my mother. For the first time, two years after watching her die I realise – I truly understand, to the marrow of my bones – that I have lost her," she wrote as she recalled walking out of the doctor's office, bleeding and shaken after a biopsy.

Like adolescents who are loath to admit that their mother is right, many critics refuse to acknowledge that at least some of what Flanagan says makes sense.

"What really bothers critics about Flanagan is that, no matter how vociferously they disagree with her on some things, they find themselves agreeing with much of what she writes," wrote New York Times book critic Pamela Paul in a recent review of To Hell with It.

An example is Flanagan's reasoning as to why she thinks women make better homemakers than men.

"I just think it's a really good idea to have one parent home full-time with the kids. That parent can absolutely be the father," she says.

"But I think what doesn't work is that a lot of times in that arrangement, the wife can't really let go of the domestic stuff. So she'll come home and say: 'Well he didn't wash the way I would have done the washing and I'm angry about that or I thought he was going to pick up all this stuff on the floor and he hasn't picked it up.' Because she's got a womanly view of what needs to be done."

Nevertheless, many of Flanagan's ideals seem rooted in a simple, sentimental reverence for the "good old days" – a phrase she uses liberally throughout the book. Does she really think that women were better off in the good old days of pre-feminist America?

"Absolutely not, and in some ways, you bet," she says. "The absolutely not is ... you know ... you can go through all the different laws that have been created that lifted women up, from availability of birth control, from legalising abortion, from legal pay for work. But, you know, I think it was satisfying to have a lifestyle where our homes were really nice, they were really important, we considered them a haven and, you know ... that term 'homemaker', someone has to make the home." p

Name: Caitlin Flanagan

Born: Berkeley, California, 1962. Her father, Thomas Flanagan, was a well-known writer and academic who was born in Derrydonnelly, Co Fermanagh.

Why she's in the news: Caitlin Flanagan believes that a woman's role in life is to keep an ordered home, raise the children and her husband's pulse when he comes in from a hard day at the office. The New Yorker's anti-feminist provocatrice, the home-based mother-of-two never fails to wound her targets, namely successful career mothers, with precise prose bullets like: "When a woman works, something is lost."

Last week saw the US release of her new book, To Hell with It: Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife.