To Hell With All That: Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewives, by Caitlin Flanagan (Little, Brown, 272 pp., $22.95)
Caitlin Flanagan and I have never met, but I knew her mother. She was a classic 1960s housewife–skilled in household tasks, unflappable and frugal, never fretful, utterly devoted to her family while engaged with the wider world. Her daughters happily trotted around after her, “whiling away a childhood leaning on the counters of dry cleaners and shoe repairmen,” rather than expecting her to race them from ballet class to soccer practice. She didn’t care a whit about status and wasn’t flush with cash. Most of us remember her because, as for her daughter, “the work she did was wholly connected to the life we were living.”
Flanagan, a mother of young twins, explains that she began writing To Hell With All That: Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewives shortly after her mother’s death, as she was “just beginning to realize that her life–lived though it was in the shadow of someone with a successful career–may have been not only the more worthwhile, but perhaps also the most rewarding.” Flanagan yearns for that same life and sharply rebukes the modern women’s movement because “it refuses to acknowledge a truth as old as civilization: that a woman’s ambition to be a wife and mother can be just as powerful as her ambition to become a respected member of the labor force. For me, and for many other women, it is much stronger.” Although she has been ruffling feminist feathers for years, Flanagan offers no universal prescriptions or calls to action. Her sharp insights are the product of her personal certainties.
Readers not familiar with her stylishly written essays on family life for The Atlantic Monthly and The New Yorker, some of which reappear in the book, are in for a treat. Her observations on “the things that have always interested me the most: women and children, households and marriages,” are witty, fresh, and unfailingly honest about the choices and challenges facing young women.
Oblivious of the land mines a more circumspect writer would gingerly avoid, Flanagan tackles the contradictions, pitfalls, and pretenses of modern marriages, motherhood, and parenting.
She begins at the altar. According to her take on the pretenses of the $70 billion-a-year wedding industry, blushing brides wouldn’t be a thing of the more innocent past if today’s boldly liberated brides in their elaborate white gowns were capable of embarrassment. Instead, “What patsies these poor clergy members must feel like. . . primly instructing a young man who has been living with his girlfriend for the past three years that he ‘may kiss the bride.’ Well, why not? He’s been doing God knows what else to her since the night they met at the softball league happy hour.”
Flanagan provides refreshingly realistic rejoinders to the tired laments of the sisterhood still preoccupied with politicizing household chores in the name of women’s equality and more recently caterwauling about the unbearable burdens of mothering. Simply put, “Men can be cajoled into doing all sorts of household tasks, but they will not do them the way a woman would.” And, “American middle-class families have made child rearing a dauntingly complex enterprise.” She confesses that she is not immune from the intense demands of modern motherhood despite her recognition that they are self-imposed. Because public events are now a test of how much we competitive parents love our children, she ruefully allows, “I would sooner miss a blood transfusion than an open house.”
Uncomfortable truths are her specialty. The fact that the women movement’s achievements–predicated on freeing women from housework and child care–”have been bought at the expense of poor women, often of poor brown-skinned women, is a bitter irony that very few feminists will discuss directly, other than to murmur something vague about ‘universal day care’ and then, on reflex, blame the Republicans.” Her own experiences with just such a poor woman are affectionately and emotionally related. “That I knew my boys would love her is why I hired her. That they did was unnerving me to the core,” she writes.
Little in the current landscape of hearth and home escapes Flanagan’s dissection and diagnosis. She believes the wistful allure of a well-ordered home fuels the demand for Martha Stewart’s glamorous version of housekeeping. The anti-clutter movement, with its own clutter of organizing boxes and baskets, and the rapt audience for advice about “scheduled parenting” and orchestrated family dinners also reflect a yearning for the simpler past.
The only thing missing from affluent American households, according to Flanagan, is the one thing you can’t buy: “the presence of someone who cares deeply and principally about that home and the people who live in it. . . “
Come Mother’s Day, this delightful book would be the perfect gift for that someone, who might be looking to find her “inner housewife.”
–Kate O’Beirne is the author of Women Who Make the World Worse: and How Their Radical Feminist Assault Is Ruining Our Schools, Families, Military, and Sports.