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Liberated but bound

Writer Caitlin Flanagan on where feminism went wrong

Liberated but bound
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Caitlin Flanagan's To Hell with All That: Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife (Little, Brown, 2006) is a perceptive look at contemporary womanhood that doesn't shy away from the emotionally fraught issues captured by the term "mommy wars." A staff writer on The New Yorker, she has often described middle- and upper-middle-class women who have options their mothers could only dream of. Yet despite the choices, many modern women are deeply anxious and unhappy. Why?

WORLD: The women you write about don't seem very happy. They're anxious about their decision to work or stay home. They're ambivalent about housekeeping. They aren't even having sex. What makes them so nervous?

FLANAGAN: I think the women's movement demonized some of the most valuable and worthwhile work in the world: making a home for the people who love you. It's true that modern women feel two powerful impulses coming into collision: the impulse to make a mark on the larger world, and the one to make a deep and lasting impression on the daily lives of their families. It would be uncharitable to dismiss this conflict as minor. But they have not been served well by the lingering contempt for men which has been an unfortunate byproduct of the women's movement.

WORLD: For Christians, the idea that marriages are happiest when spouses try to serve each other is hardly revolutionary-although they might fall short of the goal. Why does that notion bother so many non-Christians so much?

FLANAGAN: I don't think non-Christians are bothered by the notion of a husband serving a wife-they're all for that, let me assure you! It's the notion of a wife being equally obligated to her husband that makes them anxious. You have to remember that the women's movement was built on a powerful notion of liberation-liberation from unjust laws, from unfair customs and expectations. The movement achieved powerful aims quickly. Historically, some of those women were a bit short-sighted: A lot of the discriminatory employment law they railed against had been created not to cheat women but to protect jobs for the returning servicemen of the Second World War, the men who saved civilization and deserved, at the very least, employment once they got home. Still, an unfair law is an unfair law, and to their infinite credit, those women overturned a lot of them-and quickly.

What has lingered, though, is a sense that women are still being oppressed and that they have to be on guard all the time. You end up with these crazy arrangements-the wife decides to stay home with the children, but she's darned if she's going to clean, or cook, or do the laundry. She's been liberated from those horrible chores! And the poor husband who works all day to support the family comes home to no dinner, no orderly household, and a cheesed-off wife who hands him a cranky baby and complains about her day.

WORLD: You write that professional women who have chosen to stay home have "given up on the power and autonomy of work for one signal reason: to ensure that their children get the very best of themselves. And every day they're raising the stakes and the standards on what is required to be a good mother." Isn't that a huge burden for kids to bear?

FLANAGAN: Excellent point-the child is not a commodity or a status symbol. A child comes into the world with a fully evolved soul. It is our job to care for her and help her discover her own talents and strengths-and also to give her a moral framework, a love of God, and an education. It is not necessarily our job to turn our kids into the next superstar athlete or diplomat or artist.

I am a firm believer that we need to give kids back their chores. My boys wash the family van every week, they set and clear the dinner table, they take care of the pets. A friend told me that when he was growing up, the kids in his family were in charge of their own laundry from the moment each one was tall enough to reach the dials on the washer and dryer. I took that one to heart! My boys wash all their own clothes as well as the family's towels. Is there much use in this world for yet another yellow belt in karate? Probably not. But a clean towel never goes amiss.

I also believe church and mission work are important for kids. If you teach a child how to give, you teach him how to find joy. I credit my husband for teaching me how to give to others recklessly and wholeheartedly. I want our children to learn that too.

WORLD: The tendency is to push kids into all kinds of special activities . . .

FLANAGAN: Do 6-year-olds really need to be stressed-out by competitive sports and Japanese lessons and art classes? Nail a basketball hoop over the garage door, buy a sandbox and some Crayola crayons-that should about do it for the average 6-year-old! The contemporary overscheduled child is a victim of the tensions that have evolved between the working and the at-home moms. Former career women organize kids' events as though they were corporate takeovers, and working moms-not to be outdone in the mom department-stay up all night decorating Valentine cookies that kids hardly notice. Are the kids being served by this-or are the moms? And if it's more about the mothers' needs than the kids' needs, why do the women resent it all so much?

WORLD: You suggest that all these expectations have not improved family life . . .

FLANAGAN: If you want a rewarding family life that is centered on meaningful time spent together, you may have to reduce the family's achievement and performance in the outside world. If you really want to get to know your child, to impart your deepest values to him and to fill him up with things that matter to you-don't race him off to a dozen high-pressure activities. Take him with you to the grocery store and the dry cleaners, let him play close by while you cook dinner or read the mail. You can center the family's value system on achievement and profit or on meaningful time together. It's a choice.

WORLD: Feminists complain when you write about Martha Stewart and women's emotional connection to housekeeping . . .

FLANAGAN: It doesn't mean we like it! It means we care about it. When's the last time you saw a married man hunker down with a copy of Martha Stewart Living? When's the last time a man said, "I've got two days off and I'm finally going to get that linen closet organized!" If there's housework that needs to be done, and if that work has been apportioned fairly, men will do it. But they will not do it the way a woman would. Don't expect a husband to fold all the guest towels so that the borders match up perfectly! A wife wants things done a certain way-she cares about the way housework is performed. That's the "emotional attachment." Most arguments about housework aren't the result of a husband not helping out-they are the result of his not accomplishing his work in a womanly manner.

WORLD: You survived advanced breast cancer. How did that experience change your perspective?

FLANAGAN: There was a period of time in which I thought I might not see my children grow up. What more can I say?

WORLD: You mention taking your children to church. What do you believe about God and how has that influenced your thinking about what's important in life?

FLANAGAN: I believe that God is always with us, that He hears our prayers and that He moves powerfully in the world. I believe that God reveals Himself to us in sorrow and tragedy as much as in the fullness and happiness of life.

Susan Olasky

Susan is a former WORLD book reviewer, story coach, feature writer, and editor. She has authored eight historical novels for children and resides with her husband, Marvin, in Austin, Texas.



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