Who’s The Fairest Wife Of All?


Modern woman Caitlin Flanagan thinks a mother’s place is in the home

For many women of my acquaintance, reading essayist Caitlin Flanagan is like deciding to take a walk through the woods in the fall during hunting season. The colors are so gorgeous, they call to you. The pungent smell of the literary terrain is reassuringly familiar. Really, what could hurt you in here, in this forest of glittering words? Still, you’re alert, watching for strange movements, threatening forms. After writing a series of controversial pieces in The Atlantic Monthly, Flanagan was tapped to cover family life for The New Yorker, and the essay that arrived in a recent issue is about P. L. Travers, the deceased author of Mary Poppins. What could be more delightful? More good fun? It’s the kind of tale that Flanagan’s father, a highly regarded novelist, professor of Irish literature, and New York Review of Books intellectual, excelled at: “potted biographies,” as one admiring reviewer described the pieces in Thomas Flanagan’s posthumous collection There You Are, “rich in detail, telling of Eugene O’Neill’s fascination with the sea, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s love of Keats…”

Yet each step further into the dimming light is more halting. Irish poet Seamus Heaney said that though his friend Tom wielded a rhetorical sword, “it would be wrong to ascribe murderousness to the blade.” His daughter may be a different story. Mary Poppins was a nanny, after all, and Caitlin Flanagan on nannies—is that the sound of crunching leaves?

“I read the article she wrote in The Atlantic, and I just felt crucified,” says the best-selling novelist Jennifer Weiner, referring to Flanagan’s most infamous piece, “How Serfdom Saved the Women’s Movement.” In it, she argues that professional women have entered the workforce on the backs of poor immigrant nannies and that the children of these lawyers and doctors and executives love their nannies more than they do their own mothers: “To con oneself into thinking that the person who provides daily physical care to a child is not the one he is going to love in a singular and primal way—a way obviously designed by nature herself to cleave child to mother and vice versa—is to ignore one of the most fundamental truths of childhood.” Weiner had just hired someone to care for her infant daughter 20 hours a week.

Oh, here it comes. Get ready to throw yourself to the ground, girls, press your face into the wetness. “It is Mary Poppins,” Flanagan proclaims, “who earns the deepest love a child has to offer: that which is bound in his trusting dependence on the person who provides his physical care.” (If that has a familiar ring, Flanagan is nothing if not “a thrifty husbandman of [her] own prose,” as her father once described Fitzgerald. Her first book, To Hell With All That: Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife, out this month, is largely a greatest-hits compilation, slightly remixed, from her five-year magazine career.)

The shot has been fired: You’re a bad mother! In other essays: You’re a bad wife! Or: You’re a feminist, of all the wretched things!

Ladies, relax. Likely that’s what Flanagan would say, laughing, if she heard this recounting of the impact of her writing. (Or she might be flattered—isn’t good writing supposed to provoke?) To Hell With All That is the Los Angeles-based Flanagan’s bid to go big-time, to break out of the rarefied confines of intellectual magazines and find fans among the much larger TV/newsmagazine/self-help audience and perhaps even among the likes of Rush Limbaugh and right-wing talk radio. “Paths are opening up in the media world,” she tells me, adding that she’s already been booked on the Today show, though she doesn’t want to leave the wrong impression. “I have a profound sense that this book is not about, Is it a big book, a hot book, a best-seller? I feel very strongly that there are people—I don’t know if it’s a lot or a few—who need it,” she says, almost whispering. She’s referring to the book’s one completely fresh essay, about her struggle with breast cancer, from which she has recovered. “I have a very strong feeling that I’m going to get a letter. It’s going to say, ‘I was in the midst of cancer, and I was low as I’ve ever been, and I wasn’t going to go through with [treatment], and then I read about your home and your family and your husband, and the love you have there is worth anything’—” she breaks off. “I’m going to get that letter.”

If you’ve read Flanagan, you might conclude that she’s already practicing for her debut before the masses. Her reverent tone, the New Agey diction—it’s about as different as you can get from her New Yorker-Atlantic Monthly voice, which is an affecting blend of WASPy formality, arch humor, and a cheeky, un-P.C. willingness to, for example, call teenage girls who give blow jobs “little whores,” as she did in a January piece in The Atlantic examining the supposed oral-sex craze among adolescents. Her writing goes down as easy as top-shelf whiskey after a long, hard day—until, of course, you reach one of her little bombs. “What few will admit—because it is painful, because it reveals the unpleasant truth that life presents a series of choices, each of which precludes a host of other attractive possibilities—is that when a mother works, something is lost,” she writes in the “Serfdom” essay. Lest you take these words at face value and think, Hey, something is gained, too!, she yanks away the parachute in the next sentence. “Children crave their mothers,” she says, then proceeds to make a bunch of assertions that lead to the inescapable conclusion that professional working women are selfish, pursuing their desires heedless of their children’s “agony.”

As it happens, my own reactivity on the shoot-myself-or-shoot-Flanagan meter is only in the middling range, probably because I decided to work fewer hours once I had my two daughters. (“Good,” Flanagan commends me.) I also sympathize with her lamentations about the scarcities endemic to two-career households. When both parties work a “punishing” day, she observes, who’s around to attend to a couple’s emotional life? “No one has spent even a moment planning a gentle reentry into home life,” she writes, “let alone plotting a thrilling seduction.” To her credit, if you’re a working mother and wife, you just can’t get through a Flanagan piece without thinking hard about your own choices. On the other hand, thinking hard about what Flanagan is actually trying to say—what her work stands for beyond the succor of sparkling prose—may be something she should hope her readers will avoid.

But first there is the gerbil. Driving to meet Flanagan, I call home to Brooklyn and learn that our gerbil has just died. My elder girl is a little sad, my babysitter tells me, but doing okay. My younger, barely two, doesn’t know the difference. I feel a twinge of guilt for not being there, and it’s the first thing I mention once Flanagan and I settle in to talk in the sunroom of her large, gracious home in L.A.’s affluent Hancock Park. What will she say, this woman who insists that children suffer if their mother works at all, who loved teaching high school English but wouldn’t think of returning until her twin boys, eight years old, are in college “because I would never be away from my kids”?

“She’ll grow from it,” Flanagan says winningly. “Your daughter will grow from her gerbil dying while you’re not there.” There isn’t a hint of disingenuousness in her voice; indeed, she’s so earnest I worry that I’ve exaggerated “Gerby’s” place in our hearts. Maybe she’s different in person than on paper.

After a while, thankfully, the conversation turns from dead rodents to hot food. We’ve gotten here because though Flanagan moons over the domestic arts in her writing, she also jauntily reports that in her married life, she has never so much as changed a sheet or been asked to sew on a button, nor could she tell you the price of a single item in her refrigerator. (She also tells me that she’s not a “big doer of laundry.”) I ask her why she glorifies housewifery when she shuns its tasks. “For the ’50s housewife, the standards in a sense were a lot lower. You know she’s putting the roast into the oven or whatever,” she offers. “Modern standards of housekeeping are deplorably low—when you go into these houses, they do not eat hot food.” Her voice drops, as if she’s telling a devastating secret. “They do not eat hot food!” she repeats in staccato. “Things are getting nuked. They’re eating subpar, rotten food, but then you go to a dinner party at their house and you think Paul Bocuse has been there.”She sounds genuinely disgusted.

For the next few minutes, Flanagan expounds on home-cooked meals, saying how much she missed them when she was sharing an apartment just out of college, working some “dopey job” in Washington, DC. “I felt so lonely, and so sad, and so unwelcome, and I just think it’s really great when, if someone’s out all day and working, and working, and working—and some days he might be late,” she adds, the “her” being her husband, Rob, whose last name Flanagan does not like to reveal but who, as has been written elsewhere, is a Mattel executive who produced Barbie in the Nutcracker and Barbie of Swan Lake. “I always have his dinner out. It’s not fancy. But someone had a hot meal waiting for him. Someone loved him. Someone thought he was out all day dealing with business. It’s like you come through that door, Yeah, a hot meal,” she says dreamily.

“Now, that’s just personal,” she says, with sudden briskness. “This is no prescription for a happy life.” Huh? “I mean, I have a really good friend who’s an incredible television executive. Her husband’s a really highly placed writer. They rock out their lives to the nth degree. Their son’s a good friend of ours. I love going to their house. They, you know, order in everything,” Flanagan continues. “Everybody feels very loved there. It’s just different styles.”

“But that’s not how you write,” I protest. “I mean, do you think your friend is as deeply connected to her son as you are to yours?”

“No,” she says quietly.

“Have you two talked about that?”

“That,”Flanagan replies, “would be a wounding thing.”

After the interview, I go back to my sister’s house, where I’m staying in L.A. Like Flanagan, Shelley has two children and would describe herself as a stay-at-home mom. But at my sister’s, things are far more harried than at Flanagan’s, where the house and mistress of—dressed in a crisp white shirt, a pink cardigan with jeweled buttons, jeans, and fuchsia leather flats—appears impeccably kept. I try to tell my sister what Flanagan’s all about: “She writes about how women should devote themselves to their children and husbands, how we’re naturally drawn to housekeeping, and how feminism has led women astray, made them unhappy.”

“Uh-huh,” my sister says, while refereeing her daughters’ tug-of-war over a calico kitten and slapping some peanut butter and jelly on bread for their lunches.

“But she had a full-time nanny for the first three years of her children’s lives and also stayed home,” I add, “and her personal organizer interrupted us a couple of times while I was there, and she never cleans or anything like that.”

My sister snaps to attention.”If she likes it so much, why doesn’t she do it?”

Shelley’s is the simplest retort to Flanagan’s oeuvre. Flanagan bemoans the extravaganzas that have become children’s birthday parties but still throws lavish hoo-has for her boys; she opines that there isn’t “a nanny in the world who has not received a measure of love that a child would rather have bestowed on his mother,” then hires one herself; she pokes fun at “professional-class” women’s anticlutter fetish, then hires a personal organizer for weekly visits. I don’t begrudge Flanagan her luxuries, but she’s so oppressed by them. It’s ironic, because there is nothing that honks off Flanagan more than privileged women who play the victim—that is, privileged women who whine about balancing work and family life. “If you want to make an upper-middle-class woman squeal in indignation, tell her she can’t have something,”Flanagan writes.

“You seem to ridicule women who are struggling to balance work and family,” I tell her, kicking off one of what would be many circular exchanges with her.

“No, that’s a profoundly important issue on a personal level.”

“But you just told me the personal is political,” I say. (Explaining how feminism was once noble but had outlived its usefulness, Flanagan’s exact words were: “The feminist movement had this notion that the personal is political. I thought that was a brilliant formulation.”)

“I just think if someone’s making a six-figure salary, I just don’t care about them anymore,” Flanagan concludes—which is pretty funny, considering that the six-figure gals have to be her most natural demographic—or maybe it’s the gals with six-figure husbands. They’re the ones who don’t have jobs (Flanagan likes to say she doesn’t have a “real job”) but do have full-time nannies.

Then again, isn’t Flanagan really a working mother, as that term is commonly understood? When I try to get her to acknowledge her uncanny resemblance to one, you’d think I was trying to get her to admit that she’s a stripper.

“Aren’t you a working mother?” I ask.

“All mothers are working mothers,” Flanagan replies.

“Working mother outside the home, I mean.”

“No, I’m never outside the home when I work,” she replies. (Geez, I fell right into that one.)

“But you do have an office in the house? You’re not typing in the kitchen, right?”

“When the boys were really little I did. I sat at the kitchen table. I sat right there and worked.” And so on.

I ask her whether she still has regular child care.”I don’t want to get into the specifics of that,”she says, “because it’s so personal, but I would say there’s a lot more cleaning help at this point. I have help with the kids sometimes, babysitting.”

Interestingly, Flanagan’s husband apparently wasn’t the one who agitated for the strict division of labor in their home, says her good friend novelist Christina Schwarz. “[Caitlin] introduced the idea that she wanted to stay home,”she says. “He was working for himself, and one of the reasons he decided he needed to get a corporate job was so that she could raise the children the way she wanted to raise children. I think if she believed something entirely different, he would be convinced of that.” (Schwarz hastens to add that she respects Rob’s openness to accommodating his wife’s wishes.)

The 1970s antifeminist Phyllis Schlafly, a mother of six, was famous for the working-mom feint—she tirelessly roamed the country telling other mothers to stay home with the kids—but as Barbara Ehrenreich, the author of Nickel and Dimed, the runaway best-seller about the struggles of the working poor, tells me, “It’s an impossible position. Unless [Flanagan] has some new writing technique we don’t know about.” Speaking of which, Weiner was so undone by Flanagan’s child-rearing edicts that she put a fictional version of her in her latest novel, Goodnight Nobody, and the character does have a writing technique of sorts. She has a ghostwriter, whose untimely death takes place in the kitchen, via a Henckels carbon-steel butcher knife.

One reason readers who are working mothers hang in there with Flanagan—no matter how much she makes their “teeth hurt,” as one woman told me—is that her essays appear in two places that are known for publishing thoughtful, jazzy writing. “This is not showing up in some crazy tract that gets shoved under your windshield,” as Weiner says.

That The Atlantic and The New Yorker have been challenged over the past few years for publishing only a smattering of women—and have pledged to address it, though so far to little effect—only puts Flanagan’s work in starker relief. (Not coincidentally, very few of the prominent female writers I called to discuss Flanagan’s work agreed to comment, and I heard directly and through the grapevine that at least three of them kept quiet because they were wary of antagonizing both magazines.)

“Media executives love the idea of a quote-unquote catfight between the stay-at-home mother and the working mother,” says Ehrenreich, who also debated Flanagan online about her “Serfdom” essay. “The media love a fight, and they’ll do anything to pick it, including fielding people like her.”

Another reason Flanagan might find much favor in the male-dominated magazine-of-ideas milieu is that her compassion for the plight of men is boundless, while women, frequently, should just shut up and put out. “In the old days,” Flanagan writes, “a housewife understood that in addition to ironing her husband’s shirts and cooking the Sunday roast, she was, with some regularity, going to have relations with the man of the house.”

Essayist and ELLE columnist Daphne Merkin, who used to cover much the same territory as Flanagan for The New Yorker, calls her a “throwback to a less threatening, more reassuring kind of woman writer.” Like neoconservative Midge Decter, Flanagan understands the difficulty—”call it the ‘ache,'” Merkin says, tongue in cheek—of being a man. “They share a sense of writing from above the fray and of being beyond self-implication,” Merkin says. “Flanagan’s own life is not to be used as paradigmatic except where and when she chooses.”

Of course, Flanagan’s contrarian perch at the otherwise fairly liberal New Yorker might make her the ideal Fox News pundit or a darling of cultural conservatives like The New York Times‘ David Brooks. “Her insights on women and work are witty and refreshing,” says Danielle Crittenden, a conservative writer on women’s issues. “What I like about her is that she’s broken the feminist mold.”

Flanagan herself says she’s “very open to quote-unquote red state people” embracing her book, though whether that translates into her being willing to trade bon-mots with Sean Hannity remains to be seen. She sees herself as an ideological free agent. “I’m disillusioned with Democrats and Republicans,” she says.

Some of Flanagan’s observations resonate deeply with liberals, in fact—the most obvious being that people who hire nannies should follow the law and pay their Social Security taxes to assure them retirement benefits. Her advocacy on behalf of hired household help has earned her blogger fans (and she might be expected to collect some more acolytes among stay-at-home moms who hear her on the Today show—though perhaps they should skip the book: Flanagan depicts herself in one essay as giggling about how nonworking moms at her boys’ preschool need to “get a life”).

My own affinity with Flanagan goes beyond taxes. She tells me how she stopped herself from rushing around running errands with her boys one day, acceding to their request that the three of them while away the afternoon in the school library instead. “I just feel that kids need someone who’s really knowing them, really seeing them, and really letting them feel that their mom’s time isn’t this precious commodity,” she says. ” ‘There’s never enough—how can I get on her schedule?’ ”

I know how hard it is to create wide-open time with kids, and I know they love it. But even Schwarz doesn’t buy Flanagan’s dogma about the ruination that ensues when mothers aren’t on duty 24/7. “I know some wonderful young adults who spent a lot of time in day care,” she says. Schwarz would like to believe that her friend is right, because she too turned down the burners on her career after she had a child. “But I don’t, honestly.”

What can be the source of Flanagan’s impassioned advocacy for stay-at-home motherhood—a role she can claim only with a wink and a nod? “The pieces are really hyperbolic, but I get that she’s trying to make her career as a journalist,” says one of Flanagan’s mother-friends who works long hours and asks not to be identified. “There’s got to be some sizzle there. But if you know her, you know she doesn’t think she’s better than you. You know how insecure she is…. I’m just reading her for a kernel of humor.”

Similarly, Atlantic Monthly editor Ben Schwarz, who launched Flanagan’s writing career by assigning her book reviews, told The New York Observer, “She’s a smart enough writer that she knows she has to create a persona.” Ben is also the husband of Flanagan’s friend Christina Schwarz, and as the story goes, Christina and Flanagan both left teaching jobs at the private Harvard-Westlake School to write novels (which Flanagan realized didn’t suit her), and Ben learned of her talents by listening in at dinner parties.

“She’s wildly entertaining,” Christina says (and “loyal, which is a rare combination”).

But it’s pretty cynical to think that Flanagan’s extreme positions are merely a deliberate effort to create a person—notwithstanding the fact that the editing she’s done of her pieces for the book softens them somewhat; if they’d originally appeared in that form, I doubt she’d have gotten so much notice. One of her most truly personal essays, “To Hell With All That,” reads like a two-act play. In the first act, we meet Flanagan’s incomparably wonderful mother, with whom she wistfully recalls “shopping at Hink’s department store and eating peeled apricots and lying down for naps under the gable window of her bedroom.” In act two, tragedy strikes—and it’s not an exaggeration of Flanagan’s tone to call the event tragic. When she’s 12, Flanagan’s mother returns to work. She was “dumped by Mom,” she cries, and still today, “my anxiety about being in a house alone borders on the pathological.”

Flanagan readily acknowledges to me that this “profound loneliness and abandonment” is part of her impetus for staying home with her boys. But it has nothing to do with her animus toward feminism, she insists, or toward modern professional women. Why? Because her mother wasn’t under the pernicious influence of ’70s self-actualization or libbers like Betty Friedan (one of Flanagan’s favorite whipping girls and a person her parents thought “silly”). Jean Flanagan simply wanted her own money, her daughter says. Tom forbade her from buying a few things she dearly wanted: “decent furniture for the family room, a new deck, and (bless her heart) something for me: a wall,” Flanagan writes. “My bedroom was nothing more than a wide spot in the upstairs hall.”

It’s splitting hairs pretty fine for Flanagan to cast her mother’s return to work as an act apart from ’70s feminism, which apparently inspired only icky foolishness, even cruelty, in the other mothers young Caitlin encountered in Berkeley, where her father was the chairman of the English department at the University of California: “Putting on lipstick was an oppressive act. Cooking nourishing dinners was an oppressive act. The mothers in those houses were sullen or absent, or they were unflatteringly wrapped in batik and committed to the cooking of unappealing food…. One girl I knew came to school with matted hair every day because her mother had given up brushing it—too oppressive.”

For Flanagan to hold her mother above all this feminist nastiness is especially strange when you consider other details she reveals: Her father told her mother he wouldn’t “allow” her to work; he found it “emasculating.” “Drop dead,” she responded. And her mother, Caitlin came to realize, had been mildly depressed hanging around home all the time with her daughter; she has her “sulk[ing] around the kitchen, weepy with frustration.” To me, this sounds suspiciously like Friedan’s “sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States….”

A therapist might suggest that Flanagan disowns the aspects of herself that don’t fit into her nostalgic picture of her mother, pre-fall, then projects the hated parts onto other women, simultaneously distorting herself and them. Why does she so strenuously romanticize her mother? For that matter, why does she come off as so terrified that her children might hate her? Even after she hired a nanny, she writes, she barely left the house, which she herself calls “possibly pathological.” “I had to be there not to share in the labor, but to exert my presence, to make sure my beloved sons were imbibing as much of me, their mother, as they were of her.” (Even odder, Flanagan says that during her self-imposed home detention she suffered from “depression.”) If I didn’t know better, I’d think Flanagan harbors some unacknowledged fury at her mother, and not just for having the temerity to go back to work.

As for what exactly caused the atmosphere of alienation in the Flanagan home—in the oral-sex essay, she portrays herself as a forlorn, neglected teenager—that will have to remain a mystery. She declines to give specifics, not because she’s trying to be “some weird, withholding person,” she says, but because—duck!—she might write a book about it.

When Flanagan is asked to defend her ideas, one thing she does is to plead humor. When people charge that she’s “rolling back the feminist movement,” Flanagan says, she responds, “I’m like, With these funny essays, in The Atlantic? I don’t think so.” But her tone is far from uniformly antic, and she also likes to parry with some version of, This is just my little life, I’m not telling anyone what to do. That, too, is manifestly false, so she next suggests that her writing is merely about “longing.” She reads part of her revised introduction to me: “For those who may be alarmed by the ideas herein there is infinite solace. It is only a book about a ruined city.”

Former English teacher that she is, Flanagan can’t possibly believe, however, that her readers will conclude that she is merely tasting madeleines. For hers is a longing laced with contempt. As psychologist Daphne de Marneffe observes in her book Maternal Desire, which Flanagan says she admires, “Mothers ‘solve’ their ambivalence by idealizing an approach: This is the way to do it; I’m better because I do it this way.”

Perhaps the most startling example of Flanagan’s relentless antifeminist determinism comes in her breast cancer essay. The writing is in parts evocative. Describing the moments after the needle biopsy that confirmed her cancer, she says: “On the sidewalk outside [my doctor’s] office I feel as though I’ve escaped from a rapist or a murderer. My breast is throbbing, and there’s gauze taped to it to catch the blood.”

She goes on to portray the ravages of chemotherapy and her husband’s tenderness toward her. “When I couldn’t walk from the car to the doctor’s office, he carried me.” Then, here it comes, with about 500 words left in her barrel: “And if that’s a traditional marriage I’ll take it. If marriage is like a bank account, filled not only with affection but also with a commitment to the other person’s well-being as much as to one’s own, I suppose my balance was high. I suppose that all the days I had made a home for my husband, and all the times I had ended my writing days early so that he could work late or come home to a hot dinner and not a scene of domestic chaos—all that, as much as the desire and intensity that originally brought us together, were stores in my account.”

Lovely for her, but pity those batik-wearing libbers when they fall ill, those gay men with AIDS, even mild domestic rabble-rousers like myself. Will there be no one to carry us?

What is so stunning about Flanagan’s writing are conflations such as these, only specious upon reflection, as well as her sudden reversals, as if she’s willing to say whatever’s most convenient, most clever, and damn the consequences. She’s undoubtedly witty and tough—”I like the kid in me that writes those essays,” Flanagan enthuses. “She’s fearless; she can take it on the chin and dole it out”—but like any self-obsessed adolescent, she’s lacking in imaginative empathy. The “other” just doesn’t seem to interest her much.

Midway through the interview in her home, I say that I noticed she removed the most searing line from her revised “Serfdom” essay: “When a mother works, something is lost.” So, I ask her, do you stand by that line? “Yeah,” Flanagan says, her voice now soft, serious. “The gerbil’s dead, and you’re here.”

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