Civil Liberties

The Real Mommy Wars

Both left and right attack mothers for the choices they make.


To Hell With All That: Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife, by Caitlin Flanagan, New York: Little, Brown, 272 pages, $22.95

The Politically Incorrect Guide to Women, Sex, and Feminism, by Carrie Lukas, Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, 221 pages, $19.95

In an alarming sin of omission, pollsters have yet to tell us anything definitive about the so-called Mommy Wars, that half-imagined battle between the working mothers of overscheduled upper-middle-class children and the stay-at-home mothers of overscheduled upper-middle-class children. Every op-ed scold therefore is free to speculate about what women outside the commentariat really think of this fight they may not know they're fighting.

Women who enjoy the luxury of choosing between full-time motherhood and full-time office work seem perfectly capable of filling their spare hours with round-the-clock ballet- class shuttles and yoga for toddlers. For those without the choice or the children, both the question and the verbiage it has spawned are comically irrelevant.

But like many battles fought on distant shores, this one resonates in the homeland. Thus was To Hell With All That, Caitlin Flanagan's slender collection of reworked Atlantic and New Yorker essays, greeted with a review in nearly every major media outlet still reviewing books—most of which furiously denounced the volume. It is unclear how much this reaction has to do with Flanagan's tepid back-of-the-book endorsement of stay-at-home mothering. The San Francisco Chronicle took the opportunity to remind us that the Equal Rights Amendment failed to pass. At least three newspapers heaped catty scorn on Flanagan's admission that she and her husband have never changed their own sheets—an attractive proposition, to be sure, but hardly a pivotal moment in the essay that contains it.

The real pivot of that essay is Martha Stewart, "stuff of a thousand jokes and parodies," whom Flanagan sees as an emblem of a uniquely female longing for waxed floors, pressed sheets, and windowsills without those telltale paint flecks of neglect. Here Flanagan slips in a typically well-expressed critique of all the Betty Freidanesque obsession with gender roles: "If you want to make a feminist sputter with rage, remind her of those dark days in America's past when girls took home ec classes and boys took shop. But to watch yuppie parents squirm with dread and confusion when anything in their households goes on the fritz is to wonder whether it was such a bad thing for one half of the marriageable population to know how to mend a fallen hem and the other half to have rudimentary knowledge of the workings of a fuse box."

That's a typical Flanagan sentiment, as well as a typical Flanagan construction: quiet observation, couched in homey common sense, rolled together in a spit wad aimed at the feminist theory of housework that has dominated the movement since the inaugural days of Ms. More often than not, the spit wad contains a fair measure of nostalgia for the days when women still possessed a Martha-like knowledge of the curious process, somehow involving sashes, of airing a room. (I remain unconvinced that this requires anything but opening windows on opposite walls.)

Flanagan's attitude toward household chores and the way her imagined upper-middle-class audience customarily deals with them is pure white guilt. Although she claims she's "not someone who is troubled, for political or personal reasons, by the idea of hiring people to work in my household," she writes obsessively, here and elsewhere, about the "achievements of the women's movement…bought at the expense of poor women, often of poor brown-skinned women." The first of Flanagan's pieces for The Atlantic to earn national attention bemoaned this "exploitation" with the fervency of a woman who had just realized that her under-the-table relationship with her nanny's paycheck was cheating the woman out of Social Security credits, thus implicating Flanagan "in the murderous process by which human cargo is transported into this country to ease the lives of the middle class."

It's this sort of confessional—more insider corporate whistleblower than Benedict Arnold—that I suspect earned Flanagan the disdain of her peers, the media mothers who stoked the fires of the mommy wars in the first place. It might surprise anyone who hadn't heard of Flanagan before the flap about this book that she's a self-identified political liberal who mentions the eminently sensible idea of making a private provision for her nanny and then dismisses it on the grounds that her knee jerks in favor of the current Social Security system's set-aside.

Expressed in Flanagan's usually smart, literate prose are several banal canards. Hiring help—even the brown-skinned Third World kind, who arguably need the work most—isn't exploitation, unless all work is a form of exploitation. Flanagan displays that regrettable leftist tendency to confuse low-skill labor with slavery, although it's unlikely that she thinks of herself as exploited by The New Yorker's editorial board. The thought that someone might enjoy child care—or even the weaker point that nanny work is apparently better than the available alternatives—never surfaces.

A subtler problem, dwelling just beneath the surface, is that, for all of Flanagan's calculated and apparently sensible desire that women learn to do their own housework, there's no real reason why they should. Dishwashers have replaced drying racks in the houses of the middle class, but you never hear a word in defense of those particular old ways. But replace "technology" with "inexpensive labor," and suddenly June Cleaver's hour has arrived.

Flanagan may bemoan her inability to sew a button on a shirt, but surely the answer to that age-old problem is to learn how to do it, not to berate those of us who would rather take our shirts to a full-service dry cleaner/tailor, saving ourselves the costs of time and, in my case, holes in my fingers that virtually shout "lack of comparative advantage." A September 2005 Cambridge Journal of Economics essay by Steven Horwitz, which lays out a Hayekian defense of the family, posits that the more time saved by outsourcing and labor-saving devices, the more time parents can spend "being involved with their children in extracurricular activities such as sports or the arts." The brand of "round-the-clock worry" motherhood that Flanagan says she's chosen to pursue is helped, not hindered, by increased specialization of labor.

Flanagan never lays out an argument for full-time mothering that would persuade those not already convinced, but she implies that, like painting windowsills, child-rearing is best left to the lady of the house. Here's where a new leftist critique of capitalism—that markets aren't particularly accommodating to families and the gentler civil institutions—makes sense.

This leftist critique surfaces in To Hell With All That, with all of Flanagan's talk of brown women facilitating their white sisters' rise in the world. It's better expressed by Flanagan's successor on the family beat at The Atlantic, Sandra Tsing Loh. Loh writes in a review of Arlie Russell Hochschild's The Commercialization of Intimate Life that the "commercial" solutions to parental absence are often better than the real deal. Third World nannies are "more relaxed, patient, and joyful" with their charges, because they are relaxed, patient, and joyful by skill and profession, not biology. Loh predictably finds this "creepy," but she is on solid argumentative ground when she wonders why more conservatives don't share her reaction: "In a capitalist society work dictates the schedules, the deadlines, the urgency; product life cycles supersede family life cycles at every turn. (The capitalism so beloved of 'family values' conservatives—the same capitalism that is so friendly to radical individualism —is by its very nature inimical to the nuclear family.)"

Can standard conservative theory reconcile opposing visions of women as capitalism's "latest recruits" and as the better halves—quarters, eighths?—of a happy nuclear family? If The Politically Incorrect Guide to Women, Sex, and Feminism is any indicator of mainstream right-wing thought on the subject, conservatives arrive at the same answer as Flanagan—that stay-at-home motherhood is the best kind—from a different direction.

Author Carrie L. Lukas, vice president of policy at the Independent Women's Forum,presents plenty of standard—and correct—answers to the various conceits of women studies' departments in the opening chapters of her book. She swiftly disposes, for example, of the complaint that women typically receive a fraction of men's pay for the same work. The usual statistics are all here: If you account for the facts that women spend a half an hour less in the office than men every day, and 10 years less in the workforce over the course of a lifetime, the wage disparity effectively disappears. But these statistics deserve repeating, if only because the rallying cry "75 cents on the dollar!" seems to retain its great rhetorical power. (John Kerry used it in a debate back in 2004.) She also refutes the oft-cited statistic that one in four women is a victim of sexual assault, and concludes that marriage, far from the "hitting license" of women's studies textbooks, is actually rather safe. Married women are less likely than divorced, separated, or cohabiting women to be victims of domestic abuse.

But by chapter 11, "Work in the Real World,"the clucking has begun in earnest. In a section entitled "The feminist working girl fantasy," Lukas, by way of Friends and a host of other pop culture references,points out that the lives of Rachel Green, fashion designer, and Average Johanna, career girl, are very different. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Johanna has a roughly 6 percent chance of becoming a secretary. Lawyering and doctoring "don't make the list" of the 20 most common professions for women, a fact that causes Lukas to sniff that "this list of occupations stands in stark contrast to the depiction of working women commonly found on television and in women's magazines" and remind us once again that Young People Can't Tell the Difference Between Television and Reality.

It's an appalling condescension, worthy of the paid-work-as-exploitation crowd. It fails to acknowledge, for one thing, that men's top jobs aren't any more conventionally glamorous. (The top profession is truck driving.)The thought that women might find satisfaction in work that Lukas considers beneath consideration is just as unlikely to occur to her as it is to occur to Caitlin Flanagan. Lukas cites an Independent Women's Forum/Pew poll to the effect that only 15 percent of women would work full-time, if they had their druthers,and an additional third would opt for part-time. Which all sounds fine—until you realize that the question was prefaced by the important qualifier, "if you had enough money to live as comfortably as you would like." A third of truck drivers—and lawyers and surgeons—would also doubtless prefer part-time work to full-time work, and no work at all to part-time work, if financial conditions created a new Eden.

It's then that Lukas begins to sound like The Simpsons' Helen Lovejoy, prone to shouting, "What about the children? Won't someone please think of the children?" Did you know that some children return to empty houses? Or that those who attend day care programs get nits and scabies? (Forget first grade, in that case.) After this hand wringing, Lukas admits, "No researcher I'm familiar with says that daycare will cause serious problems for most children." The ambiguous wording proceeds from the ambiguity of the consensus. Within the single outfit that has studied the question in the greatest detail (the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development), researchers believe that children in day care have better verbal skills at 54 months but that their mothers have less of that biologically useful maternal attachment. The differences in health between day care kids and children at home were statistically insignificant by age 3. Lukas strips away the nuance, covers her tracks with a few grudging caveats, and still manages to create the impression that those feminists have been hiding something all along.

And that's how you create a conservative narrative these days. Take a set of assertions,call it a majority opinion,and proceed to show how only establishment types could possibly believe it in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Because of this formulaic approach to intellectual engagement, the format of an Idiot's Guide works well for the Politically Incorrect Guide series. Creative typography summarizes the content of each chapter in three quick "Guess what?" facts challenging the accepted wisdom.

The "Fertility Facts" chapter is a good example of how such disconnected observations obscure the complexity of the questions they purport to answer. Lukas correctly argues that "many women have been led to believe that they can postpone childbearing without consequence" but seems oblivious to the possibility that there might be good reasons for women to accept the risk of decreased fertility. One is better technology that can bring forth babies from what a generation or two ago would have been barren ground. Others are increased wealth and, yes, that much-maligned opportunity to pursue paid work. Although sorting cause from effect is tricky when it comes to poverty and motherhood, a 2004 Kennedy School of Government analysis of Britain's Millennium Cohort data suggests early motherhood may compound the already poor prospects of low-income women who give birth at an early age—which is by no means proof that such woman should have made different choices.

Although they start at different points, the Flanagans and Lukases, leftist and rightist critics of women's choices, arrive at the same place for the same reason: a refusal to see women as autonomous beings, capable of weighing alternatives and arriving at conclusions based on information about individual circumstances that the commanders of the Mommy Wars simply can't possess, no matter how many polls they conduct. Whether the particular narrative about motherhood has women conscripted into service by capitalism or feminism, what's missing is a cool-headed free market analysis, which would regard women as actors in an arena of choices, without the conceit of top-down management.

Horwitz's aforementioned Cambridge Journal of Economics paper goes a long way toward providing this analysis. Recognizing that children and work are competing values, and that sociological evidence suggests one can outsource everything but parental love, he concludes, "The decision as to which person(s) will work in the market and which will (or will not) work at home can be understood, again, in terms of preferences and opportunity costs." This description lacks that old comfortable strain of oppressor and oppressed. But as moral prescriptions go, "mind your own business" is as cogent as any.