Boy, this one was a definite thinker. After years and years of slogging away at corporate jobs, secretly waiting for the day when I could chuck it all and just stay home and write full-time, I’ve now been given fair warning by journalist Leslie Bennetts in her new book, The Feminine Mistake: Are We Giving Up Too Much?
Bennetts, a wife and mother of two in addition to being a contributing writer to Vanity Fair and a former reporter at the New York Times, argues that women who opt out of the workforce and retreat to the home as full-time moms are not only wasting their potential, they’re also doing themselves a grave disservice by voluntarily surrendering their independence and financial clout to their husbands and children. She cites reams of studies and statistics that back up her claim that women shoot themselves in the foot when they give up paid work and subsume their identities with that of their spouse and children, and includes tons of anecdotal evidence of literally dozens and dozens of women (mostly white-collar, upper-income professional women in prestigious occupations, natch) who watched their fairy-tale fall apart when their husbands died/became disabled/was suddenly unemployed/left them. Bennetts hinges her argument on the very sensible admonition that if a woman really cares about her children, she would stay in the workforce and thereby give the kiddies the additional safety net of her income and benefits. Staying home and being there when the 4th tooth falls out is “nice,” as Bennetts puts it, but isn’t it more responsible to be able to provide a home, a good education, and food on the table for them in the event that the father isn’t able to do so anymore, for whatever reason?
Bennetts takes a very long time to make her point — it’s a fairly longish and comprehensive book, and she tends to hammer home the salient points of her thesis more times than she really needed to — but perhaps that’s part of the appeal of this very well-written, well-researched book. She’s obviously sick and tired of the media’s insistence on pursuing the so-called Mommy Wars and their elevation of stay-at-home mothers to near-sainthood, all at the expense of the millions of working mothers who manage to juggle the demands of the workplace and their family without whining about it. (My mom, mom-in-law, sister-in-law, and numerous cousins are excellent case studies of the latter.) She makes the very good point that few studies — if any — have ever shown that children are irreparably harmed by their mothers working full-time and warns that stay-at-home motherhood (which only takes up a fraction of one’s entire adult life) can do all kinds of psychological and financial damage to the woman herself.
I’m now beginning to question my decision to stay at home to pursue my novel-writing full-time. Although B. is a fantastic, supportive husband and I’m the one who handles all the finances in our little family, even he agrees that having only one steady household income may not be the best idea in this day and age. I and my 2 brothers were raised by a working mother, and lemme tell ya, the fact that she wasn’t home all day baking cookies and cleaning up after our s*** as we were growing up is something we’re all probably grateful for. I can’t imagine living your life through and for your children, to the extent that the only adult conversations you end up having are with the grocery store clerk and maybe the postman. That would drive me insane, and I’m sure it would have my mother’s as well. We all grew up fairly self-sufficient and now are relatively successful, having gone through college (the older brother is an attorney, while the younger is a computer administrator) and are now married.
I’ve met stay-at-home moms who could talk of nothing but their children, which may be interesting for about ten minutes, but after that…Yawn. One stay-at-home mom I know brings her baby son to every party/dinner date we attend and then spends the entire evening either talking about him or to him, which forces the rest of us to dumb down our own conversations. The odd thing is that I’ve heard that the kid is in day care most of the day, and her husband picks him up on the way from work. (Why stay at home then?)
Now, Bennetts tries hard not to sound condescending in her book, but she does fail more than once, I’m afraid. Stay-at-home moms do not fare well in her analysis, as they come across as being shrill, whiny and self-righteous. I have to admit, Bennetts isn’t entirely wrong on that front; I can’t blame her for sounding defensive. I’ve known a few stay-at-home moms who justify their status by sniping at the choices that professional women make, subtly questioning the latter’s commitment to her family. Again, as someone surrounded by working women (most of whom are not in high-status, six-figure professions), I’ve never doubted for a moment their abiding love for their families. I understand that stay-at-homes may feel the need to defend their own decision by making critical judgments about those who made different choices, but at what cost to them, as it obviously doesn’t give them the opportunity to really think critically and objectively about all the sacrifices they’re making?
I highly, highly recommend this book to any and all women who are facing the dilemma of modern motherhood. Young women in particular who are just getting out of college and entering the workforce will especially benefit from its wise advice and the cautionary tales Bennetts offers up by the dozens.