To Hell with All That
A few weeks back, my older son busted me watching Supernanny. He came in during a scene where the hapless parents try to live up to the nanny's mandate to cook and serve one healthful meal, and one meal only, for the whole family. Specifically, the kids were reacting to broccoli as if they had been dished live garden slugs.
"Mom," said my six-and-a-half-year-old, with a seriousness I can only describe as Oedipal, "these people are totally out of control. I mean, those parents, they make these rules, but they don't really mean them." He clucked disapprovingly, patted my forearm, and curled in a little closer.
This from a boy who comments liberally—and disapprovingly—about the moisture left in the curd of his scrambled eggs, and pronounces which parent must have made them.
By the end of the episode, Supernanny had conjured up order, the brats had made peace with the crucifers, the timid but affable parents had discovered new reservoirs of familial love—and from the couch, Mr. You Bought a Different Brand of Orange Juice had issued more judgment than a Linden Hills knitting group about the parenting on parade.
Supernanny's solutions were sensible, but I'll wager the broccoli got eaten because she wasn't the parent. There was no psychic traction to be gained from arguing with her, no self-determination to be had by chucking the broccoli on the floor. And possibly more to the point, no reason for her to fear the anger and disappointment of the unruly children, as the cowering parents so obviously did. Left intact were the show's twin premises that experts invariably know best, and mom and dad are idiots for not being experts. Our collective ambivalence about professional caregivers lived to see another day.
Which is a roundabout way of getting to Caitlin Flanagan's recent volume of essays on latter-day domesticity, To Hell with All That: Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife. Flanagan is a Los Angeles housewife and former teacher who was "discovered" on the dinner party circuit by the literary editor of The Atlantic Monthly five years ago. She has poufy waves of red hair not unlike Ariel's in The Little Mermaid, the creamy skin of a country singer, and a literary pedigree: Her late father was the novelist and UC Berkley scholar Thomas Flanagan.
To Hell with All That is a collection of the iconoclastic essays, many revised, that made Flanagan a hot property first as a contributor to The Atlantic and more recently as a staff writer at the New Yorker. Its 10 chapters explore modern wifedom and motherhood in prose so sparkly you almost miss the riddle at the center: The book is a paean to the housewife and stay-at-home mother, but it's written by a woman who found that staying home with her babies made her anxious and depressed. It's a state, she writes, that was compounded by the competence of the nanny who stayed home with her, and to whom she felt inferior.
The centerpiece of To Hell with All That is a recasting of Flanagan's most infamous piece, a March 2004 Atlantic essay on the difficulties of relationships between mothers of a certain caste and their nannies, titled "How Serfdom Saved the Women's Movement." Flanagan's nanny, Paloma, is Honduran and hard-pressed to feed her own children. The author describes, in squirmy detail, a familiar but unpleasant reality—that one set of mothers is squeaking by doing the other's dirty work. It segues uncomfortably from there to the more primal fear that our children will love their paid caregivers more than us. And the piece concludes, as each of these parables does, by blaming the women's movement for the unfairness and paradoxes at the bottom of the heap.
Indeed, far too often Flanagan's introspection involves her relations with a battery of gardeners, personal organizers, housekeepers, and sundry other low-paid assistants whose chief job seems to be to help Flanagan work out her squeamishness with her privilege. The problem—for detractors, at least—is that she does all this in riveting, witty, first-person narrative that on first read appears ever so self-deprecating. Only on reflection does one realize that she actually manages to condemn the rest of us for not having enough maternal goodness to both stay home and employ a nanny. Cherchez la femme, as Flanagan would say.
When the essay first came out I was so enraged I nearly swallowed my own tongue. What of those of us who have bills to pay? Jobs we like? Those of us who sized up the ugly class underbelly of the childcare industry and decided to forego family vacations in order to pay for licensed, accredited care, provided by an institution that realizes that caregivers have children of their own who need insurance, that workers might want to retire someday?
I'll tell you what she thinks of us, or at least what she said she thought in the opening paragraphs of the original version of the essay. She imagines mothers who work don't love their children as much as she does. But as far as she's been able to discern at playgrounds and preschool functions, she admits, the children of working mothers aren't suffering a whit. Well, except for that mother love they're not getting.