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Are You My Mother?

If you loved your kids as much as I love mine, you wouldn't send them to day care. Just kidding. Not.
Seth Taras

Caitlin Flanagan
To Hell with All That
Little, Brown

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.

 

Imagine my surprise to pick up To Hell with All That and discover that Flanagan has recast this portion of her own personal baby-mama drama. The new version, written with just as much panache, exposes the self-loathing of what she was now terming her "conversion experience"—i.e. the point in the saga where she realized that she's got the upper hand in a very unequal relationship and tried, in noblesse oblige fashion, to work out her liberal guilt.

In the new version, Flanagan found herself completely undone by caring for her twins by the time Paloma arrived each morning. We're with her so far, right? Except that her response, upon recovering enough of her faculties to see that Paloma and her boys truly enjoyed each other, was to hang around making sure that the nanny didn't usurp her. As if that weren't enough, she wants Paloma's companionship, but she also wants her absolution for the fact that Flanagan occupies the more enviable of their two positions.

The passage of the book that has most flattened the mothers of my acquaintance:

In our own way, we loved each other. Still, I was the boss.

"Paloma, Patrick is throwing up!" I would tell her, and she would literally run to his room, clean the sheets, change his pajamas, spread a clean towel on his pillow, feed him ice chips, sing to him. I would stand in the doorway, concerned, making funny faces at Patrick to cheer him up—the way my father did when I was sick and my mother was taking care of me.

I wanted Paloma to be my friend and equal, but I also wanted her to do what I told her. Most of the time she did.

The new version does a much better job of getting to the heart of the matter, and in the process gives working mothers much less of a shellacking. But it still warily circles the most obvious thing highlighted by stacking Flanagan's writings end-to-end: Being a housewife is more easily romanticized when one doesn't do any of the actual scut work. In an ode to Martha Stewart and other doyennes of the pleasant and peaceful home, Flanagan breezily confides that neither she nor her husband has ever changed a bed sheet, and that Mom tried to teach her to iron, but that the lesson never took.

As for her nostalgia for that mother love, the book goes a few steps toward explaining the endurance of the mystique. She writes that her own mother "abandoned" Flanagan when she was 12, by going back to work. This resolved mom's low-level depression. Mom was suddenly airier, and more pleasant to be around, Flanagan concedes, but to this day she has a pathological fear of being alone in a house. (One more thing for poor Paloma to tend to, I would suggest.)

Mom may have gone missing, but dad, like every man in this book, is a ghost. Her husband spends most of the time working overtime in corporate America to support this venture. His lone appearance comes in a chapter I can only describe as the book's final slap-down. Here, Flanagan describes battling breast cancer and concludes that the domestic tranquility she'd created for her husband—or at least directed others to create—are deposits in some sort of account that secured his fidelity. (I don't know whether Newt Gingrich's abandoned ex worked—perhaps she deserved her sickbed comeuppance.)

Flanagan, for her part, realizes you've got to earn that loyalty in a marriage. During a recent appearance on The Colbert Report, Flanagan trotted out another of her themes: that the lady of the house, as she puts it, will be expected to put out with some regularity. Hey, so she's a romantic!

 

Flanagan has been pilloried in the press—mostly by women—and the great majority of working mothers probably have no idea that she disapproves of the way they manage their families—by choice, necessity, or some combination of the two. Which brings us to why we shouldn't just say to hell with To Hell with All That and be done with it.

The fact is that the actual substance of what Flanagan writes—though insulting to the better part of middle-class America—hasn't been seen as noxious enough to keep Flanagan from occupying the domestic beat for two of the nation's most respected magazines. (The Atlantic gets a few style points for regularly publishing the equally witty but much more down-to-earth Sandra Tsing Loh.) How often do these magazines employ sparkling and edgy prose to write, say, about the equity wars that have erupted in every household I know anything about, where children have come along to strain things? Who, Flanagan posits, wants to marry a grind? And who, I suppose, wants to publish one?

 

When To Hell with All That came out, I took note of Flanagan's updated positions on nannies and decided the woman was still nuts (unfortunate, she might say), and resolved not to write about the book. But then the June issue of The Atlantic hit the stands bearing a droll Flanagan essay about—wait for it: nannies! Specifically, a Hollywood tell-all written by the former nanny to super-agent Michael Ovitz and his wife Judy.

Judy [Ovitz] was an at-home mom of a certain stripe: not single-mindedly devoted to her children's care, but far more involved with their daily lives than many women of her wealth and social position. Hansen is censorious of every moment Judy spends away from her kids, but it seems to me that if you disapprove of mothers relying on hired help, you shouldn't take a job as a live-in nanny for a prominent society woman.

Flanagan goes on to discuss the history of the nanny confessional, noting approvingly that Jackie Kennedy never ever confused her domestic's duties. The woman was there to care for Caroline and John John, not the adults.

A few paragraphs later, she gets to what she should have written in the first place, several years and 20,000 or 30,000 words earlier: "This is a commercial transaction from which parents desperately, if selectively, want emotional results."


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