The US media is fairly scrupulous about awarding credit. Researchers are recognized, and so are the Iraqi reporters who go out and gather information for the US foreign correspondents holed up in Baghdad. But even so it was surprising (and cheering) to find in the dedication for The Feminine Mistake, a new book on that perennially charged topic of motherhood and work, the following words: "To my babysitter, Norma."
After a string of books and essays on the ennui of paid employment and the virtues of devoting one's life to children and home, the author, Leslie Bennetts, offers no apologies for staying in full-time work while raising her two children. Norma, who figures in the dedication between Bennetts' mother and her daughter, was there to pick up the slack -- "with unfailing love." And so begins the rejoinder to those who have been cheering on the opt-out revolutionaries, the young women of privilege and means who have given up their jobs to stay home with the children.
Bennetts sees those women as dangerously misguided. Husbands are unreliable. They run off with other women. They die young, are struck down by debilitating (and expensive) illnesses and succumb to drink. They lose their jobs, squander investments. They are unsafe bets, and any woman who would try to build her whole life around one, by giving up her job to raise his children, is indulging in high-risk behavior.
"In this day and age, the truth is that if you add up all the risk factors, it's an extremely high-risk choice to give up your financial self-sufficiency and rely on a man to support you," she said over eggs at a neighborhood cafe in Manhattan's Upper West Side.
"If you do the math it becomes clear that the majority of women are going to end up on the wrong side of the odds. But people keep acting as if there is only a small chance that things could go wrong," she said.
The argument runs counter to a prevailing mood in the US that, contrary to what feminism promised, women cannot have it all. The worlds of work and family life compete, and finding the balance between them proves just too much for some women. Many highly educated professionals -- the would-be heirs of those feminist pioneers -- are turning their backs on their expensive educations and promises of professional achievement and are choosing to stay at home and raise their children.
Since a 2003 article in the New York Times on the "opt-out revolution" -- the exodus from the workforce of professional women during their childbearing years -- it is hard to go for very long without confronting yet another example of a woman who put her public life on hold. In 2005, there was Total 180, a Web site founded by a group of professional mothers who traded in their media careers to become, in their words, Chief Household Officers.
As of Monday the site was down -- too much housework perhaps -- but the motherhood mystique is still going strong. Last year, there was Elizabeth Vargas, who briefly became the US' first solo woman television news anchor, but took herself out of the running for the job on a permanent basis ahead of the birth of her second child. But as Bennetts showed with figures cited from the US Census Bureau, the trend goes far beyond that slim minority of upper middle-class professional women that seems to be the primary focus of the chroniclers of this new age. Workforce participation by married mothers with children has been falling. It was 68.2 percent in 2004, down nearly 3 percent from its peak in 1997. In 31.2 percent of married families with children under the age of 18, the husband was the sole breadwinner.
And tales of that female surrender have been celebrated by some writers, such as the New Yorker and Atlantic essayist Caitlin Flanagan. She published a book of essays last year called To Hell With All That on the joys of making a home for her husband and twin sons, albeit with a level of assistance hardly anyone can afford -- a fleet of babysitters, housekeepers and even someone to organize her wardrobes.
So it was hardly a surprise that Bennetts' book had yet to be officially released before she stood accused of maligning non-working mothers and their spouses, and contributing to the delinquency of an entire generation.
"The editorial cartoon in yesterday's Omaha World Herald featured a man reading the paper with headlines featuring all sorts of teenage crime over cereal and the milk carton sported a Missing: Parents sign. Which is too true, and obviously supported by Leslie Bennetts," wrote one customer on Amazon.
What is lost in all the screaming is that this has become an argument between women and about women -- and not so much about men and children. It is also an almost exclusively heterosexual debate. But more than anything this is an argument between the generations -- the baby-boomers versus Generation X. Bennetts is 57. Linda Hirshman, who published a manifesto for women last year called Get to Work, is 62. It is women in their 30s who are returning to the home.
"The women of the 50s, the ones who lived the Feminine Mystique, many of them were casualties of the divorce revolution of the 1970s, when they lost their breadwinners, and a lot of women from the baby-boom generation looked at their mothers and said: `Oh my god, I'm never going to let this happen to me,'" said Bennetts. "So the baby-boomers went to work. But I think that today's younger mothers didn't live through that period, and didn't see how vulnerable women are when they are not prepared to support themselves and may have reverted to a more old-fashioned view of gender roles in which they assume that it is safe for women to depend on men to support them."
At a time when princess culture is consuming toy stores, it is not an entirely outlandish idea, and the book is studded with interviews with women whose Prince Charming turned out to be a toad. There are wealthy women reduced to penury after divorce, and those who -- while staying married -- undergo a daily humiliation of asking controlling husbands for housekeeping expenses. There are women who drop out of the workforce to raise their children and face nearly insurmountable obstacles finding their way back to their old careers. Or those whose own children grow up to mock their choice to stay home, or worse -- see it as an example, and think they need never work themselves.
Bennetts did not conceal her disdain for what these non-working women do with their lives. Her interview subjects play an awful lot of tennis -- or shop. She made fun of the designation full-time mother, as if that were a job description, and the pride some women take in putting a home-cooked meal on the table, noting that she has always done so while remaining in work. But equally, she has little time for the size-zero Manhattanite obsessed with hipness and style. Bennetts is big and blonde, and one gets the feeling she dresses to be practical.
She readily acknowledged that the US -- where many employers, including the government, do not offer paid maternity leave -- has failed to respond to the needs of working families. But she also thinks that issue is something the full-time mothers could busy themselves with. They could get political.
"Women who are stay-at-home mums often pride themselves on all the volunteer work they do. They would be serving their own and their children's interests far better if they would organize and demand that this society pay more interest to the needs of carers," she said.
In her day job, Bennetts is the top celebrity interviewer for Vanity Fair magazine. She was there to feel the love when Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt got together, and there as the shoulder to cry on -- literally -- after Aniston was dumped for Angelina Jolie. The Desperate Housewives actress Teri Hatcher chose Bennetts to reveal that she had been sexually abused as a child.
But for all the glamour, she seems stubbornly rooted in daily concerns -- mainly money. The book opens with a cautionary tale about the wreckage of her grandmother's life after she was abandoned and divorced by her husband, and wheedled out of her inheritance by her brothers. Bennetts' mother was careful to establish her independence through work, but compromised her economic security in old age by interrupting her career for childrearing. Bennetts, evidently, was determined to avoid both those mistakes.
Raised in relative affluence in a wealthy suburb of New York, she graduated from high school two years before her peers, and remained on a fast track. She attended an Ivy League college and soon landed a job at the New York Times where she was, even though it was by now the early 1980s, the first woman to be assigned to cover a political campaign. The hostile working culture had not changed even a decade after Bennetts left the paper; a female news editor gave a speech in which she said she would not have had her job had she had children.
By her late 30s, with her career established, Bennetts left the punishing schedule of the New York Times for Vanity Fair, married and had two children. Not that she really wound down her career -- she has never taken more than a weekend off between jobs. Don't expect sympathy for women whose own careers take a sharper downward shift.
"A lot of the time it is not the women who love their careers and have a passion for what they are doing who are opting out. It is women who never thought seriously about their careers and were just doing a job until the husband comes along and takes care of it, or women who hit roadblocks in their careers and got frustrated and having a family then becomes the escape hatch," she said. "It is the socially approved way to get out of something they are not finding that satisfying anyway."
Bennetts offered the stay-at-home mothers a challenge -- give up your idealized views of the perfect marriage and the perfect job and embrace chaos. So what if your house is a mess, and you're not quite on top of your emails? So what if you are constantly exhausted?
"A lot of women conceptualize the whole issue in ways that don't serve them very well. They say: `Oh well, it's a question of having it all, and if I can't have it all I might as well give up and go home,'" she said.
Bennetts suggested they settle for just being good enough -- and for getting by.
After all, the competing tugs of work and children will not last for ever. Women should look beyond the years when their lives will be stretched to the limit by the demands of small children and work. That's just 15 years in a working life that extends to 40 or 50; so you just get through it.
"As your kids get older you are able to reclaim a lot of the time and energy you sacrificed for a while," she said
Bennetts is just about reaching that point in her own life. She has been married for 18 years to a fellow journalist, who astounds her friends with his willingness to help around the house. Her two teenage children seem to have turned out all right. The daughter is off to an Ivy League college in the autumn, and still apparently likes her mother. Bennetts said her daughter wrote her a note of appreciation on her 16th birthday.
"The main thing I regret is that I wasted so much energy feeling guilty about stupid things, things that are just not important in the long run. I have come through for my kids and the wisdom of that choice has become very apparent in the last couple of years." she said.
A year ago, Bennetts' husband lost his job and was out of work for six months. Her salary paid for the children's tuition and living expenses.
"So when I look back on feeling bad because I missed my daughter saying three lines in the fourth-grade play, would that have been more important than being able to support my family when my husband didn't have an income? There is just no comparison," she said.
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