To Hell with All That

May 4, 2006

**Edited – link added – below. Check it.

What follows is an exchange that was, with the exception of the last letter (my last, unpublished word), recently printed in the National Post. And, for dessert, random thoughts that may or may not be related to that exchange.

(And! Gratuitous baby photos!)

GRATUITOUS BABY PHOTO

******

What’s Best for Mom is What’s Best for Kids
Re: Stay At Home, Mom!, April 26.

Caitlin Flanagan states that she “said the truth” in her book, To Hell with All That: Fearing and Loathing Our Inner Housewife, in suggesting that stay-at-home motherhood is best for children and families. She also responds to critics who charge that the book is a contradiction in terms (in its having been written by a working mother) by saying that “it’s a book about contradictions.”
A memo to Ms. Flanagan: You can’t have it both ways. When your operating assumptions are riddled with contradictions, you cannot claim that your conclusions are “truth.” What you have are opinions.

And while her opinion that stay-at-home motherhood is best seems commonsensical, it misses the point for most mothers. What’s best for children and families is what’s best for women — as mothers and as individuals — and that’s choice. A woman who finds staying at home fulfilling and rewarding will be a happy woman and so will be giving her best to her children. A woman who finds staying at home stifling or frustrating is going to be unhappy: Is this best for her children? The gold standard is happy parents.

Ms. Flanagan says that “when a mother works, something is lost.” Absolutely. But something is also lost when a mother stays home and is miserable, or when a father works such long hours that he only sees his children on weekends. The happiest families are those in which both parents are able to make the choices that best serve them and their children, not those that follow the dubious “truths” of a dilettante stay-at-home-mom like Ms. Flanagan.

Her Bad Mother, Toronto

******
Put Children First

Re: What’s Best For Mom Is What’s Best For Kids, letter to the editor, April 28.

(Her Bad Mother’s) letter saddens and frightens me. She states: “A woman who finds staying at home stifling or frustrating is going to be unhappy. Is this best for her children? The gold standard is happy parents.”

Shouldn’t the “gold standard” be happy and healthy children? It is this type of selfish attitude that causes many parents to feel the “need” for a dual income and therefore leave the child-rearing to strangers or grandparents, even if they don’t need the extra money. I realize many couples require both parents to work in order to pay the bills, but Ms. Bad Mother is talking about working for the purpose of being a “happy parent” — not because of a need for money. Perhaps we need to ask ourselves why we have children. Is it to fulfill ourselves and to make us happy as parents? It should be about the children. They should come first.

Paul Larman, Barrie, Ont.

******

Put Family First
Re: Put Children First, Letter to the Editor

Paul Larman missed or misunderstood my point entirely. I did not say that parents should go to work ‘for the purpose of being a ‘happy parent’’ (italics mine); I said that the happiness of parents should be a consideration in making the choices that make a happy family. If a mother – or, for that matter, a father – is happy staying at home, then that happiness will be reflected in her or his parenting, and consequently yield greater happiness for the children. The well-being and happiness of our children is, of course, the primary concern here; what I’m suggesting is that the well-being and happiness of men and women as parents has everything to do with the happiness of their children.

So when I said that ‘the gold standard is happy parents,’ I was referring to a standard against that suggested by Caitlin Flanagan – the standard of the dutiful stay-at-home mother/housewife. The gold standard of parenting is not – cannot be – such a model, which is unattainable for many and undesirable for many. Where this model is possible and desirable – as it is for myself and my own family – it can be understood to be meaningfully choiceworthy. Where such a choice is not solely a matter of duty, it serves the greater happiness of the family as a whole. However, where this model is pursued only as a matter of duty, and where the primary duty within that models falls to a reluctant mother, whose interests are really served? The children will certainly benefit from the ’round-the-clock presence of their mother, but if she is unhappy, how deep does that benefit actually run?

This is old feminist hat, but why should the woman be the one to stay home if she would rather work? Or, to put it differently, why should the father work, if he would rather stay home? My point is that mothers and fathers – families – are best served by choices. Obviously, financial constraints bear upon the availability of such choices, and ours would be a much better world for families if all had the financial freedom to choose to keep a parent at home. But perfectionist claptrap such as that which Ms. Flanagan is offering and Mr. Larman defending – the insistence that the only happy family is one that follows the Cleaver model of virtuous stay-at-home housewifeliness – also constrains families and women by perpetuating the dangerous myth that parenting, and motherhood in particular, must for some reason be sacrificial. Happy families are only happy families to the extent that all members – children, fathers, and mothers – are happy. Period.

Her Baaaaad Mother, Toronto

******

For the record, I enjoy Caitlin Flanagan’s writing: she’s funny, and smart, and she raises interesting and provocative questions. As should be obvious from the above exchange, I disagree with many of her conclusions. But that disagreement is not what is really getting under my skin here. What most bothers me is that this work contributes in a significant way to the manufacture of polarities in the debates concerning women, motherhood and parenting. It seems that almost everything being published these days on the topics of feminism and motherhood and the confluence of these is or is being presented as an extreme pole in a raging debate. Moms versus Mommies! SAHM versus WOHM! Feminist versus Traditionalist versus post-Feminist! KoolAid quaffers versus cold realists! Flanagan’s book is just adding height and prominence to the already teetering New Traditionalist/Post-Feminist pole and so making discussion among women about their condition as women and mothers seem all the more, well, polarized.

Of these poles, of course, everybody loves the one that is or seems to be anti-feminist (as the New Traditionalist/Post-Feminist camps appear to be), the one that seems to break through the seeming din of feminist dogma, the blind chorus of we-are-women-hear-us-roar-our-weakness. Because that’s edgy. That’s brave. That’s daring.

(There’s a Nietzschean rant here that I am fighting off with all that I have… resist resist resist…)

Lone woman setting out to battle the feminist lions?

That’s a story.

Controversy sells, obviously, and so it’s likely no accident that any mention of Flanagan’s book is prefaced by taglines to the effect of “Feminist Rage Boils Over!” Find or create the Anne Coulter of mothers and you’ll have your next media sensation. But all of the fuss over what is ostensibly polarized and sensational obscures the fact that between and amongst women there is a fluid range of positions and views and that for most thinking women – for this woman – those positions and views are threaded with ambivalence and ambiguity and and contradiction and nuance. I call myself a mommy, but appreciate the force of the argument for using ‘mom’ or ‘mother.’ I call myself a feminist, but have had my struggles with feminism in both theory and practice. I am a SAHM who never thought that she would be a SAHM and that she would love being a SAHM; I am also a SAHM who needs the stimulation of things beyond my SAHMness. (Queen of Spain put wonderful words to this, chez QOS today: I am a stay-at-home-FEMINIST.)

We contradict ourselves? Fine, we contradict ourselves; we are vast, we can contain multitudes.

It’s not controversial, it’s not edgy. But it’s probably the most interesting thing about being a woman, a mother, a parent, a human being.

Let’s embrace it.

What is truly unambiguous, unambivalent, and without contradiction: The Zurbert.

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    { 37 comments }

    tania (urban_mommy) May 4, 2006 at 12:22 pm

    God you get around. Stirring up dust and dialogue everywhere. Its taken me a looong time to sort out all the posts and comments about this subject that have been on your blog in recent weeks (I am always happy to see other blog moms’ comments that say they, too, need time to digest) and I think I finally get it. While reading today’s post, the word that jumped out at me was ambivilance. Maybe that is just my fatigue but that is the word on which I choose to rest for now.

    And I of course now realize that that is where you began, so many posts ago. Ahead of the curve as usual!

    tania (urban_mommy) May 4, 2006 at 12:24 pm

    And may I just give props to myself for FINALLY being the first to comment on one of your posts. This blogging business is freakin’ hard work if you want to stay in the game. Jeepers.

    krista May 4, 2006 at 12:49 pm

    I read that particular Post article. Thanks for synergizing my daily media intake. I enjoyed your responses.

    Now, I am off to engage in my mind’s own Nietzschean rant.

    sunshine scribe May 4, 2006 at 1:12 pm

    Urban Mommy’s right, you DO get around. But I am enjoying the shit you are stirring up and shouting a loud “here here” from across town.

    I am offended by the conclusions drawn from her book and find it elitist and narrow in its premise. To your post awhile back about privledge – she is just missing too many important variables and the conclusion is a judgemental one that I could rant on for hours.

    But I am glad there is someone like you that can much more eloquently debate the merits of “the other side” of her work.

    So much division. So much guilt. So much unnecessary semantic-based crap.

    Three cheers for HBM (and her adorable gratuitous baby photos!)

    Bahar May 4, 2006 at 1:38 pm

    If you ever publish a book of WonderBaby pictures (with different hats, etc) I will buy it!

    She rocks!

    Bahar May 4, 2006 at 1:50 pm

    ok I am back.

    My mother was a stay-at-home mom because my dad wanted her to do so. She was bitter for sooooo many years about the fact that het education was wasted, she is over-worked at home and she is not intellectually growing, like my dad.

    Ok, see? that is not good! I grew up hating myself because I thought I was the reason for my mom’s misery. See? that is terrible.

    Now she is a teacher. She is happy again. She has co-workers, she is back in the society and she has the power to say NO to my dad whenever she wants to. She is truly happy.

    But now, she tells me if I ever want to have a child, I should stay at home at least for 2 years, because that’s best for the baby.

    Ok, whatif I get bored out of my mind and I question my won self-worth after a year? Is that not important? I ask her.

    HBM, did you read Naomi Wolf’s book on Motherhood? I read that book 3 years ago (thinking that I am a woman now, I should know these things!). It was good book. I totally recommend it to all ladies.

    I think they should make books like that mandatory for any woman older than 20.

    Laural Dawn May 4, 2006 at 2:03 pm

    This is my first blog post ever. Just thought you should know :)

    I love what you had to say about this. I was really angry about that book.

    I read the article in the Post — on the first day after switching my son into a new daycare (tears on both of our parts though he really likes it now).

    How hard is it to understand that like it or not some families need to be dual income. I don’t agree that children always do better with a stay at home parent. A happy parent is a good parent.

    Instead of being focussed on who is right and wrong there should just be more debate on how we can make all of the choices right!!

    Next post I will be less adament.

    Pattie May 4, 2006 at 2:11 pm

    I have not personally read or heard of this book…Yikes!Guess I know what I’m missing!

    I agree that it doesn’t mean a child is better off if his mother works or doesn’t work. I know women who feel as though if they didn’t work, they would die at home! OK, that is an exaggeration, however, they are happier working. I know mom’s who would be miserable working and choose to stay home. If the mommy is happy and fulfilled no matter what her choice, then that is a good thing for the family.
    I don’t see that as being selfish at all, or not putting the kids first. For that author and her letter writing supporters to make such blanket statements for everyone is dangerous ground and highly judgemental.

    Kristen May 4, 2006 at 2:39 pm

    I wasn’t suprised at all to see that the person who objected to your letter was a man. I just can’t stand how so many men who were raised by a mom who stayed at home and cooked and cleaned and did the perfect June Cleaver thing- bringing Dad his slippers and putting on lipstick to look nice for him…how they assume that is right for all women and that they know best.

    Some women LOVE staying at home and that is their only job. Some women like to work part time and feel like they are monitarily contributing as well as making the important contribution of raising kid(s). Some women work full time and dad stays home. This is not 1950 anymore. We have choices and I wish that people would embrace the differences in families more, instead of preaching about how they know what is best for us, not even knowing a DAMN THING about our family.

    P.S. Queen of Spain today. I think you may want to join her reformed SAHM feminist group! http://qofsandkids.blogspot.com/2006/05/stay-at-home-feminist.html

    Carrcakes May 4, 2006 at 2:47 pm

    Thank you for keeping me up to date on the argument. I always feel like I’m not informed on the detailed issues attached to the debate and this helped bring them to light.

    Your letter was raised points that needed to be said. Happy parents raise happy children — why don’t people get that?

    Thank you for sharing the photos, she’s perfect.

    Amy May 4, 2006 at 2:57 pm

    Thank you! I saw Caitlin Flanigan on the Colbert Report ( Comedy Central ). I completely share the feeling of why can’t people leave it alone? A happy mom is a good mom and for god’s sake, going to work is not a crime. While she sat there being interviewed about how a mothers place is in the home I was thinking- um, hello? Who is with your kids while you promote your book, which you wrote for money- which means you have a JOB?! I wanted to blog about this but didn’t. Now I wish I had. Nice work.

    MommyWithAttitude May 4, 2006 at 3:19 pm

    I just left you a comment that approached “War and Peace” length, so I’ll blog about it myself sometime and link back to you. Essentially I agree with your position, but not completely. Anyway, good food for thought in your post.

    Michele May 4, 2006 at 3:27 pm

    As always, a pleasure, and much food for thought.

    Motherhood Uncensored May 4, 2006 at 3:31 pm

    I heard only fleetingly about that book, and since I can barely put my mind around all that crap (it was forced down my throat while growing up), I decided to step away from it.

    I never thought I would be unhappy at home – mainly because I never thought about myself. Thank goodness for blogging, writing, and reading, because I realized that I’m way happier with something that feeds my soul. For now, it’s from the home – but perhaps it might not be. And I’m getting to be okay with that.

    I find the most irony in that A MAN replied back to you.

    Jenn May 4, 2006 at 4:31 pm

    Hi again,

    Like Sky, my Mum stayed at home until I was well into my teens. She was miserable. We were miserable. She was not able to grow, and much of the time she was resentful of that fact.

    I am a stay at home mother because I want to be, because I love staying at home. That being said, it isn’t without sacrifices, I see my husband once every 8 weeks or so, because he works out of town. I get lonely sometimes, I get frustrated, and yeah, sometimes I think that it would be nice to get a “real job.” In the end though, I am happier at home with my baby girl than I was at work.

    gingajoy May 4, 2006 at 4:39 pm

    flanagan is so contradictory it’s almost as if she’s having us on. i mean, she can’t *really* be arguing all this can she? (that’s how I feel when i read her, and I too enjoy her writing).

    Brain, Child has a nice piece on “Flanagania” in their latest issue (http://www.brainchildmag.com/)

    If you;ve not read that mag, you should–in fact, you should be writing for them!

    Belinda May 4, 2006 at 6:13 pm

    Followed you over from QoS, and so glad I did. I can’t add anything that hasn’t been said better already, so I’m just tipping my virtual hat. The proof of your pudding is in those baby pictures. Priceless.

    Greg May 4, 2006 at 6:14 pm
    Queen of Spain May 4, 2006 at 6:25 pm

    Belinda has exactly the same thought as I did! Look at the HAPPY and very obviously loved baby!

    Nancy May 4, 2006 at 7:05 pm

    When I read Mr. Larman’s response to your original letter I wanted to phone him up and rant. Seems like he picked bits and pieces out of what you said to make his point. Boils my beans. (just made that phrase up, d’ya like it?)

    I hate the “it’s for the children” talk. Because frankly, I don’t agree. What’s a dangerous trend in society, I believe, is restructuring life and family around children. Johnny wants an iPod? Sure, whatever makes him happy. Brittany wants the complete set of Princess Barbie dolls and clothes? OK, sure. But wait — one year later and Brittany now wants Bratz? If that’s what you want, honey. We don’t all get what we want, all the time, and kids need to learn that lesson.

    But here I am far afield of the original comment — as you clearly state, it’s about the family being happy. Not just the kids, not just the parents. And this is an individual thing — what works well for one family may not work for another. There is no reason for Mr. Larman or anyone to assume that kids can be best raised by the parents, under all circumstances. If this were true, why would we need foster care? Why would we need child protective services?

    Grrr… got my dander up. but I love these discussions, keep ‘em coming.

    Dutch May 4, 2006 at 7:23 pm

    I loved your letters. And your allusion to Walt.

    Christina May 4, 2006 at 9:01 pm

    I have not seen this book, but I’ll admit to being curious now.

    It pisses me off to no end that people keep trying to polarize moms and perpetuate the “mommy wars”. You are right on the mark: happy parents equal happy kids. There is no one-arrangement-fits-all solution.

    My mom was a single mom, and worked out of necessity. Looking back, she would have loved to spend more time with me, but she needed to work to provide for us. Did working make her happy? Hell no. But working made her happier than starving her child, or worse, losing custody of her child to my awful father. So “happy” is also a subjective term. People need to give moms a little credit for thinking of what is best for their families.

    Soemthing that also isn’t addressed much in these mommy wars is the fact that nothing has to be permanent. SAHM and WOHM – these states of existence aren’t permanent. Women can stay home and then go back to work. Working women can choose to quit and stay home at any point. It need not be black and white.

    I currently work part-time (which is somewhere in the middle to begin with), but when my daughter is school age, I will likely work closer to full time.

    OK, disjointed rant over with for now. I’ll end on a happier note: cute pics!

    tomama May 4, 2006 at 10:00 pm

    Great post. I linked it ’cause you said it all so well.

    Dawn May 4, 2006 at 10:37 pm

    Why haven’t I been reading you every day? I mean Geesh, we run in the same circles and everything…

    I proudly announce that I am a Happily working mother. Not because of economic need, but out of Dawn need. I’m not built to be a SAHM – and I recognize that is what is best for my daughter – not having a depressed crazy mother waiting for her at the end of the school day.

    And yes. I DID choose to have a baby. But we all know now that you can’t know what it’s like in any way until the baby and you are face to face. Clearly my PPD thoughts to put her at the bottom of a lake weren’t exactly “best for the child”.

    So I work. And I love working. And I don’t feel guilty. As we know from the most recent research coming out, children of depressed mothers are vastly more likely to develop mental illnesses themselves. Hmmm, doesn’t sound “best for the children”, does it?

    Who made this ridiculous myth of the all sacrificing mother? Why do people keep buying it?

    Jozet May 5, 2006 at 12:54 am

    Well done, you. Nothing to add.

    Except that photo of the Zurbert is adorable!

    mo-wo May 5, 2006 at 2:10 am

    Well yes. In our marriage prep course one presenter described the family as a cup and saucer. Kids down in the saucer and Mom and Pop the cup.

    What is poured into Mom and Pop is paramount. It is what will trickle down to the kids. As you say, happiness is important for PEOPLE. Mothers included. Happiness is not something we implant into our kids though some parenting mantra.

    Jezer May 5, 2006 at 7:57 am

    What a beautiful little belly-button!

    My favorite point? Flanagan’s position is not brave, nor daring. “It’s a story.”

    Thanks for posting the letters. Excellent reading.

    kittenpie May 5, 2006 at 10:13 am

    If you ask me, the kool-aid drinkers are the ones who swallow the “mom-must-be-X” mantras without question. As the personal stories above reflect, an unhappy mom makes for an unhappy home. And a mom who comes home happy and energized by her outside work makes for great happy memories too, as my mom did. I remember singing and reading and having water fights and going on weekend outings, not her absence.

    On the flip side, a mom who revels in daily life with her kids and puts her energy into that makes for a great mom too. It’s the moms who stay at home unhappy or unwillnig to really engage their kids that I think make for a bad situation.

    So yeah, you totally reflect my opinion too here. Adn at the risk of bringing down the ire of you-know-who, You Go, Girl! ‘;^)

    macboudica May 5, 2006 at 11:29 am

    I agree 100%. People are different. Moms are different. I think back to when I was a kid and I am glad, so very overjoyed, that my mother worked A LOT. She was not cut out for child rearing like she thought she was when she had kids. She will be the first to admit it, too. Not everyone can be the Happy Housewife, and if my mom was forced to do it I probably would not be here writing this comment today.

    T. May 5, 2006 at 11:40 am

    Well said, as always.

    My mom was a SAHM and she hated every minute of it. And she makes no bones about it. Consequently, it was a lovely upbringing, what with her telling us everyday how we wrecked her life.

    Choices, and the ability to make those choices, are what will bring about happy homes and well-adjusted kiddies.

    And love the belly shot.

    Bahar May 5, 2006 at 1:51 pm

    Request:

    Please post more pictures of the smiley little princess aka WonderBaby.

    Mega Mom May 5, 2006 at 2:02 pm

    I completely applaud you for making us all think. I don’t know anything about the author and I don’t really read too many non-fiction books (frightful, I know, but I enjoy it that way.)

    Ever since the whole feminism topic a few weeks ago, I’ve been planning a post in my head, but as yet have been too busy to write.

    I happen to be a woman who does not know how to characterize herself. I have loads of opinions, but they don’t fit neatly into one category. The point however, is that they are opinions, not truths, and I don’t push them on people because I understand that differentiation (is that a word?)

    I ALWAYS love when people are able to pleasantly disagree. Anyhoo…thanks for waking all of this up in my head again :)

    Blog Antagonist May 5, 2006 at 3:22 pm

    I haven’t read the book. But I found your comments about the fulfillment and happiness factor very thought provoking. I used to sneer at the whole “When Mom’s happy…” line of thinking and dismiss it as a means of validating a selfish choice. How wrong I was. Women who are self-actualized enough to realize they should not ignore their own needs and not give themselves up mind body and spirit to motherhood are the smart ones.

    I think that men sometimes fan the flames of the Mommy Wars, because it keeps us second guessing ourselves, and as long as we are doing that, the guilt and shame will keep us struggling to take care of everyone but ourselves, struggling to be the perfect wife and mother.

    Bah, I’m rambling. Great post.

    Izzy May 5, 2006 at 5:22 pm

    I’m so glad you rebutted that man’s response to your letter. I frankly don’t see how his opinion figures into the equation if he’s only willing to condider women as SAH parents.

    You GO GIRL!

    Signed,
    Your Kool-Aid swilling Mommy-Cult member reader and friend…

    Mom101 May 5, 2006 at 7:32 pm

    Bravo, HBM! On all of it. Of course black/white issues sell. It’s the reason we have an idiot for a president just a few miles south of you. Who can bother understanding nuance or grey area when there are extremes to debate!

    The whole “happy mom” argument holds up in just so many ways that that man (of course a man) will not understand. Formula feeding comes to mind.

    Meanwhile, what in God’s name is wrong with having grandparents and loving caregivers help raise your children? Isn’t this the way it was done for, like, thousands of years in all but the poorest of households?

    I remain your #1 fan.

    Dana May 8, 2006 at 11:37 am

    I agree with you. It’s hard to beat the contradictions that sneak up on us every day. But we sure try!

    Great post!

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