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I Dismember Mama

Conservative ideologues like Danielle Crittenden say women would be happier if they'd just put babies before work. But even Crittenden knows better than to try it herself.

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By Cate Plys

There's a monster out there--a hulking, hideous monster, cobbled together from bits and pieces better left buried and given unholy life by a careless creator. It's a book.

Danielle Crittenden's What Our Mothers Didn't Tell Us: Why Happiness Eludes the Modern Woman is a real Frankenstinker. It's based on articles she's written over the last decade. Those in turn were based on a handful of sound thoughts, which can be summed up in two sentences: Women who want to have children should think very seriously about not putting it off until their late 30s or early 40s. And once they have kids, if it's financially feasible, the kids should have a parent for a primary caretaker. But Crittenden animates these reasonable suggestions with the antifeminist ideology of an archconservative maniac.

Just as Dr. Frankenstein began by putting in the wrong brain, Crittenden opens with the questionable premise that today's young women are profoundly unhappy, unhappier than they've ever been, a conclusion based on studying the contents of magazines like Cosmopolitan. Clearly her methodology is not all it could be. Her central piece of advice for these sad young ladies: Get married and have babies immediately after college. Don't make any attempt to begin your career until the kids are in school all day. "We start our careers in our twenties, when we are at our most physically fertile and yet are neither old enough nor experienced enough to get anywhere professionally," she declares. Translation: you need more experience before you can start getting experience. Strangely, she doesn't share this tidbit of wisdom with men, who are also foolishly trying to build careers in their 20s. Since they don't need to have children so early, I suppose they might as well spend the time windsurfing or something.

If I weren't against book burning, I'd be recruiting some torch-bearing villagers to advance on the publisher's warehouse right now. Instead I'll have to content myself with torching Crittenden's outrageously faulty logic.

Why bother, you may wonder, if it's so outrageously faulty? Because Crittenden can't be safely ignored. Her ideas are validated by their regular appearances on the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, and her book has been excerpted in papers across the country--here the Sun-Times ran several 2,000-word segments. The book has sold at least 24,000 copies and is due to be published in paperback next March.

Yet I could find only two critical reviews in newspapers, by Susan Reimer of the Baltimore Sun and Margery Eagan of the Boston Herald. Both were excellent essays that were, unfortunately, far too short to expose the book as the utter tripe it is. And both pieces were no doubt overshadowed by George Will's nationally syndicated column recommending that two copies of Crittenden's book "be given as wedding presents to every couple." So the book remains a legitimate work of social commentary, and Crittenden remains a legitimate source for media outlets to call on when they need a conservative voice or quote.

It would be bad enough if Crittenden were an isolated voice, but she isn't. She's the editor of the Women's Quarterly, a journal of "women's (not wymyn's!) writing" published by the Independent Women's Forum, a conservative Republican antifeminist political group whose power is growing. Quarterly contributors include Wendy Shalit (author of A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue), former Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown, and Mona Charen; typical topics include how NOW exaggerates the seriousness of domestic violence, how Title IX has hurt men's sports programs, and how sexual equality has made it hard for a lady to say no. Some choice headlines: "Animal Crackers: Yesterday's Crazy Cat Ladies Are Today's Animal Liberationists," "Not at My Table: Melinda Ledden Sidak Yearns to Revive the Social Cut," and, from the current issue, "Why a Good Man Is Hard to Find: Harvey Mansfield Observes That Feminism Liberated Men Too."

Other IWF members' articles and op-ed pieces also run regularly in major papers nationwide, while the members themselves pop up regularly on political talk shows. Charen and other conservative columnists frequently use IWF activities and publications as fodder, and in fact the IWF has thoughtfully compiled its own Media Directory of Women Experts, featuring 300 women "who can provide balanced commentary on timely subjects ranging from 'Aviation' to 'Workplace Issues.'"

Two prominent IWF members who have provided more than their share of commentary are Laura Ingraham, a former Reagan White House aide and law clerk to Clarence Thomas, and Christina Hoff Sommers, a Clark University philosophy professor and fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank that often assists the IWF in compiling studies. Ingraham is an MSNBC news analyst, and until recently she filled the same role on CBS. Sommers wrote Who Stole Feminism? How Women Have Betrayed Women (1994), a book feted by Rush Limbaugh and the National Review. The New York Times review noted that in it she "boasts of being a reliable antifeminist witness on any television show that invites her."

The IWF grew out of Women for Clarence Thomas, a group that formed in opposition to Anita Hill. It grew quickly, putting out a newsletter and magazine, hosting conferences, and getting its representatives into the media. Members include Lynne Cheney (whose husband was Bush's secretary of defense), Wendy Lee Gramm (whose husband is Republican senator Phil Gramm), and executive director Barbara Ledeen (whose husband was a national security consultant to Reagan). IWF members deny feminists' claims that the group is really a front to advance the agenda of white male conservatives, but Ledeen told the Washington Post that the group was formed because "you can't have white guys saying you don't need affirmative action. We feel we have the credibility to say, 'Not all women think the way you may expect.'"

In a recent Boston Globe op-ed piece, Caryl Rivers, coauthor of She Works, He Works: How Two-Income Families Are Happy, Healthy and Thriving, wrote that Crittenden and her cohorts are "nearly to a woman...bankrolled by wealthy husbands or foundations set up to advance the conservative agenda." Christina Hoff Sommers, Rivers points out, "was supported [in writing Who Stole Feminism?] by three conservative foundations (Carthage, Olin, and Bradley) to the tune of $160,000." IWF itself is largely supported by conservative foundations like Carthage and Bradley.

Scarier still, the IWF doesn't just take money. It gives money. It now has its own political action committee, the Independent Women's Action Project, which can raise funds for conservative candidates. In April IWAP hosted a tribute dinner at Washington's Mayflower Hotel for Henry Hyde and the rest of the prosecutors at President Clinton's impeachment trial. The evening was emceed by Robert Bork, who declared, "If you haven't heard of the Independent Women's Forum, you don't understand the culture wars. They ought to bronze the kitchen table they met around when they founded the forum, and venerate it."

IWF members testify before Congress on issues like affirmative action. IWF executive vice president and general counsel Anita Blair not only chaired the Congressional Commission on Military Training and Gender-Related Issues, but got to testify separately on her personal views on the subject--not surprisingly, she supports segregating the troops. The organization also files legal briefs in controversial court cases, too. Recently it filed one that opposed allowing a fifth-grade girl in Georgia to sue her school board under Title IX for refusing to stop her sexual harassment by a male student. The IWF refers to it as "bra-snapping," but the boy pleaded guilty to sexual battery, and in May the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the girl's favor.

And the IWF doesn't confine itself to traditional women's issues. It took the time and expense to file a brief with the Supreme Court opposing the use of statistical sampling in the 2000 census, a prototypical issue that divides liberals and conservatives. Liberals generally support sampling in order to count homeless and minority populations that would otherwise go unreported, while conservatives oppose it, since the adjusted figures would probably reflect an increase in the urban and minority (read: Democratic) population.

In short, the IWF and its PAC are a group of well-funded, well-connected, media-savvy women with the potential to influence everything from elections to legislation to the ways individual women live their lives. That's where Crittenden comes in. She confines her writing to the social sphere, criticizing every move modern women make that steps beyond mores and morals of the 1950s, a decade she says makes her wistful. Her book is an attempt to micromanage women's personal choices, generously doling out advice so flawed she hasn't followed it herself.

Crittenden's logic is rotten from the foundation up, starting with her advocacy of early marriage. If she wants to promote stable, happy marriages, she should advise women to marry later rather than earlier. The most recent report from Rutgers University's National Marriage Project notes that a "large body of evidence indicates that marriages of very young people, that is, teenagers, are much less stable and successful on average than are first marriages of persons in their twenties and older. Indeed, age at marriage is one of the strongest and most consistent predictors of marital stability ever found by social science research. The probable reasons are fairly obvious; at older ages people tend to be more emotionally and intellectually mature, established in their jobs and careers, and usually better able to know what they want in a lifetime mate."

Crittenden never specifies a magic marrying age, but most people graduate from college at 21 or 22, and she doesn't want them playing the field for long. But according to the Marriage Project report, the median age at first marriage in the U.S. has risen to 25 for women and 27 for men, and "while most current marriage trends seem clearly detrimental to marriage as an institution, the increase in the median age at first marriage appears to have had a strongly positive effect....One new study has found it to be by far the single most important factor accounting for the recent leveling off of divorce rates."

Once you're married, Crittenden recommends, it's off with your shoes and on which childbearing. "By marrying earlier rather than later, a woman could also have her children when she's most physically ready for them, and without too much disruption to her career, if she plans to have one," Crittenden writes. "By the time her children were in school for a full day, she'd have just begun to hit her stride at work."

Oh sure--it's not disruptive trying to start a career from scratch in your 30s. I remember starting out at 24 rather than 22, because I'd gone to graduate school directly out of college. Employers already considered me too old for the entry-level or internship positions I needed to begin getting experience. I can just imagine applying for my first internship at 30. Also, Crittenden conveniently forgets that outside areas like medieval literature, much college course work can be completely outdated ten years later. I finished a public policy degree with a concentration in nuclear weapons policy just before the fall of the Soviet Union. Guess how much of that is still relevant.

Anyway, since Crittenden vehemently disapproves of anything less than full-time mothering, a woman who followed her advice could hardly be "hitting her stride at work" when her last child entered first grade. She could just then start job hunting--not that it would be easy, with no experience whatsoever, to find a job that let her out in time to greet the kids after school. Other than a shift at McDonald's, that is. But putting off a career would be worth it, Crittenden thinks, because a woman who followed her instructions "would not suddenly have to make the agonizing choice at thirty-two or thirty-three to stop everything now and drop out for a few years to have a baby--or spend six weeks with her infant and then deliver it into the hands of a nanny or day-care center." Crittenden sets up two false premises here. First, she assumes it is agonizing for everyone to drop out of the work world for a few years, though many people plan to do so and work toward it as a goal. Others embrace the opportunity to chuck a job they hate.

Second, she insists there is nothing in between full-time homemaking and full-time work. "The discovery when we do have babies, of course, is that they in no way 'fit into' any career....Working, even at a part-time job, is the equivalent of a clown tossing three more spinning plates onto a stick balanced precariously on the end of a mother's nose."

Now, God knows there should be many more opportunities for reduced hours and/or flexible schedules, but such jobs do exist. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 1997 25 million full-time workers--that's 19.3 percent of employed people--had flexible schedules. Of those, 3,851,000 were women with children under 18--that's 26.6 percent of full-time working moms. And 26.2 percent of all working moms with kids under 18 worked part-time. Moreover, experienced professionals can often freelance or consult in their field, out of their homes, choosing their own hours and spending a minimum amount of time away from their kids. The experienced professional can also, having proved her worth at a company, reasonably ask for reduced hours and a flexible schedule. Try making those kinds of demands on a first-time job application.

As it happens, I am Crittenden's age, 36, and like her I have two small children. Like her, I'm a writer--a staff writer for this paper, currently working part-time. I also know how to juggle--the real kind, where you throw balls into the air and keep them there. There's no similarity. I'm probably busier than I would be if I quit work completely, though it seems to me that whenever one responsibility or claim on your time disappears, others simply pop up to fill in the space. Full-time moms don't have scads of free time, unless they are wealthy and have housekeepers.

I have no housekeeper, so I simply have to plan my time efficiently. I don't go to a mall whenever I feel like it, for instance, so shopping gets organized accordingly. If I forget something during an infrequent shopping excursion, it doesn't get bought. Other things don't get returned for months. Big deal. The important thing is, if something new and unexpected gets thrown into the mix--say, an asthma attack or a skateboarding injury--all the other balls don't drop to the floor as Crittenden would have us believe. That's the whole purpose of a flexible schedule: One half (work) can give when the other half (kids) demands extra time. And when work needs some extra time, for a special project or to catch up, the kids can play with their dad, or at their friends' houses, or watch Sesame Street. It's not rocket science. It's not even Bill Nye the Science Guy.

Crittenden's kids are a boy and a girl, ages five and seven respectively. So her youngest child is not in school all day, unless he's just begun an all-day kindergarten program. Yet she never tells us how she feels about putting off her career to attend to them. That's because she hasn't. Rather, she's been busy writing for publications like the Wall Street Journal, appearing on television and radio shows, and founding a conservative antifeminist magazine. Perhaps she did all that after the kids went to sleep at night, but I doubt it. I put in plenty of night hours and deal with E-mail and phone calls during naps and other relatively quiet times. Plus I rely on my parents and husband to give me at least two pure workdays per week. I can attest that it's not the kind of schedule that allows for founding magazines, much less writing books and going on promotional tours.

But Crittenden had a baby-sitter and then a full-time au pair, and now she has a full-time housekeeper. She also married into a wealthy family. She's the stepdaughter of one of the founders of the Toronto Sun, where she worked early on as a reporter, and the wife of a prominent conservative Canadian journalist who's worked for the Wall Street Journal and Fortune and is now a contributing editor to the Weekly Standard. She has described her late mother-in-law as Canada's Ted Koppel, and two of the buddies she thanks in the forward to What Our Mothers Didn't Tell Us are George Will and William Kristol.

So this is a woman who has sacrificed absolutely nothing in order to have children, and yet she has the gall to preach to the vast majority of women who have. She mentions in passing that she takes weekly tennis lessons with her husband. With two small children and a career, she has time for tennis lessons. You don't take tennis lessons unless you have time to practice too, I might add. Like most real-world parents I know, my husband and I have time for a pint of Ben & Jerry's ice cream on Saturday night after the kids go to bed.

Oh, all right--sometimes we have a pint on Friday too.

Crittenden established her career in her 20s, had children in her late 20s, and worked part-time at the very least during their preschool years. That timetable seems to have worked out wonderfully for her. Crittenden portrays herself as having a happy marriage and happy kids, and of course she just published a book. Yet that book is based on the premise that no one should follow her lead. The book is also published under her maiden name, though she spends a good portion of one chapter scorning women who don't take their husbands' names.

If it sounds like I take this book personally, well, damn straight I do. I've followed the same timetable as Crittenden, and it's worked out fine for me too. So I can't imagine making a living by telling others "Don't try this at home!" Crittenden reserves a special hell for any early feminist who sacrificed having children in order to build a career, but from where I stand, she and I and every other woman with "everything" should be on our knees thanking such women. The reason we don't have to make that sacrifice is because they did. But Crittenden is wretchedly ungrateful--perhaps she thinks Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan should baby-sit for us too.

I mentioned earlier that Crittenden has a few good ideas about childbearing. Let's start with her notion that earlier is better. I agree, though her definition of "earlier" is a bit different from mine. As Crittenden points out, the longer you wait, the more likely you could become infertile in any number of ways. As she doesn't point out, you could also come down at any time with some ailment, condition, or syndrome that would make pregnancy and/or child rearing much more difficult, if not impossible. Younger people aren't likely to think of that, since they often still consider their bodies indestructible. But things like cancer, kidney disease, and digestive problems have a way of taking people by surprise. One day you wake up and you have Crohn's disease or something else as unpleasant.

Crittenden also notes that the older you are when you start procreating, the less likely your kids will be to have real relationships (or any) with their grandparents. I'm with her on this too, though in my experience not too many other people are. When I first became pregnant, at age 29, it was one of the reasons I gave when people asked me why I'd decided to start a family. I can't say I remember anyone simply nodding in agreement. Most were surprised, and some thought it downright silly. But I would advise young women that if grandparents aren't important to you on principle alone, realize now that there will be few other people (if any) as interested in baby-sitting your kids.

Of course, by Crittenden's calculations, anyone having kids past the age of 23 will be introducing them to grandparents in a nursing home or cemetery. Which is odd, since she waited until 28 and proclaims her own mother an active grandmother in her 60s. My parents waited until their late 20s and early 30s to have kids, and so did I. My kids also have active, involved grandparents in their 60s, and hopefully my grandchildren will too. Maybe Crittenden's calculator needs new batteries.

One of the more frustrating aspects of Crittenden's argument is her refusal to acknowledge that not everyone can get married and have children at the precise moment he or she would like to do so. Crittenden believes women who have kids in their 30s or early 40s do it for one of two reasons. The first is that they were too busy with their careers to meet their match in time to make her tight childbearing deadline. As she puts it, "Their uncertainty about what it was, exactly, that they wanted to do [in their careers] pushed them into the quasi-serious but ultimately unsatisfying relationships that define...modern single life."

The second reason, according to Crittenden, is selfishness. Some women get married on time but then are just too self-absorbed to take a break from their careers to have kids.

Whatever their excuse, Crittenden is relentless in her disparagement of new moms over 30--which shouldn't be surprising, because she constantly demeans older women in general with throwaway lines like "Women, no matter how rich or powerful they might be, will still be inclined to wince when they pass a mirror after forty." And get a load of this: "The first time I pushed my newborn daughter to the playground, I was struck by how many grandmothers were sitting on the park benches and along the sides of the sandbox, tending to their grandchildren. After a few more outings, it dawned on me that these women weren't the children's grandmothers but their mothers. Some of them had gray-streaked hair; others, lined faces; all were wearily trying to keep up with the energy of their high-voltage two-year-olds."

Crittenden imagines that these haggard old mothers she sees have been "yanked out of their plush offices and forced to surrender their Italian leather briefcases for diaper bags." I have news for her: Women who own Italian leather briefcases are not "yanked" out of careers. They can afford nannies, so if you spot them on the playground you can be pretty sure they chose to be there, to take time out of their careers for their children. That's what Crittenden supposedly wants women to do, but when they do it, she picks on them.

As a young mother, Crittenden says, she was exhausted all the time. "How much worse for [older mothers] the upheaval of a baby! At their age, their own mothers would probably have been on the verge of seeing their last child out the door and enjoying the peace of their vacated houses."

An aside, if you'll permit me: I find this attitude odd coming from someone so allegedly smitten with spending time with her kids. Personally, I can't imagine looking forward to having the kids out of the house. It's like looking forward to dying because even a pleasant life is too much work.

Anyway, to continue: "So much has been said about that generation of women who squandered their youth on their children, but wasn't it actually worse to be doing this all in one's midlife? Watching these tired women trying to look surprised and delighted at their child's inane burblings, I realized that it makes no more sense for a woman to have her first baby at thirty-eight or forty than it does at eighteen." Crittenden doesn't make the tiniest effort to check the veracity of this hallucination of hers, not even with her usual lazy methodology of asking one or two people she knows.

That's probably because there is no proof. I know--I looked. In general, the experts I spoke to warned against generalizing about parents based on age. Steven Meyers, a Roosevelt University assistant professor of psychology and licensed clinical psychologist in private practice specializing in parent-child relations, told me that individuals vary so much that there's likely to be more difference among parents within a given age group than between that age group and another one.

Meyers also noted that the variables shown to make a difference in parenting include interpersonal sensitivity and maturity of the parent--how well the parent is able to subordinate his or her needs for the child's welfare. "More life experiences gives you greater maturity, greater maturity in turn leads to more sensitive and responsive parenting," he said.

In 1997 Vern L. Bengston, a sociology professor at the University of Southern California, published a 25-year study of families that came to the same conclusion: that older parents were more likely to put their children's needs first. Their children "are desired, planned for. Their nursery and pre-kindergarten days have been more carefully attended than perhaps any birth cohort in recent history," he said when the study came out.

My experience, unlike Crittenden's, actually bears this stuff out. When I go to the playground in my neighborhood, the older mothers are nothing like tired. They're the mothers who are playing with their kids and enjoying it. When I see a disengaged mom who can't be bothered to push her child on a swing--and I get plenty of pathetic little kids asking me to push them too because their own mothers won't--she's apt to be a young mom who's sitting on a bench yakking with friends or eating. Of course, I also see some caring, responsible young mothers, but I've never seen an older parent at the playground who wasn't having a ball.

Crittenden admits that she doesn't know one single person who got married right out of school and had kids--another telling detail about her sheltered world. I know quite a few people who did this; sadly, they all suffered very rocky marriages, some of which were over by the time I had my first child. From what I could tell, many of them didn't enjoy their children's early years the way I'm enjoying my kids'--inevitably, they couldn't appreciate the experience because they were dirt-poor, struggling, or just plain too young.

I've got one more thing to add on this subject. Crittenden says that even as she had her first baby, at 28, she wished she'd done it sooner. "I had less physical stamina; I fretted more about damage to my furniture....When I remembered the life a woman in her early twenties leads--her ability to stay up to all hours, eat poorly, sleep over on friends' floors--I thought how much better suited that person is to the schedules and demands of a baby."

I remember that time too. And I'm nuts about my kids--friends have criticized me for not going out alone since I became a mom, and the fact is I rarely do. Often when turning down invitations I'll sound regretful that a baby-sitter can't be found, but the truth is I'm just being polite. I'd rather spend the time with my kids and I'm not a bit sorry.

That said, I wouldn't give up one single second of my twenties to have had my kids sooner. I wouldn't give up eating poorly, sleeping on floors, and, generally, just being young. And to tell someone else to cut short her youth is, to me, practically criminal. Not to mention stupid. Because a person who gets a kick out of eating poorly and sleeping on floors is not in any way, shape, or form suited to the schedules or demands of a baby. The person who's been there, done that, and is done with it is suited to the schedules and demands of a baby.

Crittenden's one other sound notion was that children deserve to be cared for by a parent whenever possible. I agree with that too, but Crittenden is, as usual, blindly dogmatic, rejecting outright the possibility of a primary caretaker working even part-time.

I'm obviously not an objective observer here, but I believe there is a rather huge difference between a child spending 50 hours a week at a day-care center and a child spending a couple days a week with a relative or even in some other baby-sitting arrangement. When my older daughter was younger, she shared a baby-sitter with a little friend down the block. The kids had a ball together on the days I worked, and today they're best friends. Now my kids hang out with their grandparents or dad, and I know when I'm working that they're building stronger relationships with the other most vital people in their lives.

Meanwhile, I find myself a happier, and thus better, mom for having an intellectual outlet and an extra connection to the adult world. Crittenden derides that idea, which would be easy to do if you'd only played at being a housewife on the housekeeper's days off. I live a comfortable middle-class existence, and I still find much truth in the phrase "Absence makes the heart grow fonder." If you're away from your kids for a few hours, you can't wait to get back. If you're with them 24 hours a day, seven days a week, you're a lot more likely to spend every waking moment looking for ways to get away from them.

In addition my family is in a safer, more secure position not only because even a reduced salary is helpful to our budget but also because if anything did happen to my husband or his job and I needed to increase my income, I wouldn't be starting from scratch. Crittenden insists that the only reason women feel it necessary to be able to support themselves is the specter of divorce. She's somehow unaware of the threat downsizing presents to many Americans, and evidently she doesn't know anyone who's become disabled in an accident or died of cancer. But people who aren't wealthy think about these things.

Naturally, since Crittenden can't brook part-time work, she has zero tolerance for families where both parents work full-time. Her self-righteous appraisal is that no family really needs two full incomes in this robust economy. To her mind, all two-income families are living in big suburban homes and using the second income to support a lavish lifestyle, and as her only evidence she describes two working-mom families whose households are in chaos. I'm sure there are people in this world whose standards for a passable lifestyle are too high, who have kids and then expect to continue as they did when childless, buying newer cars, gigantic houses, and every conceivable electronic gadget. But according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 1998 the average income of a two-salary family with children was $68,974--hardly the kind of money these days that supports hedonistic luxury.

Crittenden finds it disturbingly easy to mock people who feel the need to keep a second parent's job if only for the health insurance. She includes several pages of description of a 41-year-old mother of five-year-old twins who doesn't feel she can quit her dead-end customer-service job. Crittenden thinks the kids have enough toys to prove the woman could quit if she really wanted. The mother says that while the twins were in preschool "she paid extra to put them in a full-day program so they could stay in one place instead of being shuttled around by sitters. It cost nearly as much as she earned to do so," Crittenden scolds, "but she justified this by reminding herself she was hanging on to her benefits."

Crittenden tries to back her belief that few families need two incomes by portraying herself as a child of meager circumstances. Her folks, she says, lived in a small apartment when she was quite young, and even existed without a car, but hey, they made it without a second income! Then she describes an old family photo of herself and her brother as toddlers in Hawaii, and mentions that there "are other similar pictures of us lounging on the decks of ocean liners and playing on foreign beaches." She adds that though her parents "had very little money," they were determined to travel. Right. When I was a kid, the farthest I ever got from Chicago was Kentucky. My parents jetting us off to Hawaii was about as likely as them packing us up to re-create Roald Amundsen's trek to the south pole, and we weren't poor. I won't insult genuinely poor people by pretending that we were. We were plain old middle-class.

Maybe Crittenden's family went through some tight times early on, but let's face it--as kids, if your parents had money to buy you a candy bar to eat while you watched TV on Friday night, you considered yourself pretty well-off. Besides, she drops plenty of hints that their economic status rapidly advanced as her childhood progressed. For instance, she mentions that her mother and everyone else's mother that she knew all had meaningful careers (after the kids were in school, of course). Where the hell did she grow up? When I was a kid, at the exact same time as Crittenden, I knew not one working mother. It was beyond imagination. Had we been poorer, I probably would have known working mothers, but I doubt they would have had meaningful careers. Something tells me little Danielle wasn't eating Snickers with The Brady Bunch like me and my brothers.

The most glaring problem with Crittenden's advice is her unyielding position that only mothers can stay home with children. The idea that a dad could do the job is so far out of her purview she doesn't even bother to argue against it.

She mentions the idea several times, but dismisses it with no explanation. She sneers at "feminists" who find it "odious...to insist that mothers should be the ones to sacrifice their work for their children, and not fathers equally" and think it's "disturbingly sexist to say that women are 'better' at caring for infants, more suited to it, than men." She never says why it is not odious to automatically assume that a father cannot or should not take care of his own children.

A few pages later, she comes back to it: "All right then, the same feminists may go on to argue, why should it be women who must make the sacrifice and not men? But this question only makes sense if you believe there is no innate or important difference between mothers and fathers--that we are, or should be, biologically interchangeable; our roles as parents, androgynous." She presumes that the deficiencies of men as primary caretakers are so incredibly obvious that she needn't tell us what they are. The question doesn't make sense, thus she does not have to answer it.

She goes on: "A woman who has carried the baby around for nine months inside of her usually finds it natural to [stay home with the children]--and often impossible not to. Some may prefer, for ideological reasons, to switch the job to the man." Is it not "ideological" to automatically assign the role to women? What is not ideological is to acknowledge that the parent who stays home with the children should be the one who feels most inclined to do so, or whose career would suffer less--more practically, the parent who makes less money. Most important, it should be the parent whom each individual family decides is most suited.

Crittenden quotes a 1997 Roper Starch poll "of women's attitudes toward work" that "found that a majority of married women would prefer to stay home with their young children if they could." I don't doubt it. But that majority is 52 percent--which means 48 percent would not prefer to stay home. That's an awful lot of women to ignore. And men, too: I know five stay-at-home dads myself, two on my block alone. The most recent study by the U.S. Census Bureau found that 1.9 million fathers were primary caregivers and that doesn't even include men who were also working part-time.

Crittenden argues against women working by pointing out that "women (like men, for that matter) who can be described as having interesting, fulfilling jobs represent a tiny minority of the workforce." Sure--most people I know, regardless of sex, hate their jobs. At best, they find their jobs stressful. My husband is a tax accountant. Sometimes when I call him at work, I throw him a bone and ask how his day is going, just so he can complain. A few weeks before April 15, he said his head was burning like a white-hot sun. "When I come home tonight, if it suddenly gets brighter outside, it's my head lighting up the neighborhood," he told me.

Why shouldn't a guy be allowed to quit the rat race for a couple years? In our case, let's face it, a tax accountant makes a heck of a lot more money than a writer. But I asked my husband the other day, "If I made more money than you, would you quit and stay home with the kids?" He was momentarily stunned by the question, having never considered the possibility.

"Well, sure," he said.

Regarding the Roper poll, if anyone bothered to ask, I bet there'd be a lot more women happy to go to work if they knew their kids would be cared for by their husbands.

Crittenden asserts that in order to achieve parity with men in the work world, "All women would have to work all of the time, whether they are the mothers of small children or not." As usual, she's ruled out any option that might bring down her house of cards. More realistically, in order for women to reach parity with men, the work world must provide part-time and flex-time jobs for working parents of both sexes and not penalize those who take a few years off to stay home with the kids. That's starting to happen, but it won't kick in until more men start demanding the same working choices as women. I don't know what that magic number is, but we're not there yet.

More stay-at-home dads could change not only the workplace but also the low regard society has for homemakers. Crittenden claims that housewives have only been looked down on since the women's movement, conveniently forgetting that it is only because of the women's movement that housewives have credit cards in their own names. I would never say that the work a homemaker does is unimportant, but the argument that women in the home, by shaping tomorrow's adults, wield more power than men do by controlling business and politics is a crock. If men believed women played the most powerful role in society, they would have kicked us out of it a long time ago. We couldn't even vote until this century, for God's sake. For homemakers to have the respect they deserve, homemaking has to go coed.

Why doesn't Crittenden consider this possibility for even a sentence? Earlier in the book, when she wants to argue that women shouldn't fear that future husbands won't share housework, she quotes a real poll (as opposed to a magazine survey) that shows how men's attitudes toward domestic roles have undergone "a staggering change." She cites a survey from the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research in which over 70 percent of male high school seniors said women should have the same education and job opportunities as men, and that when wives work, husbands should do more housework. Most significant, they said "most fathers should spend more time with their children than they do now."

She also describes how her mother often reminds her that in her day, "the garden-variety middle-class father would not come home early from the office when the kids were sick, would not change a diaper, would not watch the kids on Saturday afternoon--or if he did, he would bestow a two-hour break with the magnanimity of a ducal favor. The modern dad--the one giving a bottle in an airport lounge, or reading a grocery list in a supermarket aisle with a baby reaching from the cart, or enthusiastically toting the children off to the playground--was, in my mother's eyes, as remarkable an improvement as the ultrathin disposable diapers and battery-operated baby swings." Crittenden herself remembers taking her son to a three-year-old's birthday party and noticing that most of the dads were caring for younger siblings while "the wives, all businesswomen, collected together in the living room to drink wine and discuss their jobs."

But her point in relating these stories is to mock women who fear losing their careers or personal identities by marrying and having children. She ignores men's burgeoning domestic urges when it comes to dictating who stays home with the kids. Crittenden rhapsodizes on the joys of full-time motherhood, but it never occurs to her that men might appreciate the same things. "It is these trivial, daily, and seemingly mundane moments that compose a childhood. And they are moments a mother never gets back....Years later, a mother looks at baby photos and hungrily tries to recall the powder scent of her children's skin, the soft indents on the back of their necks, the pudginess of their feet, how she could cradle their entire bodies in her arms." How true; but how insulting to suggest that my daughters' father will not miss these things just as deeply, that he somehow is not human enough to miss as keenly as I will the way our older girl used to push her face into ours and stare us down, or how our younger girl used to be so chubby she had five distinct sections to each thigh. He can't get back all the time he misses with our kids while he's at work either, but somehow he doesn't count.

More husbands at home would improve women's status, but women must also remain in the workplace. We need women who want to continue high-powered careers as lawyers, doctors, etc, after having children because--quite simply--they make it possible for people like me to exist. Crittenden, too, makes the argument that what some women do impacts all women, but she uses it to make only one bizarre point: if young women have premarital sex, women in their 30s won't be able to find husbands and all middle-aged women will end up divorced by husbands who'd rather sleep with twentysomethings.

Then, when it undermines her view, she abandons it. Remember her idea that we should all go directly from school to the maternity ward? Let's say most women started doing that. Let's say 70 percent of all women married early and stayed home with their kids until their early 30s. Can you imagine how hard it would be for any woman unlucky enough not to wed immediately upon graduation to find a job, much less a career-track job? Employers would go back to passing women over or paying them less because they were sure they'd quit as soon as they had kids.

The Reader hired me when I was six months pregnant. Even today, how many other companies would do the same? Would even the Reader have hired me if it were the case that nearly all women quit work immediately after giving birth? Crittenden recounts her mother's "stories of the stigma suffered by middle-class women who worked--that it was thought somehow improper, that it deprived a family man who needed the job more" and concludes that those attitudes seem so far away now, they "may as well be stories of how women once lacked the right to vote." To me those attitudes seem very recent. They're not even as old as I am.

Crittenden's epilogue opens with a question: "So what, in the end, do we tell our own daughters?" The implication is that our mothers--especially feminists!--did a lousy job of "telling" us about life. Feminists, according to Crittenden, tried to make us not want husbands and families, and tried to convince us that if we did have kids we shouldn't consider spending any time with them. But I never got that message, and even the most "radical" of my friends never lacked interest in boyfriends and prospective husbands. My friend Monica, who proudly claims to hate men--and I believe her--has been married to one for longer than almost anyone else I know.

Should our mothers have told us it would be difficult to coordinate a career and family? Well, it's true my mom didn't mention anything about that. She didn't know--like all her friends, my mom was a full-time housewife. "Mom, should I blame you for not telling me it would be hard to combine a family and career?" I asked her the other day. "I don't think so," she said when she finally understood the question. "I'm not accepting any blame here. We never addressed the situation back in those days because it never came up. See, I didn't have any big career, so it was easy to quit work for me. I didn't want to be a teacher or a nurse, so I ended up being a secretary before I got married. I didn't want to be a secretary either, but that's all that was left."

My mom said something else, too: "Nobody ever said it was easy." And that would be as good a place as any to start talking to my own daughters, I think. Nobody ever said life was going to be easy, and it won't be. It wasn't easy for our grandmothers or mothers either, though Crittenden persists in romanticizing their limited options. But now we have different problems, which require different solutions.

Having had the benefit of experience, unlike my mother, I'll point out to my daughters that when choosing careers, they should seriously consider paths that will allow them flexibility if they decide to stay home with their kids. But I'll also allow for the possibility that they'll prefer full-time, continuous careers, and I'll point out that they should think about that when looking for a husband. Crittenden writes that she regards her daughter differently from her son, and that she knows "that for her to realize her dreams will take a great deal of forethought and effort, and this effort will not be of the same kind my son will have to make." She says she wants her daughter to "be accomplished and fulfilled in her work...but I also want her to be a wife and mother, and to experience the fulfillment and joys that come from these roles, their duties and sacrifices, their incomparable love."

Doesn't she want her son to experience the same joys and fulfillments? Doesn't she want him to be a husband and father as much as she wants him to succeed in his chosen field? I want those things for my daughters, but I know if I should ever have a son, I'll want the same for him.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Mike Werner.

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