Books October 2002

The Mother Load

Many of today's working mothers have upper-middle class lifestyles but middle-class aspirations

Middle-class women—as jerks from Freud on down have been quick to observe—are plagued by anxiety. In our time and place this anxiety takes the form of endless fretting over the best way to combine work and motherhood. In her new book, Life's Work, a collection of New York Times columns of the same name, Lisa Belkin joins insight with myopia when she calls this stubborn quest "the central story of our generation." Her book's high profile is a testament to the white-hot nature of her topic, if not to the originality of her observations; although some of the columns are mildly entertaining, many others are almost shockingly boring. (Who in the world can be interested in the intricacies of Belkin's new filing system or the delays she experienced in getting a DSL line installed at home?) But publishers crave books on "work/life balance," and Belkin's book, with its New York Times imprimatur and a pre-built audience, must surely have been irresistible. Woven through the book is the philosophy that undergirds the rhetoric of many upper-middle-class working mothers: "I have to work," Belkin says. "I can't change that." But her husband is a pediatric cardiologist, so surely she doesn't work out of economic necessity. Why, then? Well, clearly because she's an absolute worker bee—I'd hire her in a second. She is willing, for the sake of work, to send her children trick-or-treating with someone else, to miss their bedtime and bathtime, to debrief them for fifteen minutes after school and then bar them from her home office, to take five-night-long business trips, to offer homework help by fax, to bring her laptop and cell phone on vacation, to sing a lullaby over a pay phone, to leave her "father's bedside in the cardiac care unit to talk about turning my book into a movie with a producer who would be in town only a few hours."

Belkin's attitude toward the various arrangements and compromises made by professional-class parents is one of marveling appreciation; she seems to think that they have created an original approach to raising children. But anyone with a rudimentary grasp of social history understands that every conceivable method of rearing the young has already been given a whirl, often for centuries at a time. The model she describes—in which well-heeled mothers spend relatively little time with their children yet experience a deep and almost obsessive love for them—is hardly new. The cult of motherhood that evolved in Victorian England, for example, was contemporaneous with an enormous and unprecedented surge in nanny use in that country.

Although the book has a bouncy, cheerful quality ("think of the columns as the pineapple, and the whole of my life story as the Jell-O"), what impresses the reader most is Belkin's unrelieved anxiety that she is failing as a mother. Belkin, we learn, is a "conflicted parent"; she is "racked with guilt"; her most recent attempts to shrug off her guilt mean that she now "feel[s] guilty only about half of the time." "Let's start forgiving ourselves," she implores her fellow working parents. But even her sensible decision to hire a competent nanny turns out to be charged with guilt: "I feel guilty offering my children a Mommy replacement, and to assuage my guilt I need to believe they are in better hands with her than with me." Belkin's torments are hardly unique. She writes that in the responses to her column, "I have yet to hear from anyone who feels they are doing everything right."

Belkin's deeply conflicted attitude toward her maternal decisions reveals that, like many women of her generation, she has ideas about family life that are rooted in a culture now in decay. The new culture—in which a mother's children are important to her, but spending extended time with them is not—isn't quite born yet. At the rate we're going, it will be here soon enough; but women like Belkin are caught on the cusp—pursuing their glamorous careers, yet chronically fearful that they are shortchanging their children, or themselves, by doing so. Women in Belkin's situation like to say that they "have" to work because this allows them to ally their life choices with the noble struggle of poorer women; no one would call a seamstress a bad mother if her hours away bought her children more nutritious food and safer shelter. But the model they're really going for is that of upper-class women. Princess Diana and Jackie Kennedy are both revered in the popular imagination as excellent mothers, and both pursued hectic professional and social schedules while nannies raised their children for hours at a time. Because those two women had no middle-class notions about child rearing (notions that are all but crippling poor Belkin), they were free to carry on with their lives without the hand-wringing. This is the kind of motherhood toward which the modern professional-class woman is aiming, however unwittingly. In a chapter called "Riley, the Dog," Belkin admits—without a trace of her much-vaunted guilt—that although she has always been strict about barring her sons from her home office, when it comes to the wheaten terrier, "I find I have no backbone at all." It is a remark that put me in mind of the sort of upper-class Englishwoman who enthusiastically acquires a new corgi each time she sends a son off to Harrow. But Belkin is still stubbornly trying to be both a good middle-class mom and a competent New York Times reporter. "What I need," she moans, "is technology that can allow me to meet with my editor and the second-grade teacher at the same time."

Obviously, no such device exists: at a certain point a mother must choose between her work and her child. And in this painful choice is the measure of which she holds more important. The day will come when a modern American mother can spend sixty hours a week apart from her children without a second thought; it's almost here. Whether this day will represent a cultural advance—or a human one—is highly debatable.

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Caitlin Flanagan is a contributing editor of The Atlantic. More

Caitlin FlanaganCaitlin Flanagan began her magazine-writing career, in 2001, with a series of extended book reviews about the conflicts at the very heart of modern life—specifically, modern domestic life as it is lived by professional-class women. Flanagan has quickly established herself as a highly entertaining social critic unafraid to take on self-indulgence and political correctness, and her reviews provide penetrating and witheringly funny observations about the sexes and their discontents.

Flanagan's Atlantic articles have been named as finalists for the National Magazine Award five times, and her essay "Confessions of a Prep School College Counselor," which ran in September 2001, was included in the 2002 compilation of Best American Magazine Writing. Her work has also been included in Best American Essays 2003 and Best American Magazine Writing 2003. She is the author of the book To Hell with All That—an exploration, based on her Atlantic articles, of the lives of modern women.

Born and raised in Berkeley, California, Flanagan earned a B.A. and an M.A. in Art History from the University of Virginia. She now lives in California, where she spends her time writing and raising twins.

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