Interviews May 2006

A Woman's Place?

Caitlin Flanagan, America's feistiest stay-at-home mom, shares her thoughts on gerbils, gay marriage, and Robert Graves

Before I sat down to read your book, I’d seen some of the early reviews and profiles, and I’d thought the journalists had gotten all your best friends to dish out dirt about how you’d never sewn on a button in your life or how you laughed at other mothers behind their backs. Then I read your book and realized that those admissions were actually in there. Didn’t you worry when you wrote these things that they’d leave you vulnerable to personal attacks?

Ben and I marvel at this. I wrote a book about the many contradictions and complexities in my life, and about how these contradictions and complexities reflect the culture I live in. Then profile writers come along and report on the facts they discovered by reading the book and present them as though they are breaking news, the result of crackerjack investigative reporting. It’s sweet in a way—a bit like the essays my tenth graders used to write. They would make some discovery about a character in a novel and bash away at an essay like they were the first person in the world to think of it.

Speaking of contradictions, I noticed that in your chapter on nannies, you referred to your 2004 Atlantic article “How Serfdom Saved the Women’s Movement” as a “convoluted and slightly insane cover story for a national magazine.” I found that pretty amusing, all the more so because I happen to work at that particular magazine. Do you really look back and laugh at some of the things you wrote in that piece, and if so, what led to that change of heart?

If your goal is to get professional class women to think deeply about their right relationship with their immigrant domestic workers and to behave toward them in a morally and legally responsible manner—don’t write a twelve-thousand-word article that berates them.

To quote that great thinker, Ms. Alanis Morissette, “You live, you learn.”

Let’s talk a bit about the “dragon lady” portrayal you just mentioned. What do you think it is about your writing that really bugs women?

I recently had the privilege of watching All Aboard! It is the documentary that Rosie O’Donnell and her partner Kelly made about the cruise they created for gay families. It is as moving a tribute to the gay family as anything you will ever see. The film features a couple who adopted two separate sibling groups—literally gave these kids who were languishing in foster care a home, love, a way of life that brings honor to all of us.

When I watched the film I didn’t say, “Rosie is attacking the straight family!” I didn’t say, “I feel personally threatened by the pride she takes in her own family!” I didn’t say, “Rosie has no right to promote the gay family—she’s rich. She doesn’t know the half of what real gay families have to endure!”

I said this: “She made a lifestyle choice. She thinks it’s valuable. And she probably thinks that she is showing other gay people that there is a way for them, too, to be out, proud, and in the family way.”

My book is about my lifestyle choice—a choice that, like Rosie’s, was predicated on my sexual orientation, my personal values, and my financial situation. I hope the book will demystify the experience of being a fairly traditional woman in a fairly traditional marriage. I also hope that it may show other women that there exists the potential for great happiness in this kind of domestic structure.

What would you tell a mother who came to you and said, “Look, I’m not a writer like you are. My passion is practicing law, and I can’t do that from home. What’s more, if I did quit my job, I wouldn’t be able to afford full-time help the way you can. So I’d not only be abandoning my professional dreams but changing every sheet and washing every dish myself. What advice could you possibly have to offer me?”

I have excellent advice for that woman! She should buy a copy of Bonnie Fuller’s new book: GO FOR THE BIG LIFE: The Great Career, the Perfect Guy, and Everything Else You’ve Ever Wanted. Bonnie Fuller has got it all figured out.

At one point in your book, you mention that your husband took a demanding corporate job so you could afford to stay home with the children. Just the other night, I was coming home around six o’clock and I saw a father and a mother and their kids out walking their dog in that picturesque late-afternoon sunlight. Some might argue that when the woman works, it allows for a scenario where both parents can come home earlier and spend a full evening with their kids, rather one where the father is absent a lot because he’s working twelve-hour days.

What I think a lot of people are complaining about is the 24/7 work culture. It doesn’t surprise me that poor people are stuck in this hideous way of life—it is part of the increasingly grotesque nature of American poverty. What does surprise me is how many affluent couples have voluntarily mired themselves in round the clock work, and how many affluent children are starved for time with their parents. If two parents can share the workload and manage thus to increase the amount of time that they and their children are able to spend together, that—to me—is a superb solution.

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Jennie Rothenberg Gritz is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she edits digital features.

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