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

That brings up another question about gender roles in the home. I have to admit that I share the predicament Barbara Ehrenreich told you about in your email exchange with her for Slate: I’m really not the best housekeeper. My boyfriend is always the one who notices that my windowsills are getting dusty or that the dishwasher is leaving a crust on the dishes. Is there any reason a naturally neat man shouldn’t take over the domestic chores? Or is that kind of work somehow more appropriate for a woman?

The problems don’t arise when a neatnik marries a bohemian; the problems arise when they decide to split housekeeping 50/50 and the neatnik expects the bohemian to do 50 percent of a meticulous job. The bohemian wants to do 50 percent of his or her premarital routine. That’s when trouble arises.

I wanted to ask you about one incident that’s been drawing a lot of ire. When Laurie Abraham interviewed you for Elle, she wrote in the article that on her way over to your house in L.A., her daughter called from New York crying because her gerbil had just died. At first, you comforted her. But at the end of the interview, she asked you about a statement you’d made in your “Serfdom” essay: “When a mother works, something is lost.” You replied, “Yeah. The gerbil’s dead, and you’re here.”

I was making Laurie cup of tea in the kitchen, and I asked her, “How are you doing?”

The first thing she blurted out was, “My daughter’s gerbil died. I just got the call.” She was upset, and as a fellow mom I felt terrible for her. These kinds of things are often harder for us than for our kids, and I tried—successfully, I gather—to cheer her up.

Then we sat down in the sunroom, and all of a sudden she got very argumentative about the things she dislikes about my writing. She said, “What in the world did you mean when you wrote, ‘When a mother works, something is lost?’”

I thought—what the heck? Didn’t we just talk about that painful concept in the most concrete terms when we were in the kitchen? Is this a joke?

And that’s when I made reference to the recently departed Gerbie.

In that hideous moment, I realized why there has been such controversy about the simple sentence “when a mother works, something is lost.” It’s not controversial because it’s wrong. It’s controversial because it’s true. Laurie had built a firewall between the reality of her life—that her chosen career forces her to miss out on some of the key events in her little girls’ lives—and the feminist rhetoric that encourages moms to work, and tells them they won’t miss a thing if they do so.

Laurie and I are alike in many ways. We are writers for important publications, well-married ladies with well-employed husbands, women who hire nannies to help us and pay private schools to educate our children. But in how—and where—we choose to spend the fleeting and unrecoverable hours of our children’s early years, we are as different as night and day.

Laurie asked her editor if she could write about me—the piece was not assigned to her. She knew, when she proposed it, that I live in Los Angeles and she in Brooklyn. She made the choice to leave her children far behind and fly to California to conduct a ninety minute interview, which we could easily have done over the telephone. In other words, she made a series of decisions that would take her far away from her children, not in the interest of putting bread on the table and not in the interest of furthering an important bit of public knowledge. Merely in the interest of writing a smear piece on a writer she hates. These are not choices I would have made.

It’s true that no one can be in two places at once. But what about the other side of the equation? When a talented, career-driven woman makes the choice to give up her work altogether and do nothing but raise her children, isn’t something also lost?

Ask an at-home mother if she has sacrificed anything, and she will answer you honestly and immediately: she has lost the power and prestige and sense of financial independence that work once gave her. Ask a working mother if she has sacrificed anything, and she just can’t admit it. It’s too painful. But obviously, during those eight or ten hours that she is gone every day, she is missing out on something. It may be a price she is willing to pay—she may be a much happier mother in her two hours a day than she would have been in fourteen hours a day. But she is still paying a price, in terms of the number of hours she is spending with her child. If Laurie Abraham had stayed in Brooklyn and interviewed me over the telephone, it would have been she—and not her girls’ nanny—who was home on that fateful morning when Gerbie merged with the infinite.

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

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