Friday, February 20, 2004

Working Mothers' Debate

The Internet is swirling this week with discussions of Caitlin Flanagan's article in the most recent issue of The Atlantic Monthly, "How Serfdom Saved the Women’s Movement," about professional working women oppressing the nannies they hire. I first heard about this article by reading a column written by Susan Reimer in the Baltimore Sun on February 10. Then, yesterday morning, author Jennifer Weiner linked to an interview with Ms. Flanagan, also in The Atlantic Monthly, about the article. I spent most of yesterday reading both the interview and the article, then fuming so much I couldn't put my words down on paper until today. I'm writing this now after reading this week's diary/e-mail exchanges on My problem with what was written, and it's mainly the interview Ms. Flanagan gave, is not the issue of hiring a nanny, but Ms. Flanagan's contradictory remarks about working mothers in general.

First, some background about me. My daughter was born in September 2002. I took my allotted 12 weeks maternity leave – 6 weeks paid, 6 weeks unpaid – after she was born. Upon returning to work in late December, my daughter was placed in daycare. I consider myself a professional woman, but not one who is able to afford a nanny. My daughter is in an in-home daycare run by a white, thirty-something woman with an upper-middle-class, suburban background much the same as mine. In addition to my daughter, she also watches two other children, ages 2 and 1 1/2, as well as her own 3-year old daughter. She watches Hayley from 7:30am-5:30pm, feeds her two snacks and a lunch, changes her diapers, and interacts and plays with her and the other children. For this, I pay her $170 a week, which she claims as income. I pay her even if we do not use her services for a week while we’re on vacation, but I do not pay her when she is on vacation.

I work because I have to work, and maybe part of me wants to work, but, as the saying goes, I would give my eyeteeth to stay home with my daughter full-time. But I work so we can live in a good neighborhood with solid public schools. I work so we can take a nice vacation every year to experience different things, which I view as a valuable part of growing up. I work to save money so H. will be able to go to college. I work so I don’t feel like my parents wasted almost $100,000 on my college education. I work because my husband said he felt it would be a lot of pressure for him to be the sole breadwinner and supporter of H. and me. There are other reasons, too, but I think I’ve hit the high points.

That being said, let me address what I felt were the inconsistencies in some of Ms. Flanagan’s writing and remarks. I've tried to be concise and logical, but forgive me if this jumps around a bit.

First and foremost, Ms. Flanagan thinks of herself as an at-home mother, when she is, in fact, a working mother, albeit one that works from the home. She is a writer. Even though she's done away with the nanny because the kids are now in school, I find it hard to believe that she only writes while they are at school. Does she write in the evenings? When the mood strikes her? So when she chastises or belittles working mothers, she’s really talking about herself. And when she analyzes things from the point-of-view of an at-home mom, it's misleading. I think Barbara Ehrenreich sums it up nicely it the Slate article: "Caitlin… took the odd and astoundingly privileged course of staying home with the nanny…," then kept the nanny on so she could work as a writer for The Atlantic from home.

In the interview, Ms. Flanagan confesses, "I'd rather sit next to the working mom at a dinner party than the at-home mom. The working mom would have more to say that would be of interest to me." I found this statement incredibly insulting and I’m not even an at-home mom. I know there are lots of at-home moms who would be insulted as well. Natalie, how about you? Natalie is creative, witty and well read. Anyone who reads her website knows she has more to talk about than Legos or changing diapers. I would love to sit next to her at a dinner party.

Along those same lines, Ms. Flanagan comments on a conversation she overheard in the parent’s lounge from a group of at-home mom's discussing a holiday party. "…It certainly wasn’t the kind of conversation you hear at important places of business or in hospitals or universities." Well, we can't all be doctors or lawyers or self-important writers! But guess what? Most parents like to talk about their kids and their activities! Especially when they're very young and doing new things every day. I'll talk to strangers in the grocery store about whatever cute thing H. did or said that day. But that doesn't mean I don't have other interesting things to talk about, too.

At the end of that same paragraph, she puts in parentheses, "Although, if the moms in the parent lounge had asked me to make some of the sandwiches, I would have been on it in a heartbeat!" I’m not even sure what to make of that statement. She'll hang out with them and help with the party, as long as they can talk about politics or the economy while doing it?

Further along in her interview, Ms. Flanagan answers the question if she would have just stayed at home if she hadn't been able to have a nanny in order to pursue her second career as a writer. "Yes! They're the only children I have…However, I must tender a caveat to this: I was not trained for a glamorous career; I was a schoolteacher. Perhaps I would have felt differently if I'd been an attorney or a physician." Not only is this statement insulting to teachers, but I interpreted it to mean that Ms. Flanagan feels it's only acceptable for moms with glamorous careers to work. I find that an inexcusable statement to make and demeaning to every working mother who works to try and make a better life for her family, regardless of what type of job she has.

In continuing her response to the same question, Ms. Flanagan also said, "If I ever said [to my husband] I was going to take some big job outside of the home, he'd say, 'Wait just a minute, here; that's not going to work for our family.' And I’m glad about that: he fully believes that my work here at home with the children is important." Ugh, I don’t even know how to respond to that it's so exasperating! Talk about oppressed!

Moving on to the actual article, Flanagan writes quite a bit about how having a nanny has saved her and her husband from arguing over housework, a typical argument when both parents have careers and want to divide work equally. "I have never once argued with my husband about which of us was going to change the sheets of the marriage bed, but then—to my certain knowledge —neither one of us ever has changed the sheets. Or scrubbed the bathtubs, or dusted the cobwebs off the top of the living-room bookcase, or used the special mop and the special non-corrosive cleanser on the hardwood floors. Two years ago our little boys got stomach flu, one right after the other, and there were ever so many loads of wash to do, but we did not do them. The nanny did." Once again, Barbara Ehrenreich hits the nail on the head with her response to this, which is part of her own reason for never having a nanny: "Caitlin...reports that this personage [the nanny] washes the sheets and generally cleans up after the kids go through a bout of stomach flu. You think the kids don't notice that mommy is available for reading stories but only nanny deals with actual diapers and shit-stained sheets? You think this division of labor doesn't make a lasting imprint on them?"

Finally, Ms. Flanagan sums it all up herself at the end of the article with the statement, "It’s easy enough to dismiss the dilemma of the professional-class working mother as the whining of the elite." I think I will. But I will not dismiss it as a dilemma of all professional-class working mothers, but only the dilemma of Ms. Flanagan the working mother who is a snob who fancies herself as an at-home mother while disparaging other working mothers. In addition to the other online comments about how Ms. Flanagan never mentions the role of the fathers in this "dilemma," I think she also missed the mark by not mentioning other factors – more flex-time or telecommuting options, full-time pay for part-time work, - that could improve the lot of working mothers with or without nannies. As Ms. Ehrenreich concludes, and I wholeheartedly agree, "So, in addition to fighting for childcare, I want to see a battle to salvage the eight-hour day and, beyond that, to win the flex-time options we used to talk about. All parents (and grandparents, if they're as besotted as I am) should be able to enjoy a few unpressured hours a day with the tiny people in their lives."