“The Feminine Mistake”

July 12, 2008 at 7:03 am | Posted in Nonfiction | Leave a comment

(December 11, 2007)

The Feminine Mistake:  Are We Giving Up Too Much? by Leslie Bennetts, published 2007.

This book, a rebuttal of the “opt-out revolution” of Ivy League women becoming stay-at-home moms, would not seem to have anything to offer a single, childless person like myself.  Yet I found the book riveting, and put it down with a renewed regard for my job.

Apparently a trend is afoot for women to pursue advanced degrees and high-octane careers, only to drop everything and quit working upon marriage or childbirth.  Clearly this is an upper-class problem!  Indeed there was an element of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” in it for me.

Bennetts points out that becoming totally financially dependent on another person is a risky business.  Even if you’re lucky enough to marry a man who remains honest and in love with you your whole life – what if something happens?  Say, major illness, sudden death, or even simple layoffs?  My grandparents, for example, were married over 50 years – but then she outlived him by a decade.  He believed he had provided amply for her if anything happened to him – and he had – yet who could have predicted back in the ’70s and ’80s that she would live to be nearly 90?  Most of that money was long gone by the time Nana passed away, and what was there was enough to interfere with her qualifying for most medical assistance.  What’s more, she herself worked for decades.  Simply put, the world is an uncertain place, even for the best planners with the best intentions.

Returning to the workforce at some point is many stay-at-home moms’ fallback plan.  Yet, says Bennetts, many have found they were not able to do so at the level they wanted.  Some couldn’t get into the jobs they had considered entry-level as new graduates.  Even a gap of six months was enough to make the job search a tough one.  This might seem inconsequential to young women currently optimistic in comfortable lifestyles.  Yet a widow with a young family and a several-year gap in her resume might not agree.  It’s not just putting food on the table that’s at stake, either – it’s providing for oneself at retirement, which could last an expensive 30 or even 50 years.  Even if the kids want to help out – will they be able to afford to?

Naturally a passionate young mother-to-be would feel the urge to scoff at any and all evidence that her choice might not be totally wise.  Yet the evidence shows not just that having two working parents does no harm to children, but that having a non-working parent can actually be to their detriment.  Children who attend daycare show better cognitive and social development and linguistic abilities than those who stay home with their mothers.  They also learn to be more independent and resilient.  Oddly, it turns out that even single, working parents spend more time with their kids than stay-at-home moms of 40 years ago, because back then kids spent much of their time “playing outside.”  (Have you ever heard of this exotic custom?)  Truly, the idea of a “full-time mother” is only about a century old.  Wealthy women had nannies and wetnurses.  Poor women either farmed or did other menial or manufacturing tasks.  Children themselves worked from very young ages.  The idea of a “traditional” family where Dad works, Mom bakes cupcakes, and Junior does adorably childlike things is a very recent construct actually lived out by a select and rare group of people.

The real problem with modern families where both parents work is: housework.  Women who quit working often did so because the demands of running a household while working were so stressful.  But it wasn’t the job or the parenting – it was fighting over who did the laundry and brought home the groceries.  Women who worked part-time had higher levels of depression than women who worked full-time, because the part-timers took on even more of the scut work.  Women who want to stay home assume they will feel less stress if they quit working, because they can cook these great meals, keep an immaculate home, and raise beautiful, gracious children.  Instead they are surprised to find they are scraping oatmeal off their cupboards and picking up the socks of an increasingly ungrateful family.  It turns out that women still do more housework than men, even when they are the sole breadwinners!  Why should this be?  You can argue all you want that women are intended by God to raise little babies – but is scrubbing toilets linked to your chromosomes, too?

The conclusion of the book is that “staying home” is an individual choice.  Yet working for equality in the workforce and insisting on egalitarian marriages are choices for society as a whole.  As long as men can rely on their wives to run the house, employers will rely on men working 50 to 90 hour weeks.  It will take men and women working together to force changes in the workplace that benefit everyone.

My own conclusion, again, is that this is an upper-class message.  Both my parents work, and if there was ever a woman in my entire family tree who never held a job, I have yet to hear of her.  Choosing not to work is beyond the reach of almost everyone in the world.  Work is what keeps us involved and evolving.  It may be why the man in my life prefers bossy, feminist me over the stay-at-home wife he had years ago, in spite of her superior culinary skills.  Regardless, I don’t love every minute of my job, but I’d shrivel up and wither away without work in my life.

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