Tempest in a Linen Closet

Tempest in a Linen Closet

Via Bookslut this morning: “You know, I thought that Leslie Bennetts was being a little hysterical when she called the reaction to her book The Feminine Mistake a ‘witch hunt.’ Then I scrolled down to the comments section.”

I was raised by women who got left holding the bag, by a mother and a grandmother who got stuck trying to support children after having believed they’d never be responsible for the financial end of things. It wasn’t pretty (see below on serial financial disaster). I knew, in my bones, from the time I was about ten that if I wanted kids, I was going to have to be prepared to support them and to support myself. I’ve worked since I was fourteen, more often than not at two jobs, and even at that it took me until I was 35 to make more than about 20k a year. I came late to financial security, and it’s by far the biggest thing I’ve accomplished in my life. And so it was always an astonishment to me that so many women I knew were not only willing, but eager, to trade in their professional and financial independence and rely on a husband to support them and their children.

There must be a reason that this subject spurs such over-the-top reactions from women who have chosen to stay home (see the comments linked to above). The vitriol, the hysteria, the insistence that staying home is the only proper sacrifice a woman can make all seem to me to mask a deep anxiety about this subject. People don’t overreact to things that don’t subconsciously bug them. There was a time in my late twenties when my friends who had married young, who had never had a real profession, who had kids young, spent a lot of time telling me how selfish I was for going to graduate school, for not marrying, for insisting that my own life was meaningful. It was a very tiresome period.

I’m not married and I don’t have kids. I’m not thrilled about either of those situations — especially the kid part — but that seems to be the way the chips fell this time around. God knows I’ve certainly spent a lot of my adult life caretaking family members in the most typical feminine ways — and perhaps if I’d wound up with a husband making a lot of money, I too would have been tempted to stay home with the babies. They’re interesting, even when they’re boring, and they’re only little once. But I live in the land where all what ifs are possible — where people die and jobs are lost and where the safety net is thin. I don’t think it’s irresponsible of Leslie Bennetts to remind women that while staying home is an option that might provide a lot of personal pleasure, and it’ll certainly get you plenty of social approval these days, there are real consequences. You will not be able to go back to work and make the kind of money your peers are. You might not be able to get a job at all if you’re older, if you have kids that will get sick and need to be picked up at odd hours and who will make you sort of a pain to employ. Is this right? Should we live in a world where employers support family life? Of course, but we don’t.

If women want to be treated as adults, we must also carry our part of the financial burden. Which doesn’t preclude staying home for a while when the kids are little — day care is expensive, sometimes more than one might make at a crappy job one doesn’t love. But it needs to be a reasoned decision, made by both parents, and there needs to be contingency plans. Life is long, and scary, and unexpected things happen. Seems to me that’s the central message of Bennetts’ book, and the hysterical reaction to her message belies the extent to which we’ve substituted wishful thinking for a realistic assessment of the social cost of dropping out of the professional world.

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