The problem with Caitlin Flanagan’s The Hell with All That: Loving and Loathing your Inner Housewife is Flanagan demonizes both working and stay-at-home mothers. She wants to be considered fulfilled and important by being a working mother, but she also wants to create a home atmosphere where she stays to cook dinners and be there for her family. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to have it all. The problem lies that she holds working mothers in contempt because they miss that close bond with their children and believes stay-at-home moms are selfishly demanding me-time from their families, not caring to do the housework or even the mother work. She believes in a simpler time when housewives were competent, content women who knew how to make a house a home. This time never existed.
Her first look at the culture of marriage is through the bridal magazines, and she sees a world of inflated dreams crushing the very union of marriage. She’s right. But she tends to blame feminism for killing the wedding ceremony, leaving the American culture without any understanding of what the ceremony actually means. Feminism did not kill weddings. Materialism did. Watch just one episode of Bridezilla, and you’ll understand that there is something very wrong with the institute of marriage. Flip through a bridal magazine, and it will whisper of elegant dresses, extravagant dishes, and exotic locals. The wedding industry cajoles, seduces, pushes weddings to be ever bigger because that is their business, to make weddings a significant occasion with a very significant price tag. It is the savvy marketing that appeals to the very selfish, self-centered, greedy part of our society. It is the dream that every girl is a princess, and every bride should have her dream. Flanagan is right is laughable to see these women walk down the aisle in white dresses, forgetting that this is to symbolize virginity, but Flanagan forgets the white wedding dress only came to popularity with Queen Victoria’s wedding, when before any beautiful dress would do. We are losing our bridal rituals, but we aren’t losing it to feminism.
While I have already discussed Flanagan’s views on the sexless marriage, I will just touch on them briefly. Flanagan believes women are refusing sex in a passive aggressive way because they are doing all the work. Because it’s the women’s fault for doing all the work, it is her problem to fix and mend. I don’t agree at all. I think it’s a two person problem; therefore, it should be fixed by two people. Another problem with this chapter is her first mention that if men started doing the housework like we women would like (cleaning up the crumbs after the dishes, putting notes in with the kid’s lunches, ironing curtains), men would be demasculinized in our eyes. Ha. I know plenty of men that help out with the housework, and they are still very much men. I would almost bet they are getting more sex than the men I know who don’t help around the house. Not only can we not keep our men satisfies, we apparently can’t keep a clean, orderly house either.
While Flanagan assumed stay-at-home moms could satisfy their men more than working mothers, she believes both women fail miserably when it comes to making a house a home. Working mothers just pass on these chores to cleaning women, and so does the average stay-at-home mom. Well, that was news to me. I can’t even think of another stay-at-home mom that hired a cleaning person (well, except me, for three months after Tornado E’s birth at the insistence of my husband and his administrative assistant. I fired her as soon as I could figure out how to run the household with a baby). It is here that I realized the Flanagan is not an average stay-at-home mom, but that she had the means to do more and that she didn’t actually understand the plight of ordinary women. According the Flanagan, stay-at-home moms go to the movies, the spa, to book clubs, leaving the house work to others, not even knowing the price of milk. I am certain that most women, especially those who stay at home, do their own house cleaning, do the shopping with a budget, mend shirts, and all the other day to day things that Flanagan loves but never does. She doesn’t understand the tedium of housework because she never did it. She NEVER did it. At this point, Flanagan should be fired as a sage for housewives.
Then Flanagan moves on to discussing child rearing. After a chapter discussing the use of nannies in Victorian England, she then has a chapter about her nanny hired to take care of her sons because all the other stay-at-home moms have one. Really? Another interesting fact. From the look of the blogs out there, most of us can’t find a decent sitter for a measly night out with or without a husband much less another set of hands to take care of the children five days a week. In this chapter she talks about how inadequate she feels with her babies, and thank god her nanny is so good. The rest of us mothers out there have felt our moments of inadequacy deep to the soul, and we dealt with it and moved on. We were the ones that took care of the sick child, changing the sheets, bathing the child, calming the child, not someone else. Flanagan also mentions how she wanted someone in the house to make it loving and warm, like her mother used to do. That’s your job now, Mrs. Housewife. We all miss our mothers taking care of us. We make the bed so that we can return to it feeling warm and clean. We cook cookies to eat the dough and have the smell run through the house because it reminds us of home. Flanagan does not understand the desperate act of mothering.
Flanagan is looking for a reason why she feels incompetent. She finds it in the fact the feminism robbed women of home ec and the knowledge that we would be homemakers, important and loved. She sees that mothers run after their children, taking them to every activity that can be crammed into their children’s lives, paying homage to the domestic goddess of Martha Stewart, and becoming addicted to organizing and decluttering. Again I see these as symptoms of materialism and advertising. Nothing can sell a parent better than the threat that their children may not be using their full potential; hence why many kids have several activities on their plate. But this has been happening for some time. My brothers and I were in scouts, volleyball, basketball, softball or baseball, swimming lessons. If we could have afforded it we would have had music lessons. My father and his siblings all took various music lessons and did various sports. The fact that Americans have raised this to a new level of fanaticism is just yet another marketing scheme, trying to take money from parents who are trying to make prodigies or at least make them well-rounded enough to get into a good college. As long as these activities are done to moderation, then why not schlep a kid around because we are yearning for a better life for that child.
As for Martha Stewart and organization, I feel that Flanagan is right to believe this is a call for a simpler time. Martha Stewart shows off peace and beauty as unattainable as that is in a house full of kids. We yearn for a more organized home that runs efficiently leaving us time to redecorate, bake, or just plain relax. It just makes sense that a busy mother would want this. But I doubt that every household in those bygone days looked like the Cleaver’s or the Nelson’s. Kids back then were much like kids today, tornadoes. I think we set the bar too high to expect a perfectly manicured house while raising sweet, smart, clean kids. Even my grandma didn’t believe in keeping an immaculate house unless company demands it. Really Flanagan is living in a different world than what the rest of us live in, one with hired help.
The vary essence of this book is Caitlin Flanagan not realizing that housewives back then felt the same way as stay-at-home mothers today. She even quotes Erma Bombeck as saying she went to see Betty Friedan just to get out of the day’s house work, but Flanagan fails to realize what Bombeck said. To get out of the house work. In Flanagan’s mind those fifties and sixties were a time where women were competent and confident in their roles of housewife, not minding the tediousness of the chores that had to be done and redone every day. Flanagan is looking to understand why she isn’t like that, and because she lost her mother before her boys were older than five, Flanagan never had the same talks that I had with my mom, where my mom admits to being just as confused and anxious as I am. Flanagan wants to be like her mom but fails because she doesn’t understand her “inner housewife.” Maybe she doesn’t understand it because she’s never done it. She instead vilifies all women in what they are trying to do, encouraging them to give up on their dreams of having it all and sending their children to private universities. I guess Susan Jane Gilman is right. We’re all the fashion police.