Thursday, March 23, 2006

Flanagan and the motherhood mystique

After reading this post on Pandagon about Caitlin Flanagan's rhetoric regarding motherhood, I was intrigued enough to go read the article in Elle about Flanagan and some of Flanagan's articles. She talks about how mothers should stay home and care for their children full-time, that children are harmed by their mother's working outside of the home.

In other words, she's completely immersed in the motherhood mystique, which claims that:
  • motherhood is a full-time (and more than full-time) job
  • it is supremely fulfilling to women to be immersed in the task of mothering (indeed this is constructed as the ultimate fulfillment for all women -- a woman who does not want to mother or doesn't enjoy it is seen as psychologically disturbed)
  • the best thing for children is the full-time, intense devotion of their mother (and only their mother)
  • Women are naturally good at caregiving and should be responsible for all nurturance (husband, children, elders, etc.)
  • Mothers have infinite patience and the willingness (nay, eagerness) to engage in self-sacrifice for her children (and other family members) -- she should put her own needs last. Flanagan mentions that when her children were young, "I was a mother virtuously willing to sacrifice her own happiness for the sake of her children," ("How Serfdom Saved the Women's Movement," Atlantic Monthly, p109).

Let's put this in context: This construction of motherhood is a modern, Western construction which emerged out of the industrial revolution, changing family and work patterns, gendered beliefs, and a healthy dose of patriarchy. Prior to the industrial revolution, most women and men were engaged in agricultural labor, and this involved productive labor for both men and women -- women made many of the items for home use (cloth, garments, candles), as well as participating in farming and animal husbandry, in addition to engaging in care of infants. Children were cared for by fathers, mothers, and older siblings (a pattern replicated around the world -- many cultures have an older sibling caring for the younger child). The Industrial Revolution hit, many men became wage slaves, and families became structured around one or more members of the family working for pay in an urban center. In poor families, men, women, and even children were wage laborers (until child labor laws went into effect); in middle-class families, men were wage laborers and women were in charge of domestic labor (housework and child care), for which they were not paid. But how to keep women busy with domestic labor, now that so many of their tasks had been relegated to mass-production in factories? I know! We'll tell them that raising children is a full-time job, which requires the skills of teacher, nurse, psychologist, and nutritionist, and that domestic labor is a labor of love for their families. Cook for your family and show them you love them! Decorate the home to be a haven of rest for your husband. So the domestic and child care tasks that remained were inflated in importance (the development of the cult of domesticity), and the belief that children needed full-time, devoted attention from their mothers was a device to keep women at home (instead of out agitating for the vote).

This construction emerged in the late 1800s and then again in force in the 1950s in the U.S., and Flanagan has got the rhetoric down pat. From her insistence that having a hot meal ready for her husband shows how much she loves him (and her critique of mothers who do not provide hot meals for the family) to her insistence that women are naturally skilled at, and are drawn to, domestic tasks, to her strongly-worded claims about the harms to children which stem from their mothers working outside of the home, she is the mouthpiece for the motherhood mystique and the cult of domesticity.

So why does her argument bother me? For many reasons:
  • Natural and universal? Flanagan relies heavily on the notion that "woman in the home" is a natural and universal role: Women are naturally good a child rearing, naturally want to engage in domestic tasks, and that there is a natural "maternal bond" between mothers and their children. But it is clear that childrearing and domestic tasks are taken on by men and women, boys and girls, in many different arrangements in cultures around the world. Certainly, mothers are often involved in breastfeeding infants, but other types of care vary considerably. It is also clear that women and men vary in their enjoyment of, and desire for, childrearing and domestic labor. Flanagan herself seems to have little affinity for cleaning, cooking, or laundry, and she relates real ambivalence in her experiences of childrearing.
  • Harm to children? The claim that children will be harmed by not receiving the full-time devotion of their mothers has been a cultural trope since the Victorian era, but there is little scientific support for this notion. Infants and children clearly need care, and it helps to have a consistent set of caregivers for infants so that they can develop secure attachment patterns. Beyond that, however, children do as well when they are in high-quality day care as when they are raised by full-time mothers or fathers or some combination of parent and paid caregiver. In fact, children generally do better when in high-quality child care if they come from a home environment which provides less cognitive and linguistic stimulation. Flanagan even admits that children who went to day care seemed to be "a little more on the ball" ("To Hell With All That", New Yorker, 80(18), 2004).
  • What about fathers? It ticks me off to no end that women get castigated for combining paid work with child rearing, when fathers are almost never held to the same standards. Where is the concern for children of working fathers? Where is the criticism of inadequate fathering? It seems that the only thing a father can do to engage similar critique is to stop being the breadwinner and become a "deadbeat dad." We praise men for their contributions toward child rearing, but we rarely hold them accountable for their children's care to the same extent that we do women.
  • She's a hypocrite She says women should be full-time mothers, but she has a writing career. She snubs women who take their children to day care, but she employed a nanny for many years. She exhorts women to cook, clean, and create lovely homes for their families, and she herself does little of this work (she employs cleaning services, etc.). Classic Flanagan from "To Hell With All That" (New Yorker, 80(18), 2004) -- she relates a story of being at a nursery school event:

    It was a dinner dance with an auction, and the signal items up for bid were chairs hand-painted by the members of each class, a project that had been laboriously created and supervised by an exceedingly earnest and energetic athome mother. . . Leaning against a far column watching her, with drinks in their hands and sardonic half-smiles on their faces, were two of my friends: a lawyer and a movie producer. . . We looked at the woman --- think of all she'd sacrificed to stay home with her children, think of the time she'd spent dipping our own children's hands in paint so that they could press their little prints on the miniature Adirondack chairs. "Get a life," one of us said, and we all laughed and drank some more. And then we turned our backs on the auction and talked about work. But I'm craven enough to change colors if the occasion calls for it. "Is that poor child's mother ever at school?" someone hissed when a (perfectly happy) little girl marched off with her nanny one recent afternoon. "I've never seen her," I clucked back, feeling guilty about knifing the absent mother and glad as hell that I hadn't sent my own nanny to pick up the boys that day."

    This is a woman who is opportunistic and hypocritical -- she will say whatever will sell best at the moment. And yet she has the hubris to criticize Laura Schlessinger for being a hypocrite for not living by the standards she advocates("Do As I Say", Atlantic, 293(1))!

    You know what? I've given this woman far too much of my time already. She needs to be ignored, because she has nothing important to say; she contributes nothing to our understanding of women's or men's lives or how to make them better. She needs to stop writing until she can figure out what she really wants to say, other than to claim a superior status to which she has no legitimate right and get paid for the privilege.

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