Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Is the Stay-at-Home Mom the Ultimate Feminine Mistake?

The Feminine Mistake.

Yes, it's a catchy title and a clever play on Betty Friedan's iconic classic, The Feminine Mystique.

But this book pissed me off.  Royally. 

Author Leslie Bennetts claims that The Feminine Mistake:  Are We Giving Up Too Much was inspired by her "exasperation at the glorification of stay-at-home motherhood."  Clearly, because in every chapter of the book she seems to be on a personal quest to deglorify it in painstaking detail. 

I, and all you other women out there who have been as foolish as I have been and have chosen to quit working and to stay home with children, will eventually rue the day that that decision was made.  We will be blindsided when our husbands die, or more likely divorce us for younger women, and we will be left broke and alone, with no career and no means of supporting ourselves or our children financially.

Okay, Leslie, point taken.  Men sometimes leave.  Sometimes, they lose their jobs.  Sometimes, life doesn't turn out as we plan.

But the point might have been more convincing if you hadn't used the same example over and over and over and over.  I lost track of just how many real-life women whose husbands had left were featured in the book.  And I kept waiting for a husband who had stayed. 

He never appeared. 

I'm loathe to admit this, but, in the midst of all the insanity and misguided conclusions, Bennett raises some valid points.  Women who choose to stop working and stay home to raise children do lose more than just a  paycheck.  We lose valuable work experience which impacts our long-term earning potential.  We lose the validation that often comes with paid employment.  We do lose financial security. 

And, unless we're independently wealthy -- show of hands, anybody?? no??  --  we do become financially dependent on our husband or partner. 

Don't even bother protesting that you're planning to re-enter the work force once your kids are older.  Bennetts covers that too -- it's next to impossible, in case you were wondering.     

Choosing to be a stay-at-home mom is a complicated web of risk and trust, self-esteem and vulnerability.  It is a calculated risk to assume that your husband will continue to provide for you and your children.  It takes a tremendous amount of trust and love to believe and truly know that you're with somebody who isn't going anywhere. 

It isn't every woman who can open herself up to that level of vulnerability, or who has high enough self-esteem to recognize her own non-monetary contributions to her children and her husband as worthwhile.

I'm not arguing that women should be stay-at-home moms, but I am arguing that it is a valid choice. 

Bennetts doesn't seem to think so.

"If you just walk away from paid employment, you will not only have cheated yourself of the opportunities that might have come your way but you will also have forfeited your chance to have an impact for the better," she writes.  Because apparently working moms forfeit nothing and paid employment is the only way to impact the world.
"Women must (emphasis mine) reevaluate their assumptions and consider their long-term interests as well as their families short-term needs before making major life choices." 

You know, because she said so, and because if we've chosen to stay at home because we're obviously too stupid to have considered the long-term repercussions. 
Ultimately, my main frustration with The Feminine Mistake is not in it's message but in its tone.  Bennetts has a major superiority complex, and instead of just sharing what worked for her and talking about how combining motherhood with a career can be a great choice with a lot of financial and emotional benefits, she goes on a rampage against any woman who has chosen a different path.

It's as if she's on a mission to show stay-at-home moms everywhere the error of their ways.  And I find it hard to stomach that kind of smug superior attitude, especially when she states that "this book is not intended as a contribution to the Mommy Wars." 

Really?  Because I swear there was a lot of mud-slinging going on in those pages.  Sure it was subtle and cleverly masked under the cloak of intellectualism, but it was there.  And how does that help anybody?

We're all just feeling our way through this thing called motherhood.  NOBODY has the right answer, particularly since it's different for every woman. 

And while I've always thought of myself as a feminist, this book really makes me question that label.

If feminism is about women having the power to make our own choices, is it also about other women having the power to reprimand us when we've made the wrong ones?

Seriously, folks, I'm asking.  Anybody have an answer?

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