I was apprehensive about reviewing Darla Shine’s Happy Housewives. The book’s premise, written in a chatty “hey, girls” style, is that Shine, a former career woman, has found happiness as a mother through surrendering herself to the domestic realm and embracing her inner happy housewife. I first read about Shine’s book in Anne Kingston’s National Post column about Danielle Crittenden and the rise of “Housewife Chic.” Crittenden had written that Shine “gives voice to the secretly growing consensus that being a housewife is a potentially fulfilling lifestyle” and used Shine’s book as evidence that women are actively rejecting feminism and returning to the comfort of the domestic world.
I have already stirred up controversy at the Literary Mama blog for daring to criticize Ms. Shine’s retrograde “let’s embrace the dusting” theme. Some of her loyal readers commented that my post was “extremely immature and negative,” that I was anti-stay-at-home mothers, and that I considered myself above dusting and vacuuming. I was also reminded that the book was “not for full-time working women,” as Shine states up front on page three; evidently, at least to her fans, Shine’s attempt to empower stay-at-home mothers is somehow above reproach. The funny thing is that by most people’s definition, I am a stay-at-home mother: I do not work full-time outside the home; I am the primary caregiver for my children; and I write when my children are asleep. The truth is, had I happened to come across Shine’s book in my local bookstore, I might have picked it up, because these days I am desperately trying to figure out how to juggle a preschooler, a baby, a dog on steroids, a marriage, my need to write, and a house that always seems to be covered in a layer of dust. I am taken in by the magazines at the supermarket check-out counter with their promises of Meals in Under 30 Minutes, The Best Hair Cut for Your Face, Discipline Without Tears, and Cleaning Your Home in Under an Hour. I read Heloise, and Mary Ellen, and The FlyLady, and, yup, even Martha, in search of a better, calmer, more organized, beautiful life. It’s not that I consider myself above vacuuming, so much as I just can never seem find the time to get it done. Shine’s promise of domestic bliss in “10 Easy Steps” (advertised on the book’s cover, along with the testimony: “I was a whining, miserable, desperate housewife — but I finally snapped out of it . . . YOU CAN, TOO!”) does have its appeal.
As a mother who has struggled with my role as primary caregiver, I thought the book’s introduction began promisingly. Shine writes: “I remember when I was a mom on the edge, too. For a long time I really thought I was going to have a nervous breakdown. Being home with two small children and having a husband who was never at home was exhausting. Motherhood was harder than I thought it would be, and marriage was more work than I expected. I was lonely, scared, and most of all worried that I couldn’t pull off the whole at-home-mother thing without becoming a woman with no identity, a woman whom no one found interesting, or worse yet . . . the frumpy housewife that I dreaded becoming.” (2) Through her struggles with this, Shine claims to have found The Answer: a way to embrace motherhood and its related domestic requirements without sacrificing self. Shine continues: “For whatever reason, being a stay-at-home mom — a housewife — has gotten a bad rap. I want to put an end to that.” (3)
I do agree that stay-at-home mothers are sometimes dismissed and their work deemed unimportant. Governments do not measure the work done at home. Corporations do not give us credit for the years we’ve spent doing unpaid work. And most of us have an anecdote or two about people’s eyes glazing over when we answer their cocktail party icebreaker, “What do you do?” with, “Right now, I’m at home with the kids.” But Shine takes it further: “I want women everywhere to call for a movement to send women back home.” (3) Hmm. Now, it’s one thing to want recognition that full-time mothering is a viable and valuable choice, but it’s another thing altogether to agitate for the right to do nothing else. Shine then dedicates the book to “all my girls out there who did choose their families over their jobs.” (3) At this point, Shine lost me completely. She seems to believe that being a stay-at-home mother — a housewife — is inherently good and that there is some sort of moral high ground associated with being at home, tending the hearth, and vacuuming the drapes. I also realized at this point that Shine was not simply being careless when she uses the terms stay-at-home mom and housewife interchangeably. Shine’s identity as a mother seems completely intertwined with her roles as homemaker and wife.
This sets the stage for her ten-step program. Step One, titled “Please Stop Whining!” is subtitled “Let’s stop acting like desperate housewives; Snap out of it!; Shut up;! and Count your blessings every day.” This step/chapter (which I started to refer to as “Bitches and Whores and Sluts, Oh My!” as a nod to Shine’s often abrasive language) is an odd diatribe about how it has become “fashionable to be an out-of-control mother on the edge.” (5) She bases her observation solely on the popularity of the television show Desperate Housewives and assumes that mothers like to watch the program because they identify with the characters and their collective penchant for illicit activity. Now, I know lots of mothers who enjoy the show, but I do not know any who wish to emulate the women of Wisteria Lane — or who view the show as anything other than escapist camp. (Even the Golden Globes people see it as a comedy, after all.) One of the key flaws in Shine’s book is that rather than supporting her position with fact and data, she instead erects flimsy straw men (or women) and then attempts to knock them down. Shine forges ahead, telling mothers that the first step to happiness is to stop acting like the Desperate Housewives so many of us have become, and to shut up, snap out of it, and be grateful that things aren’t worse. Frankly, this step is weak and reads like an afterthought, written purely in an attempt to capitalize on the success of the show.
Step Two is titled “Be Proud! Being an At-Home Mom Is the Most Important Job” with sections subtitled “You had these kids: go home and raise them”; “I walked away from it all, and you can too”; “The feminists sold us a raw deal”; “Why you just cannot have it all”; and “It’s time to lift up our spatulas and demand some respect.” Shine believes that a mother’s place is in the home: “If you made the choice to get pregnant, you should make the choice to stay home with that baby if you can afford to, and I think that most of you can afford to.” (19) She believes that it’s simply a matter of priorities, and suggests in a way that is as socio-economically naïve as it is galling: “Maybe you’ll have to give something up. Maybe this year you won’t buy a big-screen TV. Maybe you won’t go to Bermuda. Maybe you’ll have to downsize your home. Things might get tight. But isn’t your baby worth it”? (19)
She sees the decision to work or to not work outside the home as a true choice, rather than the byproduct of a work environment that offers us all or nothing instead of the fairly-paid, benefits-entitled flexible work options so many of us seek. And since it is our choice as mothers, she feels that the decision neatly divides us into two camps. The choice, she believes, is simply a matter of our priorities and our values, and stay-at-home mothers — in their decision to “sacrifice” income to spend time with their children — are the clear moral victors: “You have to be strong, confident, and selfless to be able to give up your career . . . your identity . . . and a piece of yourself — all for your family’s best interest.” (20) Because it is a choice, she can justify saying, “Instead of popping drugs, cheating on your husband, or hiding in the office all day, go home, embrace motherhood, hold on to your babies, raise your kids yourself.” (13) In Shine’s world, working outside the home becomes the moral equivalent of drug use and adultery. And since being stay-at-home moms is our choice, we are not entitled to complain about the inequities or the difficulties of mothering or the grind of domestic drudgery. Since it is our choice, the problem isn’t the unequal division of domestic labor or the North American, middle-class mentality that raising children is a private matter, the problem is us — mothers raised with unrealistic, feminist-inspired notions of having it all. And what we need to do is to shut up, snap out of it, and learn to embrace the dusting.
Using attention-grabbing “post-feminist” writing in the vein of Caitlin Flanagan and Danielle Crittenden, and other writers, Shine declares: “When I was deciding what I would write, I knew that I had to take on the women behind the feminist movement.” (25) But whereas Flanagan and Crittenden use fact and thoughtful argument to support their (in my opinion flawed) thesis that feminism has failed mothers, Shine has not done her research. She writes: “I’m calling on the women who started the feminist movement to get on the ball and start helping mothers in distress. But they’re not interested in women who aren’t highly successful career girls. They don’t care about us housewives.” (19) She asks, “Why isn’t NOW, the National Organization for Women, fighting to help more women work from home? Why are the feminists not forcing companies to promote work-share programs with other moms? More importantly, why are the leaders of the feminist movement not supporting real choice? Not just the choice for reproductive rights, but the choice for women to work or not? I want feminists everywhere to really support their sisters, all of them, especially the ones with the hardest job of all — the at-home moms.” (26) True, there are those within the feminist movement, such as Linda Hirshman, who seem to believe that being a stay-at-home mother is not a valid feminist position. But there are also a number of feminists who not only support full-time mothers, but are full-time mothers themselves. Most of the gains made in terms of supporting the work of mothering — from lobbying for family leave to trying to ascribe economic value to the work of mothering — have been made by feminists. NOW, for example, was instrumental in putting into law the Family Medical Leave Act; NOW authored the Homemakers’ Bill of Rights; and NOW coined the phrase, “Every mother is a working mother.” NOW is even taking up the cause of mothers in what is titled “A Feminist Future”, urging petitioners to help support programs and policies to give mothers and caregivers economic rights. Hardly anti-mom.
Shine also claims that feminists have “sold an image that just isn’t what most women want. This is why today the feminist movement has lost steam in America. Now that we have entered the workforce, now that we do have some power, now that we’re liberated, now that we’re better educated, we know what we want, and we’re starting to leave the office to head back home. Gloria Steinem is probably horrified to read the recent statistics about women going back home to raise their children. All the hard work of feminists is going down the drain.” (26) This simply is not true. Economic studies of census data have revealed that the increase in women leaving the paid workforce was caused not by the failure of feminism and the decision of women to “opt-out,” but by the 2001 recession that led to women to leave the workforce involuntarily (The Institute For Women’s Policy Research, in its paper Women and the Economy: Recent Trends in Job Loss, Labor Force Participation, and Wages provides a sound explanation). So yes, Gloria Steinem might have been horrified when she read the recent statistics — but only because they illustrate that women with children continue to be the first ones to lose their jobs in an economic downturn.
Shine claims that in college she was a “huge feminist,” but she simply offers no evidence that she understands the modern feminist movement. She seems to base much of her criticism of feminism on the fact that when she had a sexy and powerful media job, she was popular, but once she had children, she was no longer invited to hang out with the “in” crowd at the “in” parties (feminists, like J.Lo, being renowned for their “in”-ness). She writes: “at parties with my husband, my feminist sisters were no longer interested in what I had to say because I was just a mom. Suddenly, I went from being interesting to being an outcast. One day I was smart and funny, and the next I was stupid and boring. None of my big-time career sisters wanted to hang out with me, the loser mom living in suburbia. I finally felt the stigma so many housewives were feeling. I was insensitive to it when I was working. I, too, lumped all housewives into the dumpy-frumpy category. I was just like these women — a big snob. Now that I was on the other side of the fence, I understood how much it hurt. I felt sorry for myself at first. But then I got angry. Who the hell were these women? Why should the feminists be leading the only movement? Where were the “mamanists”? Most of the feminists out there promoting working, career, having it all, being superwoman — they’re full of it. You cannot have it all. They know it, but they won’t admit it.” (25) One wonders about these straw “feminists,” some fashion-conscious urban media types, who, upon discovering Shine no longer had influence in their world, were no longer interested in what she had to say. Her so-called “sisters” sound like an odious bunch, but I’m not sure why Shine considers them to be spokespeople for the feminist movement.
In truth, I believe Shine intended to write a straightforward “how to run a household book” like Sink Reflections or The Organized Parent, but some editor or publicist thought that the book would be sexier and generate more sales if she could generate some controversy. In Steps One and Two, Shine seems unsure of her material, and her prose is a little clumsy, as if it has been written with a “can you believe she said that?” publicity campaign in mind. In Steps Three, Four and Five, Shine gets into what I imagine was the original book idea — a mix of beauty tips and household advice and marriage advice not unlike what one might find in a copy of any mainstream women’s magazine.
Step Three, “Stop Looking Like a Housewife,” boils down to this: don’t wear sweatshirts, don’t dress like a teenager, wear a fitted t-shirt and cute jeans, wear lipstick, don’t get plastic surgery, don’t over wash your face, eat healthfully (“for the most part,. . . if you’re not stupid, you can lose weight and stay thin”) (39), investigate homeopathic medicine, question your doctor’s recommendations, drink juice, take your vitamins (especially vitamin C), and eat organic, whenever possible. The advice offered is not necessarily bad; it’s simply nothing new, and nothing that would work for everyone.
In Step Four, “Make Your Marriage a Priority,” she tackles relationship issues. The secret to having a good marriage, Shine-style, is divided into 6 sub-steps: “Stop using motherhood as an excuse”; “Give your husband some attention and appreciation”; “Turn up the heat in your bedroom”; “Release the Sexual Goddess Within You”; “Get a Life”; and “Don’t nag him to death.” Shine’s view of marriage seems cynical: men are simple, immature creatures with three wants in life: “attention, appreciation, and sex. If they cannot get these three things from you, they will either look someplace else or become miserable bastards who annoy you every day of your life.” (55) Her views on men and women remind me of an episode of “The Flintstones,” where Fred is a tight-walleted, hapless buffoon, and Wilma spends much of her time scheming to sweet-talk a bigger allowance out of him: “Last year one of my best friends wanted a new dining room set, but her husband was not opening his wallet. I told her to go home, pay some attention to him, act interested in him, initiate some romance, do some nasty deeds that only married couples should do, and guess what? Two weeks later she had the furniture — and a new diamond ring to boot.” (57) Later in the book, she tells the story of her friend Gina, who one night phoned Shine at 11:00 P.M. to tell her that she was in excruciating pain. Shine drove to her house and helped her get to the hospital for an emergency appendectomy. The surprise twist comes with the revelation that Paul, Gina’s husband, was sitting downstairs watching TV during the entire ordeal. Shine admonishes her readers: “Don’t hate Paul; he’s a good guy. He just isn’t a woman.” (158) So little is expected of men or marriage; it struck me as sad.
In Step Five, “Bond with Your Home,” Shine’s recipe for running a busy household is revealed in her choice of subtitles: “Bring back the art of homemaking”; “Start vacuuming”; “Play with your children”; “My easy morning routine”; “Be prepared!”; “Don’t expect your husband to clean”; “Create a place of beauty”; “Plant some flowers and teach your children to appreciate nature”; and “Really talk to your children.” I genuinely was hoping that as a reward for making me wade through her diatribe against feminists, she would reveal the Secret of Vacuuming. (I honestly have no idea how one vacuums when there are small children at home. When the kids are awake, the noise scares them. When they are asleep, the noise wakes them up.) Instead of providing practical household management techniques a la The Flylady, Shine simply walks us through her routines. She tells us to mop the floors once a week but does not tell us what mopping technique would make this thankless task quicker and easier. She tells us to play with our children, but offers no specific advice (I was hoping she could suggest some new games for, say, a certain two-year-old daughter who only wants to play a self-invented, mind-numbingly repetitive game called “The Penguins.”) Shine’s “easy morning routine” (get up an hour before the kids to do makeup and hair, dress, make bed and do laundry; put older child onto school bus; have younger child watch television or entertain herself while you do your housework) only works if you are an at-home mother whose school-aged children take the bus and whose younger children can be trusted to be by themselves for a few minutes without burning down the house. My children fall into neither category. Oh, and I never did learn from Shine how to vacuum.
Step Six, “Get Back in the Kitchen,” talks about the importance of cooking and provides 46 pages of recipes. Shine seems to be quite a good cook, and my only criticism is that her suggestions seem to be aimed at higher-income families, for whom eating wild salmon from Whole Foods and using kitchen tools from Williams-Sonoma is an option. Even when she aims to be budget-friendly, she tends to make an assumption of discretionary income that most families don’t have. She also does not seem to realize that shopping at Whole Foods says more about one’s geographic location and economic status than about one’s values and, as a result, throughout the book, she is unabashed in her judgment of people who do not run their families the way she runs hers: “The other day when I was grocery shopping I noticed the woman . . . in front of me loading a ton of process snacks onto the checkout counter. . . . She was about 80 pounds overweight, and I wanted to shake her. Her son . . . was about 12 years old and at least 20 pounds overweight. I was so angry that I wanted to smash my cart into her big fat ass. But then I thought to myself, is it possible that she just doesn’t know about nutrition? . . . As her food moved down the conveyor belt, I began to load my fresh organic lettuce, tomatoes, apples, bananas, spinach, broccoli, wild salmon, bottled water, kettle chips, and tofu ice cream onto the belt. I hoped she would notice and it would inspire her to eat healthier. She didn’t seem to notice; she just paid and left the store.” (39-40)
The rest of the book is pretty standard women’s magazine fare. In Step Seven, “Keep your girlfriends,” Shine suddenly declares that women need to have an identity beyond that of wife and mother, and that close female friendships are essential. I found this to be a surprising twist in a book where so much of the focus is on criticizing other mothers, but I suppose that given the absence of a mature, loving partner, like-minded girlfriends are needed to fill the emotional void. While I agree wholeheartedly with Shine that the bond with other mothers can sustain one through the hard years of parenting, her observation that “cute, stylish moms” tend to hang out with the other “cute, stylish moms” is dismissive and totally undercuts her point about the power of female friendship. To Shine, we are all still in high school, choosing our best friends based on lip gloss preference and hair style. Step Eight, “Make Time for Yourself,” offers some decent ideas for relaxing and avoiding burnout. Step Nine, “Don’t Take it all So Seriously,” was by far the best section in the book, and here Shine does some of her most serious and best writing (more on this in a minute). Step Ten, “Don’t Wish for Someone Else’s Problems,” is the last section in the book, and is very light on content. My guess is that it was labeled a discrete Step simply because someone thought that a ten-step program would sell better than a nine-step one. The conclusion felt rushed and unfinished, but Shine’s plan appears to be to continue the conversation begun in this book via her website (for Stay at Home Moms only) and t-shirts and Happy Housewife cruises, so I cannot be sure that the abruptness was not deliberate.
I’ll be upfront here: I disagree with Shine’s political views. There is something, well, wrong with taking potshots at full-time-working mothers with the defense that they weren’t meant to read this book. The misinformation she provides to perpetuate the “feminists are what’s wrong with society” myth is harmful to women in general. In addition to its troubling political message, the book has another major flaw. A book like this — where the author so injects herself and her views onto every page — lives or dies by its author’s voice. And while Shine tries to channel a salty version of Vicky Iovine‘s girlfriend talk, the voice does not ring true. In this passage, for example, she claims that she has found domestic bliss:
You can almost have it all; look at me:
I am at home with the kids.
My husband and I have a close, intimate marriage.
My house is clean, decorated, organized and gorgeous.
I cook breakfast, lunch, and dinner almost every day.
A couple of nights a week I get takeout.
I am thin and I look good.
I am not on antidepressants, and I am not stealing my friend’s kid’s Ritalin.
I have lots of friends and make time to keep those relationships alive.
I play tennis, go grocery shopping, vacuum, and do laundry.
And at the end of this day, I still had time to write this book.(28)
The tone elsewhere in the book, however, is often an angry one, peppered with strange personal attacks, such as the one on her friend who “once left me, my baby, and her baby, who was with me at the time, out in a snowstorm for an hour when my car broke down while she closed a business deal” (158), or her sister, “who recently made a chicken Kiev that tasted like phlegm.” (99) Her writing failed to convince me that she is the beatific hausfrau who has found her domestic nirvana. After a while, her “I have it all” statements ring hollow and, by the end of the book, she doesn’t seem to really believe them herself.
Here’s my theory: Shine is as complicated as the rest of us. As much as I began her book wanting to label her a Stepford Wife, in the end I really can’t. She can be wickedly funny and has a charming, self-deprecating sense of humor. And towards the conclusion of the book, she perhaps offers us a glimpse of the real Darla Shine. Here, in Step Nine, her writing is touching and heartfelt as she talks about her painful delivery experience, her spiral into depression after the birth of her baby, and her life-long desire to be a writer. (Hmm… not a housewife?) She writes that she, like all of us, is afraid of “failing as a mother or being disliked,” and that she, too, has terrible days where she screams at her children too much and wants to throw her son across the room. Here, she writes about feeling angry, sometimes hating her children and discovering how sometimes her children hate her.
She reveals that, the book’s title notwithstanding, all is not bliss: “Like every mom out there, I was the one up night after night when Connor had the croup three times as an infant. I was the one who had to hold Hannah down when she had to get her big toe stitched back on when she was two. I was the one who taught the kids their alphabet, who taught them how to ride their bikes, who does their homework with them, who is responsible for how they look, dress and act each day. I’m the one who vacuums the kitchen every morning. I’m the one who scrubs the encrusted pee off the toilet every day. I’m the one who chooses the paint for the walls, the fabric for the sofa, the chandelier for the foyer, and the plants for the garden. It is I who prepares the meals, holds it all together — and has the anxiety attack at the hospital.” (195) She writes of the isolation of motherhood and how her husband, like many partners, “just could never get it. He could never really understand how hard it is being at home with the kids. He really does help me when he’s home. He bathes the children, plays with them and straightens up their toys. But he has never been at home day in and day out all alone, holding it all together.” (195-196) Shine writes about her need to write and she notes the number of times her writing was interrupted by her children, something close to the heart of many mother-writers. She writes how, in the end, all she really wants is a little respect for the often invisible work that she does. And after all of the vitriol, all of the judgment, she writes: “I know a lot of women who just feel badly deep down inside. They’re dealing with some type of heartache, some issue, some pain. But don’t let this come out in the form of criticism of other women. We moms are truly our own best support system. We need each other. Let’s all stop judging each other.” (162)
I sense that this is the real Darla Shine and that the other one is the controversial persona that some editor told her (not erroneously) would sell more books. It’s too bad. We need more books out there giving an honest telling of the mothering experience and trying to offer up some ideas for making it a little easier. Shine had the opportunity to contribute to the mothering genre, sharing her way of balancing the desire for a writing career and the at-home mothering experience, rather than simply fanning the flames of the Mommy Wars.