When I read Caitlin Flanagan’s book, To Hell With All That: Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife, I saw evidence of a kinder and gentler Caitlin Flanagan than the one I’d come to know through her articles and reviews in The Atlantic Monthly and The New Yorker. Gone is her sting, her tendency to go for the jugular. In her book, she seems less rigid, less judgmental; she comes across as more balanced and fair. And even though I still don’t agree with much of what she writes, I detected an ideological shift in her book. Instead of pointing fingers at other women, she writes about how we are all in the soup, together. To me, it was a welcome change.
But if Caitlin Flanagan had indeed mellowed, who then was this odd creature that popped up from time to time to make outrageous pronouncements before a live studio audience? She had Caitlin Flanagan’s voice and mannerisms. She was even sporting her trademark twinset and swoopy hair. But instead of discussing the complex issues facing women today, as she does in her book, she seemed interested only in generating memorable sound bites. I couldn’t reconcile the author of the book with the woman who appeared on TV any more than I could figure out how a rather innocuous book, when read in its entirety, could generate such heated buzz.
The only explanation that made any sense to me was that there were two Caitlin Flanagans. One: the author of the book, a writer interested in serious and inclusionary debate; the other: the anti-feminist writer, seemingly happy to pander to the media in order to generate hype. One was the real Caitlin Flanagan, the other an artificial construct. But which Flanagan was which?
As I pondered this question, I received an email from Flanagan’s editor asking if I’d like a copy of the book to consider reviewing on my blog. I had already read it, so instead, I asked for what I really wanted: a chance to talk with the author. My search for Caitlin Flanagan had begun.
Her editor provided the introduction by email and we set up the interview time. Steeped in charm, Flanagan indicated that she was happy to do the interview via telephone or through email, with or without my children roaring in the background, whatever would be the least stressful for me. She told me that she would not be at home for a few days (I made a note to ask her if her time away from home was book related and, if so, how that dovetailed with her notion of being an at-home mother) but the following week she would be at home and “fully available.” Her expression “fully available” seemed loaded: how many mothers — let alone successful mother-writers — can consider themselves fully available for anything?
Initially, I suggested a 9 a.m. call for the Tuesday following Mother’s Day — her children would be in school, my daughter would be in school, and my son (fingers crossed) would be napping. Somehow I had in my mind that Flanagan was an east coaster, and we shared the same time zone, even though I knew from the book that she lived in L.A., which is three hours behind Toronto, where I live. Flanagan emailed me back to make sure I knew that she lived in L.A. and in Pacific Standard Time. We rescheduled the interview for 2 p.m. Toronto Time (11 a.m. in L.A.). At noon on the day of our interview, I was rushing around trying to make lunch for the kids, give my mother babysitting instructions and get out the door for a quick appointment with my allergist so that I’d be home in plenty of time for the call. The phone rang and, not recognizing the number, I did not pick it up. When I called in to retrieve the message, it was from Caitlin Flanagan who was calling for our 9 a.m. Pacific Standard Time call. She’d try me back in ten minutes. Did I screw up the time? Did she? Was this a deliberate move on her part to catch me off-guard and thereby take control of the interview or was she simply thinking of the original time we had set? No matter, I was eager to speak with her. I cancelled my appointment, barked some instructions at my mother, and grabbed my notes just as the phone rang again, exactly ten minutes later.
I have heard her speak before yet was surprised by how girlish her voice is, not only in its tone, but in its enthusiasm. We chatted about all manner of things for the better part of an hour: infertility (which we’d both experienced), the essay which most comforted her when she was diagnosed with breast cancer (Barbara Ehrenreich’s Welcome to Cancerland), her book publicity (she won’t do interviews if they interfere with her family life), feminism’s legacy, her favorite book on mothering (Hons and Rebels by Jessica Mitford), The Colbert Report, her next project (a book about teenage girls and some writing about infertility), and an easy-to-make recipe for burritos.
Secretly, I’d been hoping to uncover some Dr. Laura-ish skeletons in her closet. Perhaps, while we were on the phone, a group of disgruntled domestic workers would break free from her cellar, or she’d admit that she extends her writing time by allowing her young sons to drink beer and watch violent films. At the very least, I hoped for evidence that she too felt pulled between her work and her children. But there really were no easily identifiable conflicts between her publicly stated positions and her private life.
Flanagan has been very critical of professional women who employ nannies and she explored the mother/nanny relationship in depth in the book, so I wondered what her children’s former nanny, Paloma, (whose name did not appear in the acknowledgments) thought of her writing. Flanagan responded: “Well, number one, Paloma, as you read in the beginning, is not her real name. So that answers that. And, yes, she has read [the essays and book] and been part of them and is very proud of them.” Flanagan also revealed that she continues to advocate for the rights of domestic workers through her involvement with Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles. She urged me to go to www.breedlove-online.com and the IRS website to see for myself how easily social security set-asides could be arranged. She practices what she’s preached.
There were no hypocrisies I could detect that she herself was unwilling to acknowledge. She said, “You know people are saying, ‘Caitlin Flanagan you’re a hypocrite.’ And I say, ‘Bless your heart, it’s a whole book about contradictions in my life.’ So it’s fine to say that, but certainly understand that that’s what I’m writing the whole book about.”
I wanted to know about the book itself and why she’d felt the need to rework her essays, rather than simply republishing them in book form. I wanted to know if, as I suspected, there’d been an ideological shift: “I’ll be totally candid. I really just wanted to publish my collected essays. I love essays. I’ll read books of essays until the end of time. But the publisher wanted a more contained, long-form reading experience. And so I decided that the connecting tissue needed to be my life, and that I would take out some of the analysis and some of the book review analysis and then put it back together connecting to me and my experience and my mom’s experience.”
I pressed her for why it felt like the tone of the book had changed from the tone in her articles if her beliefs had not changed.
“The subject matter shifted in many cases from looking at other people’s lives to my own life. And the tone shifted in that, in trying to strike a consistent — if you look just at my collected works, some will be looking at works very warmly and some of them will be quite harsh and some will be quite funny — and in trying to create this unified reading experience, that got lost.”
I asked her why in the book she wrote about the losses that all mothers face — working outside the home or not — when she had focused primarily on the losses faced by working mothers in her essay in The Atlantic Monthly, “How Serfdom Saved the Women’s Movement: Dispatches from the Nanny Wars.” Had she had a change of heart? “Why didn’t I talk about that more in that particular piece? Because that wasn’t the piece about at-home mothers. That was a piece about working mothers. That’s the reason for that. And I felt that to explore those issues more fully, I needed to write about my own life more than about the lives of other people. I think that in showing how tedious it sometimes was and how depressed I often was that I would show vividly the losses that occur there.”
And I asked her why then she called the Serfdom piece “convoluted and slightly insane” if her beliefs had not changed:
“Well, my goal in writing that piece, believe it or not, was to get professional class women to think deeply about the right relationship to their immigrant domestic workers. And to get them to treat them in a morally and legally acceptable manner. And if that is your goal, you do not write a 12,000 word essay that berates them. I was trying to catch flies with vinegar. And so you know . . . You live, you learn. And so I took the essay apart and put the wonderful parts that I really loved about that essay that had to do with the history of the woman’s movement, and put that in a different chapter on housekeeping. And I put the part about, ‘hey, you’ve really got to pay these social security set-asides,’ and put that in the context of my own life, so now I’m not pointing the finger at anyone else’s life, I’m pointing the finger at my own life. And the parts of the woman’s movement I thought were a complete bust and the parts that I thought that were morally superb, I put in a different chapter.”
She held fast to her position — if the book read as softer, it was not due to a shift in her thinking.
So I changed tactics. If I could not expose her as a fraud, or get her to admit to a change in her beliefs, then perhaps I could at least gain some valuable tips. As a mother who writes, I have concluded that while it is possible to get one’s work done while the children are asleep or at school, it is very tricky to market and publicize one’s work at the same time. If she had discovered the inside track to doing both, I wanted in on the secret. And so I asked her how she managed it all.
She told me that the writing part was easy, but the publicity part had been a disaster: “I’m always in trouble with my publisher because I won’t do it.” Leading up to the publication of the book, she agreed to do interviews in New York and in Canada over a three-day period while her husband looked after the boys. After what she recalls as more than 120 interviews and a draining three days, she told her publisher “no more.” She cancelled all of her out of town publicity except for a speaking engagement in Washington (the reason she was not home when I originally tried to schedule our interview). With the blessing of the boys’ teachers, she took her boys out of school and turned the engagement into an educational family trip to the nation’s capital. During her speech a friend of The Atlantic Monthly editor took her boys to the IMAX film at the National Museum of Natural History and it was all “fabulous.” Now, she will grant interviews only when it suits her. And even though, as she says, “I’m always in hot water because I don’t do the PR unless it is right now, from home when the boys are in school,” her publicity engine grinds on:
“I’ve been fortunate in that the book has aroused so much interest and so much curiosity that people have been very flexible with me. . . I live in Los Angeles so I can pop over to the [television] studio . . . the 24/7 news cycle means I can take the kids to school, the network will send a car, I’ll go over, I’ll do the interview. And I’m back picking up the kids. (They always send a car. Once, I picked up the kids in the car and the kids thought it was very cool.) So, I just work it from my home and during my own hours. And, as I say, because there’s such a natural interest in the book, I’ve been able to do that. Now if I’d written a book that didn’t have . . . an abiding interest to begin with, then I’d be in a very different situation because then I’d be needing to drum up publicity. And that’s a whole different animal. And I don’t know how that would have worked out.”
Perhaps it was simply my interpretation, but I felt that there was a certain smugness in her tone. So many women would love to be in her position, myself included. To be able to write for national magazines, write and publicize a book, and be an at-home mother to her twin boys is something to envy. Of the work/life balance, Flanagan had written, “whichever decision a woman makes, she will lose something of incalculable value.” I asked her about her losses, now that she was spending more time working as a writer:
“There have been losses in my career, for sure. If I had done the PR tour that they’d wanted me to, that would be great for the career. So I’ve always chosen my home and my children over the career. . . The number of things that I get offered to do that are like, ‘wow, that sounds really fun, that sounds really exciting, I’d love to do that, but no, I can’t do it, sorry.’ There haven’t been any losses here on the home front. Except that little three day trip . . . My husband took [time] off from work. They all had the Life of Riley together. It was much more diminishing to me (all those interviews). I’d have a much bigger career if I were more interested in career than in family.”
I’m sure she has turned down some great opportunities to be home, but with gigs at two national magazines, a hotly discussed new book, and a publicity schedule that boiled down to one tough three day trip, her losses seem pretty minor. And it’s all because of a so-called “natural interest” in her book.
She continued, “I never complain about the negative criticism because the book would not be such a topic of conversation and my phone would not ring off the hook constantly to be on TV to discuss my book if there weren’t a lot of people really angry about the book. So there is this weird symbiotic relationship. I always say that I owe my literary career to the people who like my writing and my literary celebrity to people who hate it. So, I have to say that there is a symbiosis that’s gone on between my work and the harshest of my critics.”
Flanagan would have one believe that she simply penned these stories about the books she has read or the hypocrisies in her own life all quite innocently, and then — ‘good golly, what have I done!’ — all of this controversy ensued. But after speaking with her, I simply don’t buy that she does not play an active role in creating controversy. In my opinion, the reason that she has been so outrageous on this latest PR campaign is because the book simply isn’t all that controversial. And that she fears that if she doesn’t come across as The Provocative Caitlin Flanagan, The Anti-Feminist Democrat, The Woman Fueling the Mommy Wars, then the networks will stop sending cars to pick her up at a moment which works with her schedule. And so she appears on The Colbert Report, with her message that wives ought to put out and cook some darned dinner, to the hoots of his frat boy audience. And she peppers what is really quite a reasonable book with a few outrageous quotes.
When I asked her about the decision not to run with the supposedly considered subtitle “How Feminism Short-Changed a Generation,” she replied, “That was sort of a spicy subtitle that came [up] at some point but that’s not what the book’s about.” And it’s true. The book is not anti-feminist and neither is Flanagan. In our conversation about her essay The Virgin Bride, she told me that while she thought the big, white, “who gives this woman to be married” wedding was an odd thing to be embraced by feminism’s heiresses: “it’s not that they have given up on feminism. They’re not saying that I don’t want to be a lawyer anymore. And I don’t want to have equal partnership with my partner anymore and I want this wedding. They’re saying no. They’re saying I want both things. I want both to be a completely liberated educated partner in a law firm and I want to enact certain of the niceties of very traditional womanhood from a time I reject entirely. And I thought holding room for both those things fascinated me.” Clearly Flanagan has an appreciation for the gains feminism has brought women.
She is acutely aware that the housewives of the 1950s and ’60s were not always content: “There are two huge and useless bits of revisionist history about that time. One was the notion that they were happy housewives all and they were vacuuming in their pearls and everything was hunky dory — June Cleaver. The other was they were miserable — Betty Friedan — weeping in their teacups, valium poppers.” And she does not blame feminism exclusively for short-changing a generation. “We in the 1970s, completely irrespective of feminism, we shifted from being a manufacturing economy to a service economy, and it became no longer possible for a dad with a union job to support a family. Suddenly, the whole way of life that had some very wonderful things about it as far as not being stressed out, not being exhausted, not working constantly, not being too tired for sexuality, not being too all over the city come dinner time that you can’t even eat dinner together. Suddenly all of that has been lost. It wasn’t just the women’s movement’s fault. It wasn’t just the changes in the economy’s fault. But it was a whole lot of things all at once.”
And yet, on The Colbert Report, she told a very different story: “The original subtitle was “How Feminism Short-Changed a Generation” but the publisher said that wouldn’t sell so we have a softer title. But I think it’s the notion that feminism sold a lot of women out. They sold us a bill of goods and a lot of women are unhappy because they’re not valued at home the way they once were.” If, as she told me, the spicy subtitle didn’t accurately represent her book, then why mention it on Colbert? And why leave Colbert’s viewers with the impression that the book is an attack on feminism when it isn’t? Why indicate that her publishers wanted to shy away from controversy when it is clear that the opposite is true? Controversy sells books and presumably Flanagan knows it. Presumably, Flanagan is aware that if she generates sufficient heat, the media will come to her. They will work around her schedule. They will allow her to both be a full time mother and famous writer. They will allow her to have it all.
When I asked her if she had any follow-up comments to The Colbert Report since I could only assume most of her comments were said in jest, she asked me if my tape recorder was still on and then stated the following as if reading from a teleprompter: “The Colbert Report is a piece of serious television journalism. No one is to construe it as comedy. When Stephen and I talked on air we were talking journalist to journalist, American guy to American gal. And that’s the follow-up.” In other words, no refutation from her.
Here’s my theory. I think Caitlin Flanagan is a skilled writer. I think she is a devoted mother. And I think that she is a savvy marketer — one does not land gigs at both The Atlantic Monthly and The New Yorker simply by telling funny little stories in one’s writing group, even if that writing group is a highly pedigreed one. A writer who is as deliberate and skilled as Flanagan does not write something as wounding as “when a mother works, something is lost. Children crave their mothers, they always have and they always will” and then claim that she was really just advocating for social security set-asides. She writes the way she writes — gorgeous, inclusive prose, followed by a surprise sucker punch to the kidneys — because she knows it will incite rage, generate buzz, increase her stock, and allow her to call the shots with her publisher and the media. She presents the way she presents so that she can, in fact, have a successful writing career and still be at home in time to make a hot meal. She has constructed a persona that works for her; that her words leave deep wounds among her fellow mothers is irrelevant. Heat sells better than light.
At the end of the day, perhaps Caitlin Flanagan is no different from the guy at the consumer products company who is happy to take money from women enamored with the brand message that women of all ages, sizes, and colors are beautiful, and from men enamored with the brand message that women are arm-candy and can be manipulated with a strategic application of cheap body spray. Perhaps she’s no different than the gal at the entertainment company who implies through clever product naming that placing your baby in front of their videos will make him smarter, while totally ignoring the fact that the AAP believes the best thing for your baby’s brain is to not expose him to videos at all. Or perhaps she’s like the executive at the toy company who sells the messages that “guns are fun” and “it’s all about being pretty and finding the prince.” Perhaps Flanagan simply gives the people what they want, even when she knows it’s not right, and in doing so she’s found a way to strike that coveted balance among family life, fulfilling work, and an identity outside of mothering.
We should all be so lucky.
Husbands, New Projects and How to Make a Tasty Burrito: Snippets from My Conversation with Caitlin Flanagan
On how she spent Mother’s Day:
CF: My husband, as you probably know from my writing, lives to make me happy. There was, for a long time around Mother’s Day, this hideous guesswork system whereby he would try to figure out what would make me happy and then I would politely pretend that it had made me happy. And finally, I realized the male of the species needs more exact information and marching orders. So about two months before Mother’s Day, I go through the catalogues and look at things I might like to buy. Then, I cut them out and paste them on paper with the phone number of the catalogues. Then I tell him that I never ever want to go out to brunch. . .
JL: No Olive Garden?
CF: [Laughs.] No Olive Garden. Yes, exactly. Olive Garden, very loaded. So here’s what we did: I had my coffee and juice in bed, then he and the boys made waffles, which is my favorite breakfast, and then we went to church — a later service than usual because some sleeping-in was involved. And then we just hung out at home which was very, very, very nice. What did you do?
JL: We went out for brunch.
On her next project, a book (for which she recently signed a contract) inspired by her essay, “Are You There God? It’s Me, Monica”:
CF: It’s not a book just based on that chapter — because people say, ‘my god, she’s writing a whole book on oral sex.’ No. You know, I taught high school for a long time at a boys school that became co-ed. And we really thought deeply about these girls, and about the things that we wanted for them, and about the world that we wanted to help them be part of. And now looking at so much of girl culture, . . . I think that we’ve sold girls out. I see girls living in this hyper-sexualized world. We are being bombarded with so many confused and confusing messages. So that’s what I’m writing about in my next book. But what am I going to say? I don’t know yet because I haven’t started.
On her favorite books about mothering:
CF: Oh, I loved — you should read this, it’s great, it’s a funny title — Hons and Rebels. It’s a book by one of the Mitford girls, about growing up as a Mitford girl. Loved, of course, The Little Princesses [the book written by Queen Elizabeth’s and Princess Margaret’s governess, which Flanagan refers to in her essay, “A Necessary Person”]. Loved all of the Great American housewife writers that I described in my book: The Bombecks and the Kerrs and the Brackens. I’ve just had such great luck with my readers; they’ve sent me all kinds of small books by mother-writers from the 50s and 60s, and journals. Maybe they didn’t achieve mass circulation, maybe it was even a vanity press in the family, but I love those.
On Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born:
CF: Oh, I don’t think anything beyond that it was one of the first books that I read, not in my life but [on the topic of mothering]. The reason I remember it is that is I owe it to my school library at Harvard Westlake. But of course I read that.
On why she considers her husband to be head of the household:
CF: This is just me. I have never ever wanted to be the head of everything. There were always these plum jobs when I was teaching: ‘Who wants to be the dean of the eleventh grade?’ ‘Don’t look at me.’ I am very happy to work within a system. I’m a creative type. Creative types do really well when they work and live within structure. I don’t ever want to be the boss of anything. I never want to be the president of anything. That’s just me. People on the phone are always asking ‘blah blah blah’ and I say, ‘I have to talk to my husband about that.’ They think, ‘that’s so weird, that’s so retro.’ I really do have to talk to him. I don’t even want to think about that and he’s so good at it.
JL: Is there a bifurcation of duties in the decision making — what about decisions regarding the children, for example?
CF: We make all those decisions together. Oh my gosh, yes. I do all the legwork. I find out about every single school, I visit every single school and talk to every mother on the planet. I talk to all my teacher friends who teach at all these schools. I present the shortlist and then we make the decision together and I’m really grateful for that.
On if she’s lost any good friends as a result of expressing her opinions publicly:
CF: No. No. No. There’s that great Jefferson line, “I see political difference as no reason to hurt a friendship” or something like that. I think that Americans are very, very tolerant of diversity of opinions. I can’t speak for other countries and other cultures, but here in the U.S. we get a bad rap sometimes in other cultures, but it’s just not true. We are very tolerant of diversity of opinion. [The quote to which she refers, I believe, is: “I have never suffered political opinion to enter into the estimate of my private friendships.” Of course Jefferson also said, “Public assemblies, where everyone is free to act and speak, are the most powerful looseners of the bands of private friendships.”]
On a quick and easy meal:
CF: Buy the rotisserie chicken, a package of tortillas, a tub of sour cream, mild salsa and some shredded, grated cheddar cheese. Chop up the chicken (first put the chicken out on the counter so that it’s not too hot) into bite sized pieces. Slap that on the kids’ plates. Put a handful of cheese on their plates. For your husband and you, put the chicken on the tortilla with sour cream, cheese and salsa and roll it all up burrito style. Put salsa on the top and put it in a 350 degree oven for 15-20 minutes. Your husband will love it and the kids have a tortilla rollup with chicken, cheese and whatever veggies they’ll eat. The key to all this is to cook ahead. Do all your prep in the morning when you have energy. Then, all you have to do is to pop the dish in the oven. You have something to eat and your husband has dinner. You have to do all your dinner prep before noon, otherwise you’re too tired, too stressed, the kids get too wild. That way you get to dine. You’re hungry, too. You’ve had a long day.
Her final remarks:
JL: It was delightful to talk to you, Caitlin.
CF: Enjoy those burritos tonight.
JL: Yes, I will. Thanks for the recipe.
CF: I’ve got a ton of them. Call me again, because I have a bunch of them.
I hang up the phone. I’m charmed, a little bewildered and, having missed lunch to take the call, have an incredible craving for burritos.