In my last post I wrote that I had received a copy of Darla Shine’s Happy Housewives book. Its arrival coincided with my discovery that Caitlin Flanagan also had penned a Housewife Chic book and the notion of a fashionable return to domesticity was making me feel rather cranky.
Both Darla Shine and a Darla Shine supporter left lengthy comments in response to my piece. I want to reserve my remarks about the book itself until I’ve finished it (I’m half way through) and have had a chance to pen a proper review (it is mainly a household tips book and seemingly not the usual Literary Mama Reviews fare but, given the political overtones of the book, is potentially worth some discussion). But, I did want to address a few of the points raised right away.
First, I have been accused of commenting on Shine’s book without reading it. This simply is not true. In my earlier post, I commented on a newspaper article which refers to Shine’s book. I did not comment on the book itself. How could I, without first having read it?
Second, I was informed that I misquoted Shine with respect to her comment on liberation and equality. Nope. It’s right there on page 24. [Correction: Yep, Shine is right in this case. I quoted her as saying that our mothers had burdened us with liberation and quality (since I repeated the phrase over the next sentence, my meaning was clear but I apologize for my typo. Ooh, I hate being wrong!)]
Third, it seems that I am perceived as somehow anti-stay-at-home-mothers. Shine comments that “if we want to opt out of the fast track we should have that choice without being ridiculed by so called feminists such as you.” This strikes me as funny (both funny peculiar and funny ha-ha). Yes, I consider myself a feminist. Absolutely. Yet, at the same time, I am not unlike Shine or the women she hopes to reach. Like Shine, I am at home with children (a two year old and a four month old). Like Shine, I also have a masters degree and left a six-figure job. Like Shine, I also try to carve out some time to write (I marvel at her productivity). And, like Shine, I do enjoy some things in the domestic sphere. I like to bake, I’m a compulsive organizer, I use the Flylady method of keeping my house somewhat tidy and I’m constantly Feng Shui-ing the furniture. And, like Shine, I disagree when people want to label the work of stay-at-home mothers as somehow ‘less than’ (see my blog entry about Linda Hirshman’s article.)
But here is the difference. Shine seems to believe that we have a true choice when it comes to how we raise our families. We select whether to stay at home with the kids or not, to engage in domestic activities or not, to cook homemade meals or not as if from an all-you-can-eat buffet (well, to her credit she does acknowldge that some single mothers don’t have the choice and seems to be trying to figure out a way to help them.)
And she therefore sees the “choice” to stay at home as somehow having more value than the “choice” to work, primarily because the “choice” seems to involve more sacrifice somehow (sacrifice defined in terms of forfeiting one’s income). I quote from her book (page 19): “Just as in all families who make a choice for the mother to stay at home, we made our priorities. So, maybe you’ll have to give something up. Maybe this year you won’t buy the 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?”
Is it just me, or does that make anyone else want to scream? The ‘I chose my child over a big-screen TV’ smugness (dare I call it that) is just so out of alignment with my experience. None of my friends, none of the women I meet in the park, none of the women I am reading about seem to share this view. We all love our kids, we all struggle with work/life balance, we all try to do our best. None of us make decisions because we think that are babies are not “worth it.”
Now Shine’s defense to criticism about such statements seems to be twofold 1) she was joking and 2) she didn’t intend for working moms to read this book. Well, she does seem to have a rather caustic sense of humor which she directs towards everyone and everything from women in the supermarket to her sister’s phegmy tasting chicken Kiev and, it’s true, she states right up front that if you are a full time working mom, you shouldn’t read her book.
But I don’t think that it is OK to make comments like this and then say “I was just kidding” or “I didn’t mean for you to read that”. It is not OK to imply that full time working mothers value their kids less. Not as a joke. Not in a little, nudge-wink, clubby, ‘just between us girls,’ kind of way.
This type of polarizing comment is always tricky. Because what might be intended as a jokey, off the cuff, biting remark can work its way into the wider discussion of mothering. And then readers like Debra, one of her supporters who also commented on my blog post, can honestly believe that they are supportive of all mothering decisions and yet at the same time believe that Shine is “empowering those of us who have made the choice to value our families over the never-ending climb up the corporate ladder.” And it is precisely this, not vacuuming or not vacuuming the drapes, that causes me so much anxiety. It’s the we “made the choice to value our families.” As if maternal love is somehow entwined with one’s work situation, or cake-making abilities. As if it is something that can be measured, and judged. And suddenly mothers are policing each other instead of banding together to say, ‘we all value our families, we are all trying to do the best we can in a family unfriendly society, and, you know, we’re all getting a raw deal.” Shine does have some great suggestions for improving the lot of the stay-at-home-mom. I simply wish that she could discuss them in a way that was more inclusive of all mothers.
I am also uncomfortable with how Shine seems to use the terms housewife and stay at home mother interchangeably. I just don’t see how one mothers one’s children has anything to do with mastery of domestic arts. Shine writes (page 100) that she ties little bows around her napkins, bakes biscuits in the shape of bunnies, and ensures her pancakes are equally sized because she thinks “a little extra fussing is a little extra love.” Perhaps that is how Shine shows her love for her family. Others might show it by working two jobs or driving their kids to the hockey rink at dawn or by teaching their children to be accepting of others and non-judgemental. We all have different mothering styles and I don’t think that the decision to make or not make every craft and recipe from the latest issue of Good Housekeeping has anything to do with one’s love for one’s children.
Shine accuses me of trying to start up a mommy war but it is the devisiveness found within her book which troubles me. If she truly wants to help women, if she truly wants to make things better for moms and for families, then I just don’t see how she plans to go about doing it by alientating so many.
Now, Shine is a very shrewd writer/media personality. Even her blog comments (she has left similar ones on other blogs) seem to be part of some sort of a guerrilla marketing campaign to stir up interest in her book. I respect her business savvy. Invoking the mommy wars and injecting a layer of controversy certainly is a way to distinguish her (so far) otherwise unremarkable book from a number of the other domestic “how to” texts.
But I think that there could be a much deeper cost if she starts to encourage women to make the political personal, to stop trying to change the system, and to embrace it, almost competitively, warts and all.
Perhaps the book has a surprise ending. Perhaps it will reach conclusions which will make me a convert to her ten step guide to maternal bliss.
I’ll let you know.