Tuesday, February 24, 2004

Responding to Caitlin Flanagan 

(ed. Though things move at warp speed in the blogiverse, I'd been holding off on a response to Caitlin Flanagan's recent cover story in the Atlantic Monthly well, because I didn't really have much to say on the matter. But I knew someone who would, and who had a perspective that most bloggers--critical or not--did not have, because she's a working mother of two children. So without further adieu, I turn the floor to Alina Adams, most recently the author of the figure skating mystery MURDER ON ICE.)

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Before I embark on the umpteenth Caitlin Flanagan/Atlantic Monthly web-based rant, I offer full-disclosure: I am a wife. I am a mother (of two). I have a full-time day job in media. I write mystery novels on the side. I cook dinner (almost) every night. I have a nanny. (She is, however, not Black or Latina, but Eastern European--does that make me less of an exploiter, or more of one?)

And now, on to Caitlin:

The professional-class working mother is oppressed by guilt about her decision to keep working, by a society that often questions
her commitment to and even her love for her children, by the labor-intensive type of parenting currently in vogue, by children's stalwart habit of falling deeply and unwaveringly in love with the person who provides their physical care? There isn't a nanny in the world who has not received a measure of love that a child would rather have bestowed on his mother. To con oneself into thinking that the person who provides daily physical care to a child is not the one he is going to love in a singular and primal way--a way obviously designed by nature herself to cleave child to mother and vice versa--is to ignore one of the most fundamental truths of childhood.

Uhm? who is this mythical woman mentioned above and what did she do with the anti-depressants her doctor prescribed? Personally, I really have a hard time mustering up the enthusiasm necessary to care what "society" thinks. Do I feel guilty about leaving my children with a nanny? Not really. The nanny is wonderful. She takes good physical care of them, showers them with love and attention, and is even teaching them a foreign language (at my request). As for my child's "falling in love" with the nanny? I say, "Thank goodness!" In addition to my fourteen million daily tasks, I also volunteer for a charity that brings Russian orphans to America. Believe me, I have seen children who never had the chance to "fall in love" with their caretaker. It's not pretty. My sons love their nanny. They also love me, their father, their grandparents, and each other, and they know that they are loved in return. Can Ms. Flanagan explain to me how it's a bad thing for a child to have as much love as possible? When, exactly, did love become a finite thing to be hoarded and rationed?

I did not have a single dream about moving into the world of work when I was a girl... What I dreamed about was getting married and
having babies and running a household. I had expected, merely upon the simple fact of giving birth, to be magically transformed from the kind of woman who likes to spend most of the morning lying on the couch reading and drinking coffee and talking on the telephone to the kind of woman who likes to spend most of the morning tidying up and thinking about what to cook for dinner and inviting other mothers over for a nice chat. It didn't happen. Play dates--a sort of minimum-security lockdown spent in the company of other mildly depressed women and their
tiresome, demanding babies--brought on a small death of the spirit, the effects of which I feared might be cumulative. I also felt resentful and
sometimes even furious about almost any domestic task that presented itself: why was I supposed to endlessly wipe down the kitchen counters and lug bags of garbage out to the cans and set out the little plastic plates of steamed carrots and mashed bananas?

So, let's take the complaints in order, shall we? Caitlin does not want or enjoy working--ergo, her situation is in no way analogous to women who actually enjoy their jobs. (I spend my day hobnobbing with TV and sports stars. Is it fun? Hell, yeah!). And yet, alas, poor Caitlin does not enjoy taking care of her child, either. Who in the world could have guessed that a toddler is not the most scintillating of conversation partners, that they repeatedly make messes, don't listen, argue and throw tantrums? Clearly, this has never happened to any other mother on earth, so how could Caitlin have expected it to happen when she stayed home with her own child? Obviously, she was cruelly tricked and deceived into assuming her stay-at-home mother duties. Like Goldie Hawn in Private Benjamin, she signed up for that "other" stay-at-home-mom job. The one that came with immaculate, always loving, and quiet children, plus lots of downtime. As to why she is the one cleaning the counters, I am going to go out on a limb and guess that it's because SHE IS THE ONE STANDING THERE WHEN IT GETS DIRTY. Would it make sense for the dried food to remain on the counter/furniture/floor where it was initially dropped to harden and spoil, or for the person who is there when the spill happens to wipe it up?

With the arrival of a cheap, easily exploited army of poor and luckless women--fleeing famine, war, the worst kind of poverty, leaving behind their children to do it, facing the possibility of rape or death on the expensive and secret journey--one of the noblest tenets of second-wave feminism collapsed like a house of cards. Any supposed equivocations about the moral justness of white women's employing
dark-skinned women to do their shit work simply evaporated.

Of course! How could I have been so blind? Rather than paying these women money so they could save their lives by staying in America and helping them save up (or send home) money to support their children, it's a much greater kindness to send them back home or ignore their existence all together. At least there, their exploitation will be at the hands of a coup-entrenched, militia-enforced government, which will make both the woman, and me, feel oh, so much better about ourselves. After all, it was never about working mothers or the poor or even the children. It was about feeling guilty. And look how easily that last one was solved.

Next issue!

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