Don't say I didn't warn you. Caitlin Flanagan's long-awaited book on "modern motherhood" is finally out -- but you can put the flame-proof suit back in storage. To Hell with All That: Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife (Little, Brown, 2006) is mainly a light reworking of essays which originally appeared in the Atlantic Monthly and New Yorker, with most of the sting taken out.
Flanagan gained her reputation as a red-hot writer by eulogizing the cult of domesticity: the joys of a good life are brutally diminished, she suggests, when breadcrumbs linger indefinitely on the kitchen counter and dish towels are not folded just so. The trait that made Flanagan the darling of posh magazine editors, however, is the pleasure she takes in piercing the hearts of career-oriented women with the refrain that "something is lost" when mothers work outside the home. Readers hoping to find a version of Flanagan's famously irritating "How Serfdom Saved the Women's Movement" in this collection will be disappointed. While Flanagan recycles several passages from "Serfdom" (which she dismisses as a "convoluted and slightly insane cover story" about why employers should pay Social Security and unemployment taxes for domestic workers), To Hell with All That is a little vague about what, exactly, goes irretrievably missing when mothers divide their allegiance between work and family. Flanagan's chief preoccupation seems to be the importance of having a pleasing dinner ready at a reasonable hour (although she makes it clear that cooking -- along with routine housework, full-time child tending and doing laundry -- is really not her thing).
Other reviewers have described Flanagan's book as muddled, and it is -- in more ways than one. Right out of the starting gate, it's obvious that Flanagan's characteristically sparkling prose owes a great deal to the oversight of editors at the Atlantic and New Yorker. To Hell with All That is looser and more pedantic than Flanagan's best essays; the overall effect is less caustic, and less entertaining as well. Flanagan implies in a recent interview that To Hell with All That was not intended to be "a big book," but it's hard to tease out what kind of book it is meant to be: It's not strictly cultural critique or memoir, although it contains elements of both. The chapters are patched together in a kind of sequence, yet there's no real narrative. Flanagan aims for satire, but comes off as more of a nag. And with much of the venom sucked out of the previously published material that makes up the backbone of the book, the end result is only mildly interesting and provocative. Which leaves the possibility that To Hell with All That is best taken as a character study of its author, who seems perpetually unhinged by the responsibilities of adult life.
One could feel empathy for Flanagan, who's had her share of grief and disappointment: the loss of both parents before she turned forty, a diagnosis of breast cancer in 2003, and the unhappy discovery that even though giving birth to twins boys awakened, for the first time, a sense of real purpose in her life, she lacked the temperament for the rigors of infant care. Reading a well-rendered account of any one of these emotional challenges might evoke a twinge or two of sisterly sympathy. And yet, it doesn't. Flanagan takes too much delight in gunning down those around her, and never fashions an appealing persona for herself. While chastening "yuppie" women for their egoism and other shortcomings as wives and mothers, Flanagan presents herself as charmingly indisposed to self-reliance, "the girl who always needed to be bailed out of things… the one whose helplessness was among her most attractive qualities:"
I didn't want to run the household. I wanted to live in it the way I had once lived in my mother's house: lightly and with ease, sleeping on fresh sheets and eating good meals and not having to account for how those things came into existence.
I didn't have the mind or the patience for housekeeping. I am not an orderly or organized person.
Beyond her child-like self-absorption -- which, in fact, is rarely endearing in a middle-aged woman, or anyone over the age of six -- Flanagan is blinded by her own privilege to an unfathomable degree. As if to establish her familiarity with the concept of social justice, Flanagan extols her late mother's activism on behalf of migrant farm workers and sweat shop seamstresses. Yet she is astounded to discover (after neglecting to pay employment taxes for her Latina nanny) that "Social Security isn't a little extra check to sweeten the retirement of well-married ladies. It's the whole game plan for a lot of people: retirement, disability insurance, a plan to support the worker's children if the worker dies." Perhaps such obliviousness is not unexpected for someone whose fond memories include having intimate chats with her Honduran nanny "about my college years in the South, when bales of snowy sheets and towels were delivered to the dorms each Monday, and the dining hall chef made omelets to order, and my mother sent money for a new ball gown each spring." One can only hope Flanagan appreciates her good fortune in landing a husband who was willing to take "a big corporate job to pay for the kind of motherhood I had chosen to pursue, which included round-the-clock worry about the babies and extremely infrequent separations from them," not to mention the full-time nanny. If her luck holds out, she may never have to mingle with the common folk who occupy the real world.