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The mother lode

Caitlin Flanagan: housewife, mom, writer, happy. Critics, take aim.

April 12, 2006|Gina Piccalo | Times Staff Writer

MENTION New Yorker writer Caitlin Flanagan to a certain class of woman -- liberal, educated, media-savvy, professional -- and vitriol will almost certainly follow. She's been called "a retrograde feminist-hater," "shrill, smug and condescending," "an Old World elitist of the most lip-curling kind" even "the most repellent person in the world."

That's because in the five or so years she has written on domestic life from her Los Angeles vantage point -- on its being "laughably child centered," on the "epidemic" of sexless marriages, on her belief that "when a mother works, something is lost" -- Flanagan has aimed her intellect and razor wit directly at upper-middle-class working mothers.

These are the women who seem to be a natural audience for the 44-year old Flanagan, who lives in Hancock Park with her husband and two young sons. She socializes in liberal circles, and she writes about working mothers' struggles: to keep households humming, to cope with ego-gratifying yet demanding careers, and to live with the nagging specter of the Perfect Mother. But because Flanagan writes cloaked as a (mostly) happy housewife, she's raised the ire of her peers. In their view, the only thing more maddening than a happy housewife is a happy housewife who writes for the New Yorker.

Now she has a book, "To Hell With All That: Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife," due on shelves Monday. In her stylish and snappy, often sarcastic prose, she revels in retro notions of femininity, revisiting her most memorable essays.

Predictably, early responses to the book -- written mostly by women -- have tended toward the vicious. "Ms. Flanagan," one critic writes, " anxious that her mother's way with a lobster salad not be forgotten, that we not forget the innocent joys of stamp collecting and of kids playing T-ball. But not so anxious that she decided to toil at, say, Family Circle rather than The New Yorker."

But while some say she owes her success largely to a misogynistic media that loves a catfight, Flanagan has so masterfully created a persona that it virtually guarantees literary celebrity. On the surface she's a "follower of Martha Stewart," who serves her husband a hot dinner every night. Underneath is a more complex character whose lyrical prose only hints at a churning inner life, full of anxiety.

"It's not a dishonest performance, but it is something of a performance," said Benjamin Schwarz, Flanagan's longtime friend and the Atlantic Monthly's literary and national editor. Flanagan herself points out that hers is a rare, some say refreshing, perspective in a media "stacked in favor of working motherhood."

"Every single piece that you see that's on TV, that's in the magazines, or that's in a newspaper, was written by a working mother or produced and edited by a working mother," she said. And so, Flanagan said, she has mustered the courage to tell the truth: "You can't do it all."

Of course, this is hardly news to most working mothers. For them, Flanagan's observations feel less like the bracing gust of clarity that she intends and more like a very precise, very deep, slice across the jugular.

"She just builds her career on attacking women and making them feel bad," said Ann Crittenden, author of "The Price of Motherhood."

A profile in this month's Elle is a case in point of the impasse between Flanagan and her critics. In writer Laurie Abraham's telling of their interview, Abraham arrived at Flanagan's house flustered; back home, her daughter's pet gerbil had just died. Flanagan at first sympathized. Then after their chat turned heated over the question of what's lost when a mother works, she reminded Abraham: "The gerbil's dead and you're here."

"You could hear me gasp on the tape," Abraham said in an interview.

When reminded of the exchange, Flanagan gazed into the middle distance and mused, "Yeah, that was funny."

"She can sometimes be wounding in her humor," Schwarz said. "But she really thinks through all of the big and important decisions in her life in a way that almost no else I know does. And she's asking women to think through things as carefully as she does."

Tea and cookies

In person, Flanagan is charming, a touch self-conscious, even solicitous. She answered the door of her home looking very much the traditionalist in a lavender sweater set and black flats. It was raining and she had the kettle on for tea.

As Flanagan set out a plate with mini muffins -- straight from a gift basket -- and store-bought cookies from a tin, she was suddenly aware of herself, or more accurately, of her persona. Her breathy, girlish voice took on the comic tone of an overheated newscaster: "Breaking news! Caitlin Flanagan serves old Christmas cookies!"

She moved into her sitting room, where a coffee table was strewn with puzzle pieces, a project, she explained, of her sons, Patrick and Conor, now 8, who were at school.

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