Hausfrau

Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum

I will remember this book for a long time. It’s a chilling tragedy about infidelity that seemed a little like an update of Anna Karenina. This Anna’s tragic flaw is passivity. The setting is Zurich, Switzerland, where Anna, an American has never felt at home. The close third person narration switched frequently between present and past, with other short scenes that made thematic statements or puns interspersed. There was a lot of wordplay, especially with Anna’s German lessons, and her appointments with a Jungian psychoanalyst. It was absolutely heartbreaking and hard to read at times. Very intense. I needed some recovery time from this one, and not just for the ending, for almost every time I had to put it down.

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Unfinished Business

Unfinished Business: Women, Men, Work, Family by Anne-Marie Slaughter

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This book has been on my list to read ever since I heard that the author of the widely shared Atlantic article, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” got a book deal. It lived up to my anticipation, presenting an analysis of American work/family issues that goes beyond issues of gender.

Slaughter’s main thesis is that American society has a widespread bias against care work and caregivers, which has historically disadvantaged women in the workplace. She argues that gender discrimination is often discrimination against people with family responsibilities, or people who are otherwise unable to be the ideal worker/corporate drone that companies prefer to hire and advance. She wants flexible workplaces and career tracks, more pay and respect for caregiving professions, and a shift in attitudes and policies to truly value caregiving, and not just pay lip service to it.

I found myself nodding along with the book frequently, agreeing with Slaughter’s analysis almost always. She studiously avoids gender essentialism while acknowledging historical inequities between men and women’s experiences of work and home. She places the blame for our current situation primarily on institutions and cultural narratives rather than on individuals, while advising women and men on how to deal with today’s reality and work toward improving things for everybody.

My main critique is just that Slaughter is perhaps too pro-capitalist. In my opinion she’s overly enthusiastic about freelance work and companies like Uber and Thumbtack, especially in the absence of national health care, which she acknowledges we need. I think flexibility is not enough, and would prefer companies and clients simply to require less slavish dedication of workers. Slaughter buys in too wholeheartedly to the necessity of overwork, accepting too readily the idea that long hours are necessary to advance in most fields. She doesn’t even bring up ideas for slowing the pace of work for everybody, for example, by disabling after-hours email, outlawing overtime, or limiting the work day to six hours, as some European countries and companies are experimenting with now. But these critiques are perhaps a little radical.

Slaughter worked for the State department under Hillary Clinton, reporting directly to her and calling her a great, understanding boss. Had Clinton won the electoral vote, and not only the popular vote, Slaughter would almost surely have had the president’s ear and might have been able to advance these ideas toward creating concrete policies that would help families. But now, even if Democrats win the next congressional and presidential elections, it might be too late for me to enjoy more generous family policies, like paid parental leave. This is one of the many things I continually mourn  as we watch the current administration’s plans unfold.

Dept. of Speculation

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill

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This short novel reads like a prose poem, with lots of short, disconnected paragraphs. It’s the story of a marriage bending under the pressures of parenting and career. The writing is soft and understated, with wry humor. Offill captures well the claustrophobia of early motherhood and the testiness of married couples under stress. I liked the narrator’s descriptions of her ambitions to be an “art monster” and marriage counseling as “the Little Theater of Hurt Feelings.” It’s a very quick read, but rewards reading slowly.

The Mommy Wars, Part 1

Mommy wars. No matter how many times we try to settle them once and for all, someone’s always stirring them back up. I recently read two pairs of essays that seemed to encapsulate some of the conflicts that go by that name. As I began writing my responses to these debates, I found I had a lot to say and the post got way too long, so I split one post into two. Part II is tomorrow.

Children Vs. Marriage

These first two essays attempt to answer an eternal question: who should be a woman’s first priority, her children or her husband? (Not listed as options: herself, her friends, her parents, her siblings, her career, changing the world, etc.) If you want to read something manic and anxiety-ridden, check this out: “I’m 99% Mother and 1% Wife–And It Has To Be That Way” by Christina Vercelletto. Here’s a representative excerpt:

John’s a great dad, but I play a singular role in each of my kid’s lives. And as they’ve grown, the urgency to get it right screams at me, day and night.

The ship is going down, and I’ve only got three life jackets. Who am I going to give them to? John, you learned to swim a long time ago, right?

You’ve said you feel like a second-class citizen in our family, and for that, I am sorry.

I disagree with the essay’s title, it doesn’t have to be this way. Surely there are other ways to arrange one’s life so that things do not feel this urgent and dire all the time. Overwhelmed and All Joy and No Fun both point out that the current overscheduled way of parenting is not inevitable, but it’s a choice.

Secondly, I don’t understand the difference between John’s being a “great dad” and Vercelletto’s “singular role” in her family. What is it that she does that John is incapable of doing? Ever since I stopped breastfeeding, the goal in my marriage has been to split child care as equally as possible, and this seemed like only the most basic common sense. Vercelletto is pointlessly making a martyr of herself by taking on a responsibility no one ever asked her to have: #1 parent. No one who’s co-parenting can be #1 parent without someone else being #2, and that’s not really fair to the other parent. If she’s that anxious, she should get help, because there’s nothing about this situation that “has to be that way.”

This woman’s youngest kid is middle-school-aged. From where I sit as the mother of a toddler, with the first year still fresh in my memory, I have a hard time understanding how a middle school and high school aged kids could need the intense attention Vercelletto is determined to give them, even at the potential expense of her marriage. I mean, my toddler needs constant supervision so that he doesn’t hurt himself. Middle-schoolers, though, can be trusted around sharp objects and should be able to entertain themselves. And high-schoolers are unlikely to even want parents to be around that much. It’s admirable that Vercelletto wants to save her children from having student loans, but I think the fact that she sees this as within the realm of possibility kind of shows her privilege. She must be 10-20 years my senior, meaning that she went to college when graduating without loans was actually possible. Almost everyone I know my own age and class had some student loans; the idea of saving my child from them seems as unreachable as winning the lottery.

Vercelletto says twice that if she had to choose between her husband and her kids, she’d pick her kids, and to be fair, under duress I might say the same thing. Like if I were Sophie, and Nazis made me pick whether to send my husband or son to the gas chambers, I guess I’d let them take my husband. (Or I don’t know, maybe I’d figure a toddler wouldn’t survive the concentration camp anyway but my big strong husband had a shot. Or maybe I’d send off my husband knowing he’d prefer to die in place of our boy. Wow, isn’t it a great thing these choices never actually happen because there are no more Nazis?)  But I think the real issue is that if it feels like you’re literally choosing between members of your family on a daily basis, something is dreadfully out of balance. Vercelletto’s husband has told her he feels like a second-class citizen in their family. If she doesn’t see that as a wake-up call, I don’t know what she would. I think when you find yourself making extreme statements like these, when you feel that painfully conflicted between competing demands, you have to take a close look at your life and at least consider making some big changes. The very last thing to do at that moment is to dig your heels in and write a diatribe about how you’re a martyr sacrificing your marriage on the altar of motherhood.

I feel great pity for Vercelletto, and hope she gets help. Obviously, she’s overwhelmed, and probably struggling with perfectionism and time management. I feel kind of bad putting any extra focus on this embarrassing essay because she’s clearly trying her best, and while I hope my words might change her perspective, I’ve had enough experience with these debates to doubt they can. The reason I’m writing about her and linking to her is that when she said that her problem is an eternal truth of motherhood, she made the issue bigger than her own imbalanced family life. The statement that “it has to be that way” needed to be rebutted publicly, because it’s false. Allowing the damaging idea that devoted motherhood necessitates the sacrifice of a healthy marriage to spread without trying to quash it would be wrong of me.

Now, as a counterpoint, enjoy “Why My Husband Will Always Come Before My Kids” by Amber Doty. Ask yourself which of these two essays sounds more sane and balanced. Which family would you like to live in? Which mother sounds more content? Which of these women would you prefer to be married to? I’d pick this one every time.

Not only is the emotional tone of this essay more calm and rational, its conclusion is more farsighted and wise. Doty’s intuitions about the desires of children seem spot on to me. I honestly think that kids don’t really WANT their parents to prioritize them ahead of each other. Kids know deep down that it’s in their best interests for their parents to stay married and get along. If a parent channels the energy that belongs in a romantic relationship toward her children, she’s likely to overwhelm them with an excess of unwanted attention and focus. The child will feel burdened by the responsibility to make her parent happy, when the parent should be taking responsibility for her own happiness. It’s generally unhealthy for anyone to make their happiness too dependent on any one other person, and this principle is violated when parents’ excessive focus on their children damages their relationship with each other.

However, many will disagree with me and call Doty selfish and a horrible mother for saying that her husband takes priority over her children. This essay is remarkably similar to one by Ayelet Waldman that earned her tons of online vitriol. People hate it when a woman admits in public that anything is more important to her than her children, even if it’s her husband.

It’s telling that there’s one question that neither of these essays asks: Who should be a man’s first priority, his children or his wife? The question sounds odd, because I think most people assume a man’s first priority is his career, his personal growth, his ambitions. No one expects a man to immerse himself in the joyful drudge of child care; it is assumed that their natural habitat is the adult world of work and marriage. Things are shifting, though, so that men are becoming increasingly likely to say their family is their first priority. Men are allowed to put it this way, to lump their family together as a unit. No one expects men to make Sophie’s choice between spouse and children. Maybe that’s because their identities are assumed to be more multifaceted than a single relationship. They are assumed to have the capacity to care for and provide for more than one other person, while women are told that their focus on a loved one should be so intense and all-consuming that one relationship is all they can sustain. Waldman points out that her husband feels zero guilt for prioritizing his marriage over his children. To him such an arrangement is a matter of course, and he didn’t get hate mail over it.

Maybe that’s why there are no ‘daddy wars:’ because men aren’t expected to define themselves by their family relationships and the way they parent. The emotional and cultural baggage attached to fatherhood is minimal. I think everyone should get to parent that way, with their children as only one aspect of a full life. It seems so much more healthy and sustainable. That’s what I mean when I say that I want to be a parent the way a man gets to be a parent.

Tomorrow I’ll be discussing another pair of essays, a battle between a working mother and a stay-at-home mother. While today’s essays were a voice of reason and a self-destructing ball of stress, tomorrow’s includes a sanctimonious personal attack. So prepare yourself for drama..

Mating in Captivity

Mating in Captivity: Reconciling the Erotic and the Domestic by Esther Perel

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Perel is a sex therapist who discusses many of the problems she sees in committed couples who aren’t satisfied with their sex lives. She discusses the erotic in an abstract way as a kind of playful energy, which was a new idea for me. Sex is rife with tensions and contradictions: it’s about power and control and also about letting go; it’s something you can ‘work on’ and schedule, but a meditative, non-striving state of mind is best; our culture is both Puritan and libertine, shaming us both for having sex and not having enough sex. I’m used to thinking of sexual entitlement as a bad thing–it’s what gives men internal permission to rape–but Perel talks about how, in the context of a committed relationship, both partners need to feel somewhat entitled to their pleasure, or they won’t ever ask for what they need, and the experience is diminished for both. Perel is as inclusive as possible, discussing couples of all ages, gay couples, and nonmonogamous couples, and tries her best to avoid gender stereotypes.

Personally, I didn’t relate much to the problem that Perel kept saying was so universal. Most of her couples experienced a decline in attraction and desire as they got to know their partners better or when they committed to them. Most of their issues seemed to boil down to the idea that “familiarity breeds contempt” and the inverse of  “you always want what you can’t have.” Part of it also seemed to be kind of a virgin/whore complex, or an idea that sex is dirty: several of the men interviewed said something like “I can’t treat my wife that way” meaning ‘the way that turns me on.’ Maybe I’m exceptionally well-adjusted, but these conflicts aren’t ones I’ve experienced personally. If anything, familiarity and commitment have enhanced my desire because they are what freed me from my inhibitions and made it feel safe for me to be sexual in the first place. Sure, it’s a turn-off to see my husband sitting on the toilet, but it’s not that hard to put that image out of my mind when I’m in the mood to. I’ve been with my husband for almost 11 years now, married for 4, parents for almost 2, so I don’t think ‘newlywed glow’ is a good explanation for why I don’t feel the same way as Perel’s couples. We’ve had our share of problems in the bedroom, but our issues have been so idiosyncratic (or so banal) that a book like this was not likely to address them. So I found it hard to relate to a good chunk of the book, but I’m not sure that’s a bad thing for me.

The book was published in 2006, and I feel like since then a lot of its insights have become kind of common knowledge, thanks in part to Dan Savage’s podcast, which began the same year. For example, I feel like most people know that fantasies aren’t necessarily things that people want to actually experience, and that excessively goal-directed sex is no fun. For that reason I don’t feel like I learned much from it. Its most useful concepts for me were the good side of entitlement, and eroticism as an abstract idea that encompasses play. Seeing the way she approached problems in a sideways direction was also kind of instructive. The book might be best for committed couples with very little experience, like those who waited until marriage for sex, or for people who have never read or thought much about sex.

Landline by Rainbow Rowell

Landline by Rainbow Rowell

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In this novel, a TV comedy writer is separated from her husband and two young girls at Christmastime so that she can work on writing a new show on a tight deadline. Georgie’s not on great terms with her husband Neil when he leaves, and she listlessly calls him from a landline phone at her mother’s house. This magic phone calls the past, and she ends up talking to her husband from 15 years earlier, before they were married. At that moment in time, Georgie and Neil had just had a serious fight that ended in a proposal. Georgie’s moral dilemma is whether she needs to make sure this proposal happens through wooing the younger version of her husband, or tell him to get out now for his own sake, to prevent his future/present unhappiness.

I enjoyed this book immensely. Some of my enjoyment came from nostalgia, from imagining myself and my husband in the place of the protagonists, juxtaposing our dating days with our current lives. It hit every nostalgia button I have through its juxtaposition of sweet, thrilling college courtship with the tired, disconnected, romance-less lives of parents. Like Georgie, I had lots of delicious long-distance phone conversations with my college sweetheart before we got married. I remember the anguish of fighting with a boyfriend over the phone, calling and going to voice mail, tense apologies and dramatic promises. Neil and Georgie are only 7 or 8 years older than me, so I was able to get most of the references. I’m old enough to remember what talking on a landline phone was like, at least.

Much of the pleasure of this book comes from anticipating a much-needed reunion. The obstacles Rowell throws up to delay this reconciliation are sometimes ridiculous, but almost always entertaining. I was surprised at the amount of tension she was able to create, given a time travel plot that seems to predetermine the ending. I raced through the last part of the book, longing for resolution almost as much as Georgie.

In some ways, I found the ending too easy. Too many questions were left unanswered. Georgie paid zero attention to the writing work she was supposed to be doing for the entire second half of the book; will she pay for saving her marriage with a lost opportunity in her career? Georgie makes a resolution to ‘do better’ with Neil, but Rowell doesn’t show us the hard choices that ‘doing better’ requires. I would have liked a ‘one year later’ epilogue or something to show what happened with some of the untied narrative strings. Was Georgie able to follow through on her resolution? How did Georgie’s reprioritizing her marriage and family affect her professional life? Was she able to have it all, or did something have to give? Did Georgie’s trying harder mean that things were better for Neil? Did he make changes in his own life once Georgie gave him the time and space to? An open ending is nice for allowing readers to answer these questions for themselves, and thus avoiding offense, but I’m really interested in what Rainbow Rowell would consider to be a happy ending with regard to all these issues.

Gone Girl

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

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I will have to say one thing for sure–this book is hard to put down. It kept me interested, to say the least. It was so sick and twisted–I was like a rubbernecker, I couldn’t look away. There are several big surprises, and I’m finding it impossible to write about the book at all without including spoilers. So you’ve been warned.

It was absolutely chilling to watch a marriage go from perfect to adulterous to mutually murderous to coerced. I found myself agreeing with some of Amy’s diatribes, especially her rant about the ‘cool girl.’ And that taught me something kind of scary about myself. Because as horrifying a monster as she undoubtedly is, there is a sense that Amy is a product of her family and her society. The kernel of truth in her nastiest, most cynical pronouncements about men and relationships comes from real inequality that I’ve experienced just as much as Amy has, and so I could have the same horrible, self-righteous urges she has.

Amy’s capacity to scheme and plot and cold-bloodedly execute her plan makes her the smartest villain I’ve read about in a while. She’s right that this is why she succeeds where others fail. A good plot like the one she concocts does need months and months of preparation and groundwork, and very few people would have the chilly resolve necessary. Her plan was truly masterful, and even after a few last-minute changes. My favorite touch was the clues that could be read in two ways by two audiences, Nick and the cops. She wins in the end, but Nick is able to redeem himself through regaining a sense of his own goodness. And Amy’s victory is hollow, of course. It seems like Nick might even be able to love her again someday, but she will always know that she forced that love out of him. Though it seems like sincere affection matters less to her than her definition of ‘winning.’ I liked the complexity of this ending.

Though by the end he’s clearly the ‘good guy,’ Nick is a jerk, to be as nice about it as possible. Once he revealed his affair, I had a hard time sympathizing with him. From beginning to end, I never felt like I saw quite enough sincere contrition from him, but only attempts to save his own hide through faking remorse. He was honest about how sleazy his affair was, and how cowardly it was as a marriage exit plan, but he still acted entitled to it. When I heard Ben Affleck was playing him in the movie, I thought that was inspired casting, entirely appropriate based on the description–a guy so good-looking you just know he’s a smug asshole.

I would have appreciated it if one character had spoken up and said how horrible it is for a woman to fake being raped, how disrespectful it is toward real rape victims who have to deal with people doubting their charges for this very reason. Or if Amy had noted that she had to make a point of fabricating incontrovertible physical evidence because she knows how much scrutiny rape victims face. Something to put her actual faked rape in the context of real rape victims constantly being accused of making up their trauma.