'Feminine Mistake' Has Good Points, But Lacks Balance

Posted: Apr 26, 2007 2:17 PM

"Methinks the lady doth protest too much" is one reaction I had to Leslie Bennetts' whiny new book, "The Feminine Mistake: Are We Giving Up Too Much?" (Voice/Hyperion press).

Bennetts essentially argues that any woman who "opts out" of a full-time career for any length of time to take care of children and home is, well, an idiot _ which makes me wonder if a part of her is secretly a bit envious of them.

Anyway, her focus is on economics. She wonders: If life throws these women a curveball, in the form of a husband who leaves or gets disabled or loses a job, what are they going to do? Do we really want to leave our daughters in that position?

I had many reactions to this book. One is that, well, even whiners can make some good points.

Yes, I'm one of those women who never dreamed my husband would choose to end our marriage. (Isn't that exactly how married people should think?) But Bennetts' weakest argument is that only working full time without interruption can protect women from the fallout of such human tragedies.

Not true. For one thing, women who work full time are far more likely to divorce than their stay-at-home counterparts. Women file for most divorces. Sure, some have to leave _ their spouse's ongoing adultery or abuse forcing their hands, for instance _ and it's a good thing to have the financial resources to protect oneself in those instances. But for every stay-at-home mom who gets left behind, it appears that there's a husband whose professional wife simply felt like leaving and looking for greener pastures _ and she could afford to try. That's an injustice that Bennetts doesn't dwell on.

A fault-based divorce system could provide more economic protection for an innocent spouse as well as an incentive against casual divorce. But, ironically, Bennetts and her feminist sisters are the very ones who fought to give us disastrous "no fault" divorce laws to begin with.

The good news is, we live in an amazingly dynamic economy. The ability to work effectively from home for a time, or to work part time, is very realistic. Look, most women simply want to be home with their young children, and to be available to them during their school years. And that's what the kids want, too. Bennetts is fighting an uphill battle if she thinks she can change that dynamic.

But it doesn't have to be all or nothing. Bennetts is most effective when she stresses the intrinsic value of work. I've long argued that the myth of the stay-at-home mom is just that. A myth. Moms have not been spending three hours of floor time a day with Junior since the beginning of time. They were in their homes _ working. Junior was there, but more likely to be padding after Mom as she managed her household than playing board games or doing educational flash cards with her.

I happen to think there are too many stay-at-home moms today who see work as a necessary evil they are glad isn't necessary for them. Then with the average mom having just a few kids, and the work of the household so much less than what it used to be, their energy may get poured into little Junior in a way that's not wholesome for anyone. Enter the hovering "helicopter parent," who can be just as unhealthy for a child as the one who spoils her kids because she feels so guilty about being out there 60 hours a week pursuing the golden ring.

The point is that work is a good thing. It existed in the Garden of Eden before the fall. I'm grateful my children see me doing work I love, and I think it's a good thing for almost any mom to find something, even for just a few hours a week in the home, which helps bring balance to her home and gives her a chance to say to a child, "Honey, I'm working right now. And that's important to me, too."

Unfortunately, balance is what's missing in Bennetts' book. I'm not saying I've found that balance in my own life. But I do know it's impossible to achieve when you have a big chip on your shoulder.