Dani Shapiro
February 13, 2007

The Feminine Mistake

For the past two weeks I’ve been carrying around a galley of Leslie Bennetts’ spectacularly good book, The Feminine Mistake, which is due out in April. I’ve read it in fits and starts–while waiting in my car to pick Jacob up at school, just one mom in a long line of ex-urban mommys in their SUV’s. All of us, cocooned in the moveable environment of our cars and trucks, listening to NPR or right-wing talk shows (the bumper stickers in our school’s parking lot range from anti-Bush to pro-life) and getting ready our small plastic bags of snacks and juice boxes. (When did cars of mothers of young children also become refrigerators on wheels? A subject for another day.) As I’ve been devouring Leslie’s book I keep thinking of women I know and the choices we’ve all made — those of us, that is, in a position to make choices. The “mistake” referred to in the book has to do with economic dependency on husbands — the giving up of work. This is something I don’t relate to — I’ve never stopped working — and yet somehow I connect to this subject matter on every single page. The Feminine Mistake is emphatically not another tiresome contribution to the Mommy Wars. Yes, it comes down on the side of work, but for reasons that have to do with the long term mental, physical and emotional well-being of women and their children. It punctures (at least to this working mom’s mind) the tiresome idea that children of working women suffer. One of the book’s more trenchant observations has to do with something Bennetts calls the “fifteen year paradigm” — the idea that over the course of a woman’s life, the raising of children actually adds up to a relatively small amount of time. I’ve heard (and felt) the argument many times that they’re only young once and it all goes by so fast and you don’t want to blink and miss your kids’ childhood — truisms that no mom would disagree with — but at the same time, a woman who “opts out” during those years can’t just simply opt back in when her children are teenagers and don’t need her so much anymore.

I do feel very lucky that my job doesn’t involve a set number of hours each day or an unsympathetic boss. I make my own schedule and that allows me to be one of the SUV moms waiting in line at school pick-up — at least some of the time. It allows me to stop what I’m doing at 3 in the afternoon to go to a school play. But I’m so aware that the culture of these schools assumes that mothers can do exactly that — drop work, stop work — in order to be there at everything from bake sales to book drives. It’s endlessly confusing and honestly I think all of us feel pretty crappy about it. The stay-at-home moms, the working moms — all of us just trying to be the best parents we can while at the same time not completely losing our way in the forest.