Thursday, March 21, 2013

I am actually an actual feminist housewife

Jezebel sent out a tweet criticizing the recent New York magazine story about feminist housewives, which is how I found out about it. First I read Jezebel's elegantly titled "The Feminist Housewife is Such Bullshit." In peppery prose, the blogger discredited the New York writer,  deciding that the two women in the piece have no business calling themselves feminists, which kind of reminds me of back in the day when feminists--me included--collectively decreed that Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown wasn't allowed to say she was a feminist. Nowadays, I am inclined to welcome anyone who is willing to declare herself a feminist, especially when many prominent women, from Yahoo exec Marissa Mayer to any number of female musicians, won't identify as such. Then I read the New York magazine piece, which posits that there's an exploding new trend of feminist housewives. After that, I hit The Atlantic, Slate and Salon for their thoughts on the issue.  It was exhausting. And I thought, what can I possibly write about this topic that hasn't already been written? Yet here I am.

I've been ruminating about feminism and stay-at-home parenting since I read a New York Times review of Lean In, the book in which Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg advises women to persist in their career ambition. If you have gotten this far in this rambling post, you probably already know all about Lean In. Sandberg lays out what she calls women's "internal obstacles" to career success.

The mandate of Lean In makes me feel vaguely defensive and cranky. Not defensive and cranky enough to get and read the book, mind you. However, I've read most of the commentary online. There are those who feel Sandberg unfairly blames women for their own plight; others applaud her for the practical advice she offers women, such as speak up at meetings. And, don't be afraid to interrupt. Something I've noticed about people who come up with theories about the best way to raise children: these theories usually justify their own choices. I will try not to do that. And now I will explain my choices, without any theorizing.

Seven years ago, when my daughter was 3 and my son was 5, I ceased "leaning in" after a 23-year career in magazine publishing. It was not the career I set out to have, as I was hoping to become a Pulitzer-prize winning newspaper journalist, staff writer at The New Yorker, or, at the very least, reporter for Rolling Stone. Nonetheless, it was a fairly successful and fulfilling career, including 7 years writing and editing at Sassy, four at Jane, and editor-in-chief gigs at ym and ELLEgirl.

I did not exactly choose to leave my last job, editor-in-chief of ELLEgirl. The magazine folded. It was maybe the best job I ever had. I earned a nice salary, I liked the magazine and the editorial staff, and I worked well with the publisher and the business staff. The CEO was a decent boss. Because the company was French, I had the opportunity to travel to Paris twice. On most days, I left the office by 5:15, but because I commuted, I did not get home until nearly 7 pm, which meant I didn't get to spend as much time with my kids as I wanted to. It was basically dinner, baths, story, bed.

Before the kids were born, my husband and I had talked about different arrangements for child care. While I was pregnant it seemed more likely that he would become the stay-at-home parent. But, he liked his job, mine was okay, and we needed both salaries. So at first, we both continued working full-time; a nanny took care of our children. By the time I was at ELLEgirl we had an excellent nanny who is definitely better with small children than I am. Yet, I was sad to be missing so much of their childhood. The morning I had to return to work after a 3-month-maternity leave, I sobbed as I changed my daughter's diaper. My first day at ELLEgirl (I had been at home for a few months after quitting my job at ym, but that is another story) my son cried uncontrollably into the skirt of my white suit.

The pain of being separated from my children was a feeling I never expected to have. I wasn't even sure I wanted babies. Once I gave birth, of course, I wanted to be with them all the time. But I still had to work these stressful jobs in an industry that was imploding.  I was totally overwhelmed. I never felt like I was doing a good enough job at work or at home. I had no time to exercise or take care of myself. So when the magazine folded, I felt a sense of peace.

Before the company informed me that the magazine was going under, a reporter from The New York Post phoned my home to ask what I thought about ELLEgirl folding. I told him I had heard nothing of the sort. When I confirmed, the next day, that this was true, he called me on my cellphone as I rode the New Jersey Transit train home. "What are you going to do now?" he asked.

"I have no earthly idea," I said, and he published the quote. But I was lying. I knew that I wanted to be at home with my kids, I just wasn't ready to say it out loud. I wanted to pick them up after school, drop them off, take mommy and me music classes, make them food, play with them, spend summers with them. Read them stories without being distracted by pressures of newsstand sales and advertising and which starlet we could shoot for the cover. Complain that they were driving me bonkers. Your children's childhood is over so quickly, and I didn't want to miss any more of those precious years.

Also, I was burned out after five years of full-time employment, followed by commute with breast milk in tow, followed by nights comforting children who would not sleep. I couldn't think of any attainable jobs that I would want. My husband didn't understand why I hadn't left a forwarding message on my office email and voice mail. It was because I did not want any potential employers to call me. Some tracked me down. One job, executive editor at a top women's magazine, required hours at night and sometimes weekends. That was a definite no-go. When a headhunter talked me into interviewing for a job as the editor-in-chief of Organic Style, I  developed a migraine on the way there. I walked in and immediately asked the women who was interviewing me to lower the lights and give me an aspirin. Needless to say, I did not get that job. Organic Style later folded, despite the fact that I never worked there.

Soon after that, we helped our nanny find another job, and I officially became a stay-at-home mom. I did not worry that my personal decision would impact the history of feminism. My choice was not a feminist choice, nor was it an anti-feminist choice. I do not think I am a better mother than mothers who work. I just wanted to be with my kids, and YES I KNOW I AM A PRIVILEGED WHITE LADY. I don't even know for sure that it was the best choice, but it was the one that I made.

Right after Lean In was published, I was discussing the book with a writer friend at an elementary school fundraiser. A female advertising exec, when she found out my work history, asked, "Do you miss it?" I felt a lot of eyes on me. And I gave a non-specific reply. "I miss some things and not others."

That's really true. There is much that I have given up, such as status and income and keeping up with new technologies. Who knows what kind of full-time job I would be able to get now, after being out of it for so long? A few years ago, I went back to freelance writing, from which I earn a small income and a bit of intellectual stimulation. But what was once a career---writing--feels, for the moment, more like a hobby. Or a nervous tic.

But I am still a feminist. And, I guess, a housewife.



  1. What you were, are, and always will be is awesome. I loved you back in the Sassy days and I'm glad you post here sporadically, I love these little insights into your life. I love the fact that you are a mom to two kids. I remember reading in JANE magazine about your feeling conflicted about having kids- I felt the same way. I'm a feminist, too (and I overthink everything). I'm a mom, now, too. I have one kid and I work full time. Everyone makes the best choice for her/his family. Never doubt yourself. You are amazing.

    PS. One day I hope to meet you in person (although I decamped from the city to Westchester and not NJ!) I don't think this is too far flung, considering Jane Pratt invited me to have lunch with her in 2011.

  2. yep. I am a 42 yo mom of two who is about to graduate from law school. I have spent a lot of time over the past four years listening to intelligent young women struggling with a fear about how they are going to balance their desire to have a legal career with their desire to have kids and still be true to their feminist ideals. They both criticize and envy the fact that I chose to leave my first career to spend time with my kids (I was home for 6 years before going back to school). I don't know how I fit into the feminist dialogue--I know what I believe (I was even a card-carrying member of the Feminist Majority back in the day) but I don't have the time or energy to defend my personal decisions to those who don't agree with them. I recognize that I am also a privileged white women (who has a husband with both a flexible and high-paying job, which I am thankful for EVERY DAY), but I don't relate to the women in the New Yorker story either. Sigh. I think we all just do the best we can for ourselves and those we love.

  3. I don't understand why we don't think the most enlightened thing to do is let other people make their own choices - especially when it doesn't make any difference to our lives! I am so glad you have peace in your choices.

    PS: I don't call myself a feminist because no one seems to have the same definition. I always ask people to tell me what it means to them and then I decide if it fits their meaning.

  4. Great post! I am not yet through the NY Mag article (reading it in spurts on the subway over the past 2 days), but I do subscribe to the idea that feminism should embrace a women's choices to do what's best for her in the MANY roles she plays (caregiver, lover, job-owner, gardener - whatever!). And in a stinging stroke of irony, MEN who forego a career to stay home with children are celebrated as feminists in the media. So that's kind of effed up.

  5. I found this searching for Tracie Egan Morrissey's post about the NY mag article on Jezebel and read this instead. I am 33 and just gave birth to my first child 5 weeks ago. I just became a nurse after previously working as an editor at a medical journal (so not the ladymag I wanted to work for when I was younger!) but have not yet worked as a nurse and honestly, I'd like to stay home indefinitely. I've worked for years and find more fulfillment in my family. We are NOT rich, nor am I a white lady. I will likely need to work eventually but for now, I'm home. I am a feminist but don't think staying home in and of itself is feminist. But my feminism has always bristled at judging "female," "feminine," "girly" choices as inherently weak and "male" ones as the equality we're supposed to strive for. I also grew up loving Sassy and am glad to have found your writing here.

  6. I really enjoyed this post. I thought (before having children) that I would return to work after having children, continue my career and was so surprised to find that I wanted to stay with them. And I spent 6 years at home happily. I didn't feel that I was pressurised to do this more privileged I suppose. Being at home changed things for me, I took up blogging and went back to college at night. This year when my husband was made redundant I got offered a job completely out of the blue and am back in work this time I don't have a choice in whether I work or not. But I know that the kids are happy with their dad there. I guess that every mother has to go with what is right for them and their family. I don't feel that our roles have changed because I'm the "breadwinner". I think it's sad that society still comments on women's choices in life.

  7. Love this. It's honest and it just shows that staying at home doesn't need to define you. It's what you do, not who you are. I am in my 3rd year staying at home and I know every day that it's a privilege and the best thing for me and my family right now. And I'm definitely a feminist. I can't understand why there's such negativity regarding the NY Mag piece. I thought it was very similar to my situation living in Queens on one salary, and I don't think I'm atypical from my neighborhood friends with kids. Thanks for sharing your story here since I've considered you a role model for many, many years. It's nice to know you still are.

  8. Thanks so much for the comments, everyone. I appreciate the feedback and liked hearing about your experiences.

  9. Great post. I don't think whether one works or stays home with children has any relation to whether they're a feminist. I consider myself to be a feminist. If I'd been lucky enough to have children, I'm positive that I would have wanted to stay home with them. And like you, I would have still been a feminist.

  10. “Feminism is the radical notion that women are human beings.”
    ― Cheris Kramarae

  11. Ah...finally! What a breath a fresh air amongst all the shit. It's so nice to hear a smart woman talking about smart things. It's equally lovely that you didn't have to tear anyone else's decisions down or feel the need to defend yourself to someone else's detriment. Thank you, Thank you, Thank you for this! You are a bad ass.

  12. Thank you for articulating what I haven't been able to put into words for myself. I went back to work when my daughter was two months old. And it was fine. Then I found out I was unexpectedly pregnant and later that same week got laid off.

    Since I had no desire to hunt for work while pregnant, my husband and I decided I would put off the job search. I too was an editor in a male-dominated field who'd been working for a decade in both print and online, and the time away made me realize that, while I had loved it, I was also incredibly burnt out and depressed by what journalism (even light, fluffy entertainment journalism) had become.

    Now my son is a year old, and while things are really tight financially, I have zero desire to go back. Most of my friends are childless and working full-time, and sometimes I struggle with the feeling that I am "just" a mom. But I mostly I am at peace and love what I am doing. I read recently somewhere (I of course cannot remember where) that only women are ever tasked with "having it all." In the past year, my feminism has been focused on not beating myself up for doing the thing that makes me, and by extension my family, happy. And in a broader scope, not rolling my eyes at any woman's choices regarding the balancing act of professional and personal lives.

    I never thought I'd be at home full-time with my kids. I don't know how long I'll be able to pull this off. But I'm loving it while I can.

  13. Christina,

    You were such an influence in my life when I was younger. I hero worshipped the entire Sassy staff and had big plans for my career but when I had my first son (I now have four boys) all those carefully laid ideas fell to the wayside and I too became a SAHM and that has been my reality for nearly 15 years.

    Three years ago I started a small company that has done well but I am a housewife.

    Welcome rock n' roll!

    Kathryn F

  14. I would like you to start a feminist magazine for moms, please.

  15. Thanks for this article, Christina. As a stay at home dad of 8 years I LOVED reading this...I feel like more and more I get questions about what i 'used to' do and when I might 'do something' again. Sure, most of those questions come from my six-year-old but stil...
    Also, I put the fem in feminist!

  16. Just reading this now, several years late, but I loved, loved, loved Sassy and I love the choice you're articulating here too. There's much to be said for going with the flow.