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.