Monday night, Sept. 30, five women-Pam Houston, Vivian Gornick, Natalie Angier, Hope Edelman and Cathi Hanauer-sat at Buttenweiser Hall at the 92nd Street Y, waiting to talk about a new book to which they had contributed, The Bitch in the House: Women Tell the Truth About Sex, Solitude, Work, Motherhood and Marriage .
A smiling psychologist named Dr. Dale Atkins sat next to them, done up in Leslie Stahl hair and a pulled-together tweedy suit. Dr. Atkins recited each panelist’s every last award and achievement, as if the audience-almost all women-needed to be reminded.
“I was in my mid-30′s; I had everything I had always wanted-a great husband, two great kids and a great career,” Ms. Hanauer, who edited the book, said. “And I still wasn’t happy. I was angry all the time.”
Each panelist read a portion of her essay from the book, and then after a few questions, Ms. Hanauer asked to say one more thing.
Some people, Ms. Hanauer said, “have asked whether we think the book is whiny.” That perception, she said, was wrong; the goal of the book was to ask women to tell the truth. But as she spoke, Ms. Hanauer found herself looking around at her fellow panelists, who had begun wandering off the reservation, as though some string had been cut. They began addressing each other off-mike.
The word whiny had hit some kind of weird bull’s eye.
“If you consider the truth whiny …” Ms. Hanauer said, trailing off. “I guess someone who considers that whiny … “
She never finished the thought. That whiny had swallowed up the Buttenweiser Hall. The evening didn’t quite recover.
Remember Portnoy’s Complaint ? Well, there’s a secret complaint circulating among women now: They got what they asked for. And it’s hell.
Last spring, we heard a cultural chorus of anxiety, led by the baby-obsessed Sylvia Ann Hewlett, lamenting that professionally successful women who did not have children by their mid-30′s were at a dangerous risk of eternal childlessness. Now we’re in a season of loud discontent for professionally successful women who did have the baby-women who have gotten everything they thought they wanted, then found they don’t feel quite right inside. This week, The Bitch in the House is joined at the bookstores by Allison Pearson’s I Don’t Know How She Does It , a novel whose central character, Kate Reddy, is a kind of Bridget Jones’ older sister -a madcap, a-little-too-adorable, exhausted, furious working mom; a hedge-fund manager whose architect husband doesn’t do enough around the house and whose boss is a pig; who really, really loves her kids, if only she had more time to spend with them. Have you see this movie before? Ms. Pearson, a stylish, petite blonde with a fetchingly crooked smile, is a newspaper columnist in London and is married to the New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane. Vogue excerpted the book in its September issue, and Time slavered over it this week.
The whiny, upper-middle-class, super-motivated, late-birthing, nearly-middle-aged working mom had to be the Next Big Character. She’s self-critical enough to provide a running monologue on her life through the side of her mouth while she tries to pass off store-bought baked goods as homemade for her children’s class events and alternately suffers and triumphs at the office. She’s loving, tough and British, in this case; she’s Cherie Blair over there, the star of 20 new sitcoms to come over here.
The root of her problem, it seems, is the predicament of the working mom of a particular class and generation: well-educated women in their 30′s and 40′s who were raised to believe they could have the career, the husband and the kids as a matter of principle. So many varieties of grown-up power, of grown-up pleasures, were within their reach. They were destined to be the newest Type, a postmodern hybrid of June and Ward Cleaver, a hermaphroditic parental composite, the working man/woman in the Grey Flannel Suit, the 50′s mom and the 50′s dad, everybody’s beloved emotional refuge at home, a polished, well-compensated pro exuding confidence and worldly bonhomie at work-a real nurturer, without whom the mortgage would not be met.
As Ms. Hanauer tried to clear out her muddle about whining, Dr. Atkins stepped in: “This is all about the role of women, and women wanting to be themselves and to balance their own lives,” she said.
But what if they can’t?
“I flinch when I hear the word ‘balance,’” said Roberta Myers, the editor of Elle , who just had her second child. “It denotes some kind of equilibrium that we never really achieve. Everyday we’re making some kind of choice. I’m always thinking of my daughter: ‘Is she happy? Is she thriving?’ And then am I effective at work and getting my job done?”
If women are complaining more now, Ms. Myers says, it’s because “they’ve reached a certain level of comfort with what they have. No one could complain before because it was so hard-they had to fight to get where they were. They kept their mouths shut.”
But they don’t anymore. One corporate attorney in her 30′s who is about to have her first baby said, “I think it’s really taking us by surprise. I make much more money than my husband makes; he works at home, and we’re getting a nanny. I think if the genders were reversed and I was working at home, we wouldn’t be getting a nanny.”
“When I first arrived,” said one AOL executive, “there weren’t a lot of moms out of the closet. Now it’s like a baby boom. There’s an onsite child-care facility and a nursing-mothers place. But I spend most of my time to myself thinking about how I’m going to manage my time for the rest of the week.”
Alice Alston, the publisher of W magazine, has two children. “The biggest challenge is when you go home … there’s no down time, zero transition time. I haven’t had my nails done in like four weeks. My toenails haven’t been done in I don’t know how long. But I don’t like being in the line with the other superwomen, who wear it as a badge, everything they do … I would never read a book about it. It’s not a badge for me.”
We shouldn’t dismiss the working mom’s whine too quickly; it’s a more complicated sound than it may seem. “The more I talked to other women, the more I realized I wasn’t the only one who felt this way,” Ms. Hanauer said. “Other women felt angry, too. I wanted to make a beautiful thing out of this anger.” She said she wanted most of all for the book to be “literary.” And if most of the essays in The Bitch in the House fall short of that goal, if I Don’t Know How She Does It doesn’t go much farther than the 1980′s Diane Keaton maternal-empowerment movie Baby Boom , these books still represent the first rumblings of something in the culture that literary minds should run with.
The plight of the unhappy professional woman with children in her late 30′s or early 40′s has profound dimensions: Pulled between her biological and intellectual destinies, she essentially shortchanges her future if she doesn’t pursue either one. But there are only so many hours in the day, so much emotional energy to go around, and part of her knows all too well that she’s stuck in a zero-sum game. What sounds like a mere complaint about too many worldly burdens-by someone who’s ridiculously privileged, as the human lot goes-is also an expression of a kind of post-feminist social and emotional reckoning.
“We really take a lot of satisfaction in our careers,” the pregnant attorney said. “It’s like running into a brick wall: We don’t know what to do.”
There’s an image that a number of women interviewed brought up: a television perfume commercial from the 1980′s that seems to lurk, half-formed, deep in a certain collective female memory. One of the contributors to The Bitch in the House groped to recall the impression for fellow working mom Katie Couric last week, on a Today segment devoted to the book.
“There’s this television commercial,” she said. “I can’t remember-a perfume commercial: ‘Bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, and never let you forget your man.”
Katie Couric began singing the tune: “‘Because you’re a woman …. ‘” Then she said, “That’s Emeraude perfume.”
The perfume was actually called Enjoli. Here were the words to the jingle:
I can bring home the bacon
Fry it up in a pan
And never ever, ever, ever
Let you forget you’re a man.
In the commercial, a skinny, towering corporate mom in a gray miniskirted suit and killer heels fried with a pan in one hand, cradled a baby in the other. She sang to her husband-a detail that seems easy for women today to forget, the implication being that for all her power, she will never be a threat to him.
“I was a teenager in the 80′s, with women in their power suits,” said the pregnant attorney. “That commercial really shaped my consciousness about how it was to be a working woman. I really planned my whole life in anticipation of that. My plan was to really stick to a path and make partner, and then I could have a baby.”
A Web site called Yesterdayland.com, which bills itself as “the premiere destination for classic TV, toys, fashion, lunch boxes, movies, popular music and anything else related to the childhood experience of the 20th century,” has a board where readers can weigh in with their memories of the Enjoli commercial.
How did the Enjoli woman, a charged-up blend of retro and contemporary fantasy, root herself so powerfully in the minds of a generation of women? The many facets of feminine prowess that the ad’s writers were trying to convey- She works! She procreates and tends to her young! She cooks! She has sex! She pleases her man! -somehow made her come across, to impressionable minds at least, as a multi-dimensional human being. Surely someone with that much going on at once must have a rich inner life?
What comes as a surprise to these moms is that their inner lives are full of feelings that aren’t pleasurable or ego-affirming at all: guilt, pressure, a subterranean war between a longing for worldly recognition and a desire for emotional connection to your children. “It’s about time and guilt,” Ms. Hanauer said in a phone interview. “For example, my kids just walked in, and I feel like I should be down there greeting them. But I love being interviewed!” These moms know all too well their women’s history, and self-sacrifice-even the grinding daily variety all good parents must be intimate with-can feel a lot like oppression.
“As a mother, you have power without control,” Hope Edelman told the 92nd Street Y audience. Yet sharing the work at home is no help. None of these moms wants to give up her position as daily emotional center of her child’s life. Kate Reddy in I Don’t Know How She Does It churns with jealousy when she finds her nanny cuddled up on the sofa giggling with the kids; one of the contributors to The Bitch in the House describes competing with her husband to get out of bed first to tend to their daughter in the morning, unaccountably irritated by his diligent 50-50 split of the parenting.
The thing isn’t so much that women want it all-a cliché that ought to be retired very soon-but that the unfairness of giving up any of it doesn’t jive either with their bodies or their intellect. Allison Pearson stacks the deck by having Kate work in a male-centered office full of brutish misogynists, at a job that requires all-night hours and transatlantic travel on a moment’s notice. “I wanted a place where Human Resources has a policy for dealing with mothers similar to their one for dealing with cocaine users, except they believe there’s a cure for drug addicts,” Ms. Pearson told Time . When Kate abandons her job and moves to the country, we’re meant to applaud her maternal devotion. And the novel ends, needless to report, with the suggestion that Kate will start her own woman-friendly, super-maternal business by taking over a failed doll-house factory.
A doll’s house.
Yes, apparently Nora can have it all!
Back at the 92nd Street Y, things were going not too well as the Bitch in the House panel wound down. When the floor was opened to questions, one woman went into a long speech about feminism and the revolutionary power of raising children.
Dr. Atkins asked icily, “What is your question?”
The woman then addressed Vivian Gornick, who had read from her essay about being childless and husbandless, living alone at 60. “Why, then,” the woman asked Ms. Gornick, as though it was an indictment, “have you never had children?”
Ms. Gornick, her eyes flashing, let out a gruff “What?!” She refused to answer. Another questioner, an eerily well-preserved woman with flowing red hair who said she was the same generation as “Vivian,” pressed on with another increasingly incoherent maternal theme.
“I had two children and I always worked, I had nannies, people taking care of them, I couldn’t relate to feminism, my daughter lives in Brussels and she’s enjoying taking care of her kids-” Dr. Atkins roared a request for a question. “Well, girls-” the woman started.
“Girls?! Girls?!” Ms. Gornick snorted.
Pretty soon, the final audience member to speak warned straight off that she didn’t have a question.
“I just want to say that I read the book, and it’s not whining. It’s not just about the conflict of motherhood. It’s all about the role of women-women wanting to be themselves.”
Ms. Gornick, however, stormed out of the Y without staying for the book signing. “I don’t see why everyone is bitching about motherhood,” she said on her way out. These women are in their 30′s, bitching the way we were 30 years ago. But then whenever there’s a problem, there’s someone saying, ‘If you had my husband, you wouldn’t see it that way …. ‘”
As for the redhead, Ms. Gornick dismissed her. “She was a crazy; she wasn’t all there. There’s one of those at every women’s panel or discussion like this.”
Ms. Gornick’s disgusted exit from the event represented more than just a clash of generations. The author of the classic memoir Fierce Attachments had, as she had said during the evening, fought on the front lines of the 60′s feminist revolution, when the young moms on the panel were still in diapers. But no one in her audience appeared to have registered a central theme of her essay, which was that a hard-won process of self-knowledge had led her to a calm acceptance that she was no one’s mother, no one’s wife. Solitude, as working moms are always saying, has some exquisite rewards, and Ms. Gornick’s essay crackled with an intelligent honesty none of the other panelists came close to matching. Yet somehow she slid into the role of oddball, someone who didn’t fit in at a panel about the many directions women’s lives could take now. The working mom had taken over the evening. The accomplished woman who was not a mother had come to represent a baffling specter -the childless one, the one who had lost out.