The Feminine Mistake: Are We Giving Up Too Much? by Leslie Bennetts
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I'm glad I read this book, but it will take more than a book review to encompass my thoughts on it (a long conversation with my mom, who was both a "stay-at-home mom" and a "working mom" at different points in our lives, some chats while walking the dog with my husband, and an ongoing series of booklikes blog entries have all helped).
In some ways, this is an updated version of The Feminine Mystique: a critique of women's continuing to make the choice to give up their own income to raise children, and an assumption that a woman cannot be totally "fulfilled" by the roles of wife and mother alone--or at least, she can't be fulfilled by them forever. Leslie Bennetts's argument is mainly an economic one, full of grim statistics about mothers/women and poverty and tragic stories about women who built their lives around their children and husbands, only to have the man lose his job, die, or leave them without a way to support themselves or their families. I think it's tempting to have a, "It won't happen to me" attitude about these topics, and indeed, I think that always "watching your back" is not conducive to an intimate marriage, and that constantly "preparing for the worst" makes for a grim life indeed. Still, I think that she makes a compelling argument, and that women exploring the paid work/parenthood question should at least listen to what she has to say. That's why I'm glad that I read this.
Leslie Bennetts's writing is smart, sharp, and accessible. It does come across as judgmental at times, although I think that's because she believes so strongly in her agenda. But where this book fell short for me was in its assumption that all women find meaning and "individualism" through their work or their careers. For many women, who they are as individuals doesn't necessarily correlate with what they do professionally, and I don't think a woman should keep a career that makes her miserable just so she has an identity outside of that of wife and mother. I would argue that any identity based on but one aspect of your life is a fragile thing, whether as wife, mother, writer, lawyer, or doctor. What makes someone rich as an individual is the intersection of many facets of their identities, and the opportunity to explore them all, even if not all at once. The other place that the book falls short is in stories about women who love being home but who don't seem to be in denial about it -- Bennetts seems to assume that women who adhere to the assertion that being home was the "right" choice, even if they came to financial ruin, are simply unable to face the truth. Having known a fair amount of joyful stay-at-home mothers, I wished that this side would have been explored at least a bit. Still, the joyful SAHMs I knew did also have other pursuits and interests, even if they didn't have full-time jobs outside the home. I've also known SAHMs like the ones described in this book, that feel adrift and depressed once their children no longer need them as much as they once did.
This is a loaded topic, and this book is meant to push some buttons. Still, for the most part I found myself open to what Bennetts had to say, and grateful that she found a way to say it.
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Further reading list from this book:
- Opting Out: Why Women Really Quit Careers and Head Home by Paula Stone (at my library)
- Money, a Memoir by Liz Perle (just got it from paperbackswap)
- Perfect Madness by Judith Warner (on its way from bookmooch)
- What Children Need by Jane Waldfogel
- The Joys of Too Much: Go for the Big Life--the Great Career, the Perfect Guy, and Everything Else You Ever Wanted (Even if You're Afraid You Don't Have What It Takes) by Bonnie Fuller (I think I'll disagree with this book but am intrigued).
- Ever Since Adam and Eve and Disregard First Book by Terry Martin Hekker
- "Twenty-Five Things People Have a Shocking Capacity to Be Surprised By Over and Over" by Nora Ephron (on my Kindle)