Leslie Bennetts CW’70 has worked for her entire adult life. After graduation, she started as a reporter at the old Philadelphia Bulletin and went on to become the first woman to cover a presidential campaign for The New York Times. Since 1988, she has been a contributing writer at Vanity Fair, where she has written about everything from anti-terrorism policy to Hollywoodincluding, in the latter category, a 2005 cover story on Jennifer Aniston that had the highest newsstand sale in the magazine’s history.
Bennetts has also raised two children, now teenagers, which is one reason, she admits, that she is coming relatively late to the book-writing world for a journalist of her achievement. Nevertheless, her first book, The Feminine Mistake: Are We Giving Up Too Much?, is both a celebration of the joys of working motherhood and a blistering counterattack against the prevailing cultural approval bestowed upon women who choose to leave the workforce to devote themselves wholly to child-rearing.
Drawing from her own experience and a broad range of interviews and other research, Bennetts argues that this arrangement doesn’t appear to do the kids any extra good, may often be emotionally harmful to the women over the long haul, and is certainly a profound economic risk for the family. In the accompanying excerpt, Bennetts tells how sheand lots of other mothershave managed to be “good enough” at both parenting and their careers. She also took the time to answer some questions about the book via e-mail.J.P.
Why did you write The Feminine Mistake?
[It] was inspired by my exasperation about the media coverage of the back-to-the-home trend that’s been documented by recent census figures. Most of the stories about women quitting their jobs to become full-time mothers don’t mention the longterm economic implications of that choice, but they’re often catastrophic. Over time, the majority of women who choose to become financially dependent on a man are likely to end up on the wrong side of the odds. Some will get divorced; others will be widowed; and many will deal with challenges such as a husband’s illness or unemployment. To compound the problem, the media have generally covered the opt-out trend without discussing the difficulties of opting back in.
How did your own family situation play into how the book was conceived and written?
Oddly enough, I didn’t think about my own family until I was well into this project, which I initially approached simply as a reporter gathering information on an issue that needed to be covered more comprehensively. But then my husband, who is a very good editor, suggested that I include my mother and grandmother. My grandfather left my grandmother when my mom was nine years old, during the worst years of the Depression. Although my grandmother came from a well-to-do family, she did not have a profession or a job, and my grandfather’s departure left her impoverished and dependent on the charity of her wealthy relatives.
I grew up understanding that it wasn’t safe to depend on a husband to support you, but I never anticipated that I myself would become another cautionary tale for my book. When I started writing it, my husband was very happily employed as a magazine editor. But then the company’s major financial backer suddenly shut the place down, and my husband found himself out of a job for six months. If I hadn’t worked, we would have had a real crisis on our hands. As it was, our experience turned into a perfect example of the unexpected challenges that can arise in any life, and of how dangerous it is for a family to rely on a single breadwinner.
Besides incorporating your own experience, the book includes many quotes from other women. Can you talk about the process you went through?
I interviewed many different kinds of women all over the countryrich and poor, in red states and blue, women who were high school drop-outs and women who had graduate degrees from Ivy League universities, women who were single, married, divorced, and widowed, women who ranged in age from 17 to 80, women who had glamorous professional jobs and women who worked at McDonald’s and Wal-Mart. I also interviewed legal authorities, doctors, sociologists, economists, psychiatrists, and other experts in reporting on a lot of the important research that is typically omitted from the public debate, from medical information to child development studies to changes in the divorce laws. With the experts, I often ended up talking about their own personal journeys as well, since many of them had built distinguished careers while raising children.
You say you don’t like the term “Mommy Wars,” and you also dispute the notion that “opting out” of the workforce is simply another choice that women should be free to make. Can you elaborate?
The so-called Mommy Wars typically feature women sniping at each other about why their choice is better than someone else’s, but this tiresome debate leaves out the most important facts. Most women who “opt out” do so assuming that they can always rejoin the work force later on, but re-entry is far more difficult than they have been led to believe; many never get back in and most pay a high financial price for their time-out. Shouldn’t they know this before they base their most important decisions on unrealistic expectations? My goal in writing this book was to provide women with all the information they need to make responsible choices that protect both them and their children.
At the same time, you’re very eloquent on the personal value to be gained by paying work, and you don’t seem to buy stay-at-home moms’ claims that they are satisfied with their lives. Do you think they’re kidding themselves?
When their children are young, many stay-at-home mothers feel very much needed, and they often say that they’re happy to be home taking care of their families. In contrast, working mothers tend to feel a lot of stress when their kids are young. [But] as their children grew older, the stay-at-home moms began to feel frightened and directionless; many were upset by their children’s increasing independence, and had no idea what to do with themselves. By then they were learning that there are huge barriers to re-entering the work force, and they were very depressed about the ageism and sexism they encountered. The working moms got happier and happier as the years passed; the stresses at home had lessened dramatically as their children matured, the women’s incomes and success had grown, and their lives were extremely satisfying.
So it’s not that I think full-time mothers are kidding themselves; most of them haven’t really considered the long-range costs of their choice, because they haven’t been given the appropriate information to assess it accurately. They end up getting blindsided by the consequences, feeling angry and betrayed, and saying, “Why didn’t anybody ever tell me this stuff?”
What should women be thinking about as they make these decisions?
When you first have children, the whole experience feels very overwhelming, and you don’t really understand how fast kids grow up. So a lot of women end up making life choices that may suit the needs of the moment, but that leave them extremely vulnerable to financial hardship, depression, and other problems in the future. In my book, I talk about what I call “The Fifteen-Year Paradigm.” I had two children, three years apart, who are now very independent teenagers; for me, the really intensive period of hands-on mothering lasted less than 15 years.
In my professional life, I started working when I graduated from college at the age of 20, and I certainly hope that my career as a writer will extend well into old age. So the period when my life was really consumed by my children’s needs was less than 15 years out of the 50-plus I will spend at my career, which has sustained me intellectually, emotionally, and creatively as well as financially.
When you realize how finite the role of full-time mother really is, it doesn’t make much sense to sacrifice an entire lifetime of well-being and financial security to that brief period, when that sacrifice is not necessary to your children’s welfare. The social science research clearly shows that the children of working women fare just as well as the children of stay-at-home mothers over the long run.
Besides the impact on individuals, you also worry that a trend toward mothers leaving the workforce to raise children will adversely affect attitudes about hiring and promoting women. Is that a realistic fear?
I think it’s an extremely realistic fear. Many people told me they had changed their views about hiring and promoting women because they had been burned so often by younger women who weren’t committed to their careers; they had come to view these women as spoiled, materialistic dilettantes who were only working until they found a rich husband to support them. Needless to say, this does not bode well for social progress and expanding opportunities for women.
And what about men? You write about the burden a one-income family places on the man. Can you talk about the value and challenges of household division-of-labor?
When men share the domestic and child-rearing tasks, it frees their wives to manage job responsibilities with less stress, which makes it less likely that the women will give up and drop out of the work force just because they’re overwhelmed by the dreaded “second shift.” But the men benefit too; when fathers spend more time caring for their children, they develop a closer bond, and they have more balance in their own lives than men who work brutal hours because they’re the sole breadwinners supporting their families. Children who see their fathers sharing the domestic responsibilities absorb powerful lessons in cooperation and democratic family values, and they are far less likely to grow up thinking of women as unpaid servants who perform the domestic scutwork. One sociologist I interviewed had studied children who did housework with their fathers; he found that they were more likely to get along with peers and to have more friends, and were less likely than other kids to disobey teachers or make trouble at school, were less depressed and less withdrawn. Those are some pretty impressive benefits.
This issue will be coming out in May, the month of Mother’s Day. Do you celebrate the holiday, and, if so, how?
Every Mother’s Day, my children make me beautiful cards and an elaborate special breakfast, and my husband does the clean-up. By dinner time, unfortunately, I’m usually back at the stove. Sound familiar?
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©2007 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 4/28/07