Mother’s Hypocritical Helper

Why Caitlin Flanagan drives her readers nuts.

Blown as if on the East Wind into the pages of the Atlantic in 2001, Caitlin Flanagan quickly established herself as a Mary Poppins figure come to deliver, or at any rate divert, a nation of Mrs. and Mr. Bankses from their dithering. She bore scant resemblance to the saccharine Hollywood version of the nanny (though Flanagan, born in Berkeley in 1961, lives in Los Angeles). Behind the Flanagan persona was P.L. Travers’ vain and acerbic original, whose peculiar power Flanagan herself has summed up especially astutely, perhaps because it is one she shares. Following in Poppins’ footsteps as “the great deflater, the enemy of any attempt at whimsy or sentiment,” Flanagan stepped forth as the droll puncturer of the feminist delusion of having it all. But Poppins “is also an everyday enchantress,” given to spinning dreams herself. Flanagan, too, indulged her own fantasies, featuring 1950s-style domestic order. While her readers reeled, jolted by her imperious manner and the strangely blended medicine she doled out for domestic woes and worries, she slid gracefully up the banister in 2004, landing in a coveted contributor’s spot at The New Yorker. She has now conjured a book, To Hell With All That, out of various reworked pieces from both magazines as well as other writing.

Flanagan remarked of Travers’ Poppins that she “is by no means an untroubling figure,” and the same must be said—and has been said—of Flanagan herself. In blogs and reviews and on message boards, she provokes variations on the indignant question: Who does she think she is? (In the New Yorker letters column, the Australian biographer of Travers posed it with particular pique: She complained that Flanagan, in writing about Travers, poached on her book without giving adequate credit.) Even in an era when TV supernannies are busy setting whole families straight, Flanagan is an anomaly, a flighty (and, if you caught her recently on The Colbert Report, flirty) kind of bully—not unlike her umbrella-toting alter ego, who was impossible to pin down and highly self-absorbed. Whether Travers’ nanny, often derisive with kids and parents alike, truly cared about anything other than her fabulous hat (sporting pink roses, not “common flowers like marigolds”) and her marvelous self, “nobody ever knew … for Mary Poppins never told anybody anything.” The case of Flanagan is both more and less mysterious, writing as she does in a confessional age and specializing in the personal review/essay. As she wades into the “mommy wars,” she wryly confides quite a lot about herself but also keeps her readers guessing, striking the pose of a strident anti-feminist except when she’s in the mood to call herself a liberal. What is hardest of all to tell is whether she sees—or cares—how often she sounds like a snobbish hypocrite.

Flanagan enjoys condescending to her audience of entitled, educated mothers. She reserves special scorn for careerists who “stubbornly insist that no one question their commitment to their children,” though she also takes occasional digs at stay-at-home mothers who “demand that the world confer on them the social cachet that comes with working outside the home.” The attitude is Olympian: “What few will admit—because it is painful, because it reveals the unpleasant truth that life presents a series of choices, each of which precludes a host of other attractive possibilities—is that whichever decision a woman makes, she will lose something of incalculable value.” Unless, that is, the woman is Caitlin Flanagan, in which case she can have things every which way and pay no price (in fact, earn top rates). Thanks in part to a husband with a big paycheck, she works cozily from home, on hand for her now preteen twin boys, and in command of a panoply of household help—from a full-time nanny at one point to a “personal organizer” and a gardener now. From her perch, privileged by the standards even of her professional-class readers, she scrutinizes the selfish pretensions and self-defeating contradictions that sprout like marigolds in affluent American mothers’ hearts and hearths.

Flanagan’s assessments can be astute, though she can also be counted on to push them over the top. Her own mother, born and bred in the Depression, serves as the benchmark for a mordant view of today’s vogue of maternal masochism. Once upon a time, motherhood signaled the advent of maturity rather than the current orgy of anxiety, which Flanagan attributes in part to feminist thwarting of domestic urges; the result is a “drag queen ethos, in which femininity must be communicated by exaggeration and cartoon.” Motherhood was the time for cultivating genuine household competence, instead of indulging in manic Martha Stewart-style visions. It was also the impetus for forging a sturdy spousal alliance based on such old-fashioned notions as “the wifely duty” (which guaranteed a lot more action than yuppie “inebriates of nooky” get now that sex has become one more thing for harried couples to haggle over). Not least, maturity brought with it “a sense of having somehow been charged with the care of others.” That sense inspired an “unworried ease” about raising children, where mothers are now caught up in a guilt-driven “arms race” of overscheduled solicitude, salving their own egos and consciences in the name of their kids’ developmental needs.

But the Flanagan who dispenses the provocative diagnoses also seems, a la Poppins, to have taken a swig of rum-punch potion herself. What is fascinating—if also infuriating—to watch is Flanagan parading as almost a parody of the spoiled-child-parent she scolds her contemporaries for being and lauds her own mother for not being. The minimemoir that emerges from these essays betrays more adolescent Sturm und Drang than she seems to realize. The mother Flanagan idolizes as the acme of accomplished housewifery in fact got fed up at home and went to work, defying a husband (writer and historical novelist Thomas Flanagan) who told her to drop dead—and leaving a daughter feeling abandoned and, years later, obviously still very ambivalent about her role models. How else to explain a worshipper of domestic expertise who has never changed a sheet or sewed on a button, and who boasts about it in print? Flanagan also airily confesses to being “far too educated and uppity to have knuckled down and learned anything about stain removal or knitting or stretching recipes.” In a scene I suspect few readers will forget, the Flanagan who insists on her at-home-mother status describes summoning the nanny, Paloma, to clean up one boy’s vomit. Meanwhile Flanagan, the writer with the clout to leave the mucky work to others, stands “in the doorway, concerned, making funny faces at Patrick to cheer him up—the way my father did when I was sick and my mother was taking care of me.”

In the end, Flanagan’s own antics may well be more instructive than her analysis of the rest of us. That the self-appointed domestic arbiter is herself such a bundle of contradictions is its own lesson: What America’s affluent fussbudgets really don’t need is more sisters telling them how to make their choices and deal with their children. That is merely a recipe for encouraging more hypocrisy and hyperparenting—for fueling the “endless fretting over the best way to combine work and motherhood” that Flanagan herself professes to be tired of. It is also a recipe for making real family dilemmas seem frivolous. It’s telling that this book leaves out the one article in which Flanagan ventured to speak up in the larger liberal cause of economic justice, “How Serfdom Saved the Women’s Movement” (in the March 2004 issue of the Atlantic), an effort that she now dismisses as a “convoluted and slightly insane cover story … [that] convinced no one.”

The problem with the piece wasn’t just that she ginned up a catfight, though she did, accusing feminists of winning freedom for well-off women at the expense of low-paid domestic workers, also women, who enabled their careers; Flanagan never paused to consider that plenty of feminists have been addressing just that issue, or that men have been arguably the biggest beneficiaries of cheap household labor, since it has let them off the hook at home. The problem was also that her polemic, coming from a preening mother with flexible hours and an all but invisible husband, undercut itself. Instead of a serious call to action, it boiled down to paternalist posturing by a lady who had belatedly discovered how good it felt to be legal: Social Security for the help was her rallying cry. To which it was tempting to retort: Change your own sheets, and spare us the preaching. Mary Poppins, you may recall, came with her own “folding camp-bedstead with blankets and eiderdown complete,” tucked into the big carpetbag she carried. Snooty and bossy though that busybody could be, she also knew what a nanny figure better do if she wants the medicine to go down: make her own bed, at least, and lie in it.