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Published: Saturday, 10/21/2006

Collection is loving ode to disappearing domesticity

BY JENNIFER DAY
SPECIAL TO THE BLADE

Women are an ambivalent lot. To admit this is neither anti-feminist nor unflattering. It's just honest.

And frustrating.

And though we fear that stating this aloud may give comfort to chauvinist pigs everywhere, it's comforting to see the matter addressed honestly and intelligently by the likes of Caitlin Flanagan.

Flanagan delivers an insightful treatise in To Hell with All That: Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife, a collection of essays on the American woman's ongoing struggle to live up to expectations as professionals, mothers, wives, daughters and, yes, women.

In a series of thoughtful, yet breezy essays originally written for the New Yorker and the Atlantic Monthly, Flanagan reflects on what's been gained and lost since the heydays of Betty Friedan and Erma Bombeck. Domesticity, it seems, is the biggest casualty.

And in that, she finds cause to mourn.

But too, we remain obsessed. How else can one explain the success of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia? It's a multimillion-dollar conglomerate spun from the equivalent of tastefully colored cotton candy: images of perfect gardens, perfect pies, and, of course, the perfect home-made cranberry wreath. In short, a level of perfection our grandmothers would scoff at. As Flanagan rightly points out, it's perfection that has little to do with keeping a good home together.

Flanagan is at her best in her most personal essays. The opening pages of the book touchingly recount the day she and her sister packed up her mother's kitchen. A lesser writer would have relied on sentimentality; Flanagan deftly broadens the picture, directing readers to a larger point: If domesticity isn't valued, who will chronicle its passing and write its legacy?

She writes: "I opened a kitchen drawer. Its contents were as familiar to me as my children's faces. What I needed from that kitchen wasn't any practical thing, so what I took were the three least practical things I could find: a tiny gadget made for slicing green beans - one at a time - into juliennes, an old Mouli parsley grater, a Pyrex measuring cup so old that the red lines indicating measurement had worn off. I took them as souvenirs. I took them to say: someone noticed."

You feel a little choked up, and it's not just for her or because it resonates - which it does. You're choked up because you sense that maybe we're all a little cheated and maybe our kids will be, too.

"That's My Woman," Flanagan's essay about her longtime nanny, lingers long after the book is closed. Unabashedly displaying a nasty jealous streak and her own naivete, Flanagan describes the tenuous and yet passionate relationship she develops with her nanny, an illegal immigrant. She describes in concise and self-effacing prose her reaction to realizing that she, a dedicated liberal, was part of a system that exploited underprivileged immigrants. And with equal clarity, she describes her hypocrisy in feeling betrayed and refusing to pay her nanny when the nanny wants to take her advice to go on strike.

"In my vague, liberal way I had been imagining Paloma and me aligned against The Man," she writes of her nanny. "What I hadn't figured out, of course, was that I was The Man. The more I legitimized our association, the more I removed it from the sphere of paternalism and sentiment and delivered it to its rightful place in the world of employment law, the more I changed the fundamental nature of the relationship."

And that's not even getting into her vivid descriptions of the emotional turmoil that's involved in watching a woman who's better at mothering her kids than she is.

There may be times when Flanagan's strong voice wears a little thin. Perhaps she waxes a little too nostalgic, and some of her arguments are not exactly airtight. But the book is nonetheless fun and refreshing: At last, someone who admits that maybe children are scheduled into so many activities in part because a schedule makes it easier for the grown-ups.

In the end, when Flanagan's own health takes an unexpected turn, she yearns for her mother and fears for her children. And even though these discussions about what it means to be a woman are so important, somehow in the toughest moments, the ambivalence melts away.



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