Have you ever read a book and as you closed it at the end thought, “If I could write, that is the book I would have written.” That’s the experience I had with To Hell with All That; Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife, which is to say I loved it.
The author, Caitlin Flanagan, a writer and book reviewer for The Atlantic and The New Yorker, is often portrayed in the press as conservative and anti-feminist. It’s an interesting take, considering she grew up in Berkley in the 60’s, the daughter of a college professor, and is a self-described liberal.
But Flanagan is a study in contrasts; a successful career woman with a nanny and cleaning help who is seen as a champion of the stay-at-home choice. She’s also a smart, educated woman who waxes nostalgic about Dr. Spock, Ship‘n Shore blouses, and The Settlement Cook Book. .
Flanagan and I grew up at approximately the same time so her references to Lost in Space are comfortable to me. And I get the sense that we dwell in the same world today. Despite the fact that she lives on the west coast, is an accomplished writer, and the mother of small twins, her book was full of references to books, television, people, and events that I, a Midwestern, stay-at-home soccer mom of older kids, related to.
But I was a kid who read Erma Bombeck and cut recipes out of Ladies’ Home Journal and Good Housekeeping in my Grandma’s basement. I still can conjure up a picture in my mind of a full-page ad in one of these magazines that featured Mrs. Robert Mitchum in a polyester pant suit. So it’s heartening when Flanagan writes that, “This is a book about the things that have always interested me the most: women and children, households and marriages.” Because despite my good grades, my business degree and the work experience on my resume, those things have always interested me too.
So here I sit with the book in front of me, thumbing through the pages and looking for some way to convey what it’s really about or what its message is. How do you do that, though, when it includes all of the following:
- A warm tribute to her stay-at-home mother.
- A chapter-long look (the longest chapter in the book) at her complex relationship with her nanny.
- A thoughtful examination of paying social security taxes for domestic help.
- Critical and often humorous looks at big weddings and marital celibacy.
- Entire chapters devoted to the current trends of scheduled children and de-cluttering your home.
- In-depth examinations of Martha Stewart, Mary Poppins, and Erma Bombeck.
This book is all that and more. And nothing fits into a neat little compartment; it’s full of contradictions. Some people hate Caitlin Flanagan and her book for that. It’s precisely the reason I loved it.