EXCERPT: 'The Feminine Mistake'

Author Leslie Bennetts on Working vs. Staying Home

ByABC News

Jan. 14, 2008 — -- Is it a mistake for mothers to stay home with their children?

Leslie Bennetts, the author of the provocative best-seller "The Feminine Mistake," said on "GMA NOW" that working moms make better moms.

Below is an excerpt of her book, which hits stores in a new paperback version March 4, 2008.

My grandmother made the world's best rhubarb pies and sewed extraordinary silk garments with exquisite craftsmanship worthy of a French couturier. Raised to devote her all to marriage and family, she worshipped her talented husband, doted on her children, and baked homemade bread whose enticing aroma drew everyone to the kitchen. Although she lived for nearly eighty years, she never worked outside the home or held a paying job.

Such latter-day paragons of traditional femininity often make people nostalgic for bygone times, but even then, the truth was frequently a lot darker than the champions of conventional gender roles like to admit. Although my grandmother's life adhered faithfully to the old-fashioned stereotypes so often held up as a modern ideal, the result was a disaster, not only for her but also for her children and relatives.

In 1932, when my mother was nine years old, her father left the family for his mistress, a stylish black-haired beauty unencumbered by the mundane burdens of domesticity. For my grandmother, who came from a well-to-do family, the emotional devastation of losing her husband was exacerbated by the dizzying plunge into poverty that accompanied it. My grandfather was an architect who had done pioneering work with men like Philip Johnson and R. Buckminster Fuller, but employment was hard to come by during the worst years of the Depression, and he soon defaulted on his financial obligations to his wife and children.

Left with no means of support, my grandmother considered getting a job, but her straitlaced sisters pressured her not to do so. Firmly in thrall to the Victorian concept of "separate spheres" that divided the world according to gender, they believed that men should be the breadwinners and that women—or at least ladies—should not work outside the home. If my grandmother began supporting herself, her sisters warned, that would absolve her husband of his familial responsibilities, and then he would never return to his wife and children. Best to wait until he got tired of "that trollop," as my grandmother and her sisters referred to the Other Woman (who may have been an adulteress but was also a hardworking schoolteacher with considerably more modern ideas about women's place in the world).

The loss of her husband left my grandmother virtually paralyzed with grief; according to family lore, she simply went to bed for two years. My mother's older brother was soon out of the house, so my mother was left on her own to care for my deeply depressed grandmother. In addition to the emotional toll that entailed, the rest of my mother's childhood was blighted by one financial crisis after another as she and my grandmother were evicted from a series of increasingly shabby apartments, unable to keep up with the rent.

My grandmother's family owned a great deal of land out west, but as a woman she was deemed unable to manage her own affairs, so her only brother assumed control of her share of the family assets. Over time, he apparently "managed" my grandmother's property out of her name and into his own. As a result, she was forced to depend on the charity of her four sisters—or, to be more precise, their wealthy husbands—for support.

My grandfather's abdication of financial responsibility also torpedoed my mother's dream of attending Vassar. She was elated at being accepted, and my grandfather had promised to pay the tuition. But the day before my mother left for college, she learned that her father hadn't paid for her enrollment—and wouldn't be doing so. By then my great-uncles were all tired of being saddled with financial responsibility for their sister-in-law, so my mother went to work and supported them both while putting herself through school, eventually graduating from Barnard College.

My grandmother spent the next forty years mourning the loss of her marriage and waiting for her ex-husband to come back to her, even though he had long since wed his mistress. Until the day she died, my grandmother clung to the illusion that her husband would eventually return to her. In all those years, she never looked at another man, politely but firmly turning away all suitors. Nor did she ever question the strictly segregated gender roles that prevented her from exploring her own potential. As far as she was concerned, marriage was "for time and all eternity," just as her wedding ceremony had promised, and her role in life was as a wife, even when there was no husband around.

In the meantime, my mother had met and married my father, giving up her budding career as an actress in order to stay home and have her own family. But when she asked him to take over the financial support of my grandmother, my father declined, unwilling to shoulder that long-term responsibility.

So when I was five and my brother was four, my mother took a job at a publishing company where she worked her way up from secretary to copy editor to children's book editor. From her own earnings, she paid her mother to take care of my brother and me after school. This was fine with us; our grandma made up wonderful stories and sewed elaborate costumes for the plays we wrote and staged in our basement. My mother never had to worry about whether we were well cared for, and I don't think she ever had a guilty conscience about going to the office every day, because we adored being with our grandma.

Our mother left the house every morning with a briefcase and commuted into the city with all the men in their gray flannel suits. In an era when such choices were rare, I was the only one of my friends whose mother was a professional woman. But in other respects, she functioned like a typical 1950s housewife. Every night she came home and made an elaborate meal for our family—no TV dinners for us!—along with baking cookies for the next day's Girl Scout meeting, cleaning the house, washing and ironing our clothes for school, and helping us with our homework while my father dozed in front of the television set.

Although she undoubtedly didn't get enough sleep, my mother never complained. To the contrary; she told us all the time how lucky she felt. After the insecurity and humiliation of her childhood, she was thrilled to have a comfortable home and a stable family. She loved being a mother, but she also enjoyed her work, which she talked about with enthusiasm. As a result, it never occurred to me that a woman couldn't have both.

My mother supported my grandmother until she died, shortly before her eightieth birthday, still waiting for her husband to come back. He died soon afterward, leaving the "trollop," by then a sweet white-haired little old lady who had been his wife for more than four decades, as his widow.

Although I understood that my grandmother had spent most of her life quietly nursing a broken heart, the larger significance of this family history was lost on me until my mother heard about The Feminine Mystique and gave it to me. "Read this," she said, so I did.

That book had such a profound effect on American culture that Betty Friedan used the most frequent comment she heard from her readers as the title of a subsequent book: It Changed My Life. It certainly changed mine; I was thirteen when The Feminine Mystique was published, and it helped to guide my views and choices from then on. By the time I was a teenager, my parents had moved from Manhattan's Upper East Side to a Westchester suburb, and I was beginning to notice how much truth there was in Friedan's observations about affluent women trapped in unsatisfying domestic lives. Palpably unhappy, many of my friends' stay-at-home mothers were doubly wounded when their marriages broke up as soon as their kids left for college. My parents were among the few couples we knew who stayed together.

In retrospect, it's hard to parse the varied influences that shaped my life. How much of a role did one revolutionary book play in determining my future? How much did I learn from my own family history? Since my coming-of-age coincided with the blossoming of modern feminism, how many of my choices were simply a product of the exhilarating times I grew up in during the 1960s and '70s, when the very air seemed electric with the promise of exciting new possibilities?

Back then, even as conservatives railed against the changes being wrought by the women's movement, it was clear to me that the conventional social roles hadn't necessarily worked out very well for the women who actually lived them. When my grandmother was abandoned by her husband and swindled out of her share of the family fortune by her brother, the prescribed gender roles of her day rendered her powerless to deal effectively with either calamity. Because those roles were so confining, she never replaced her identity as a wife and mother with an independent life that might have consoled and sustained her during the decades she spent alone.

I certainly knew that my mother had been forced to go to work by my grandmother's lifelong economic dependency, which burdened so many other family members over the years. I knew that my father had refused to assume the financial support of my grandmother—but I also knew that this abdication of patriarchal responsibility had galvanized my mother into forging a career that proved to be enormously gratifying.

In the end, it became far more than that. The summer before I graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, my mother and I went to Europe for three weeks. My father had worked for the same company since he was a young man, and his life savings were invested in its stock. That company had just been taken over by a conglomerate whose stock price suddenly plummeted while my mother and I were away. By the time we got home, the stock was worth next to nothing. Our family's substantial net worth had simply vanished.

My mother couldn't believe that my father had just watched this catastrophe unfold, doing nothing to salvage our assets. How could he have been so passive when confronted by a colossal disaster that would forever alter our lives? When the stock price began its nosedive, why hadn't he sold our shares? My father, who assumed that it would eventually recover, had no answer. Nor did he have an income; nearly two decades older than my mother, he had recently retired and was no longer earning the handsome salary that had paid for my expensive riding camp and Ivy League education. But my mother was still working, so she became the breadwinner, as she had been for her own mother. Her income kept our family afloat when all else failed.

As a child, I didn't really focus on the destructive role that women's economic dependency had played in this linked chain of family dramas—but I surely got the message that you couldn't depend on men to take care of you. I also understood that when you asserted control over your own life, it made you strong and free.

As a professional woman during the 1950s and '60s, my mother was ahead of her time in many ways. But she was also a mother, and so—conforming obediently to the classic models for female behavior—she adjusted her work schedule according to what she thought was best for her husband and children at a given moment, as so many women continue to do today. The end result was that despite a long career, she suffered a significant financial penalty, having sacrificed her own economic interests to those of her family.

When I entered seventh grade at the age of ten, she left her job to become a full-time mom again, because she had heard from other mothers that junior high school was a difficult transition for many kids. Having started school early and then skipped a grade, I was at least two years younger than most of my classmates, so my mother was particularly concerned about how I would adapt to an adolescent environment.

As it turned out, I was fine, and after a year as a stay-at-home mother in an empty house, she went back to work. A decade later, when I got engaged to my first husband, she left that job as well—"to plan your wedding," she said. Six months of intensive planning ensued; the wedding was beautiful, and when it was over, my mother got another job.

Even after her children were grown, however, she continued to subordinate her career to what she perceived as her family's needs. After my father retired, my mother felt that she should be more available to spend time with her increasingly elderly husband. Although she had been a children's book editor for many years, she decided to return to the job of copy editor, which paid less but had predictable hours that enabled her to leave the office promptly at 5:00 p.m. and hurry home. She spent the final phase of her working life in the same job she had held during the 1950s.

But my mother paid a high price for these interruptions to her professional life. During a career in book publishing that spanned more than thirty-five years, she worked for three major companies, spending at least a decade at each. As a result, she received three different pensions when she retired. One is for $161.82 a month; one earns her $183.45 a month; and the third brings in $236.75 a month. The grand total of my mother's pension income is $582.02 a month. My father died in 1985, so my mother subsists on her pensions, which add up to $6,984.24 a year, plus her meager Social Security payments. Needless to say, this does not provide a lavish lifestyle.

My own professional history has been very different. Like my mother, I first went to work at the age of sixteen; I held down a full-time job during my senior year in college and began my career at the age of twenty. But I've never taken more than a weekend off between jobs since then. Because there have been no interruptions to my labor-force participation since I came of age, my work history looks much more like that of a man in terms of continuous employment, steadily increasing compensation, and the resulting investment and retirement-planning opportunities. Over the years, my career has become a significant ongoing asset, rather than a temporary source of income that I dip into and drop out of in response to personal considerations. I'm not rich, and you never know what the future might bring, but I am far better prepared to withstand its economic challenges than either my mother or my grandmother ever was.

These days, as I listen to younger women talk about their choices, the echoes of the past reverberate like a Greek chorus in the background—one that many of them seem unable to hear. Occasionally a powerful voice will break through, trying urgently to communicate the dangers that can lie ahead like jagged rocks underneath calm waters, waiting silently to sink an unwary ship.

On New Year's Day 2006, The New York Times published an essay by Terry Martin Hekker, a mother of five who had once crusaded as a self-appointed spokesperson for the joys of being a full-time homemaker. More than a quarter of a century ago, Hekker wrote a book called Ever Since Adam and Eve and made a national tour: "I spoke to rapt audiences about the importance of being there for your children as they grew up, of the satisfactions of 'making a home,' preparing family meals and supporting your hard-working husband," she recalled. "So I was predictably stunned and devastated when, on our 40th wedding anniversary, my husband presented me with a divorce."

While her husband took his girlfriend to Cancún, Hekker sold her engagement ring to pay for repairs to the roof of her house. "When I filed my first nonjoint tax return, it triggered the shocking notification that I had become eligible for food stamps," she reported.

Hekker was able to parlay her involvement with the local village board into a stint as mayor of her community—"a challenging, full-time job that paid a whopping annual salary of $8,000," she noted dryly. How many of today's affluent wives would welcome the prospect of spending their later years trying to live on eight thousand dollars a year?

Looking back on her life, Hekker—the grandmother of twelve—said she doesn't regret marrying her husband, because the result was the family she cherishes. What she regrets is having sacrificed her ability to support herself adequately.

Will younger generations learn to heed such cautionary tales? Not unless more women speak out to tell them why and show them how.

The prize, in the end, is incalculable: the chance to live the fullest possible life, to become our own most complete and authentic selves as well as to protect ourselves from the vicissitudes of fortune. In the history of the world, no females have ever enjoyed a greater range of opportunities than do American women today. Most of the barriers to realizing those possibilities are self-imposed—the products of an anachronistic myth that encourages female dependency while obscuring its price.

Fortified by a strong sense of their options and entitlements, many of today's young mothers see their decision to give up paid work and stay home with their families as a positive choice that reflects their values—one that should therefore be respected. But the real issues involved here can no longer be assessed in terms of such familiar catchwords as "choice" or "values" or "respect."

It has become inescapably clear that choosing economic dependency as a lifestyle is the classic feminine mistake. No matter what the reasons, justifications, or circumstances, it's simply too risky to count on anyone else to support you over the long haul. In an era of disappearing pensions, threats to Social Security, high divorce rates, a volatile labor market, and attenuating life spans, the social safety net continues to erode even as the needs grow—particularly for women, who are twice as likely as men to slide below the poverty line in their later years.

Choosing dependency can therefore jeopardize any woman's future—and that of her children. No matter what one's politics, this much is indisputable. But the ultimate toll of this willfully retrograde choice is even greater than the financial vulnerability it entails. Just as the Victorians sent men out into the public realm to earn a living while confining women to the private domain of the home, today's culture continues to promulgate a modern version of the female "cult of domesticity." Women are still presumed to find true fulfillment by limiting themselves to the care of their families rather than exploring their own intellectual, creative, financial, and political potential in the larger world.

But in striving to become a fully mature, fully realized human being, there is no substitute for taking complete responsibility for your own life. In making such a statement, I want also to make it clear that this book is not intended as a contribution to the Mommy Wars, an overdone subject most mothers got sick of a long time ago. I am not criticizing stay-at-home moms for placing the needs of their children ahead of other considerations; I did so myself, and I personally think every member of our society should give top priority to the care and education of our children. Nor am I disparaging the domestic arts; far be it from me to underestimate the satisfactions to be found in practicing such skills or to devalue the solace that one can provide a family with a good meal and a comfortable, well-ordered home. I have the utmost respect for the art of homemaking, in which I am an enthusiastic participant. I love to cook; I spend inordinate amounts of time arranging flowers and tending my plants; I am utterly absorbed by such tasks as the selection of sheets and towels, not to mention the ever-engrossing comparison of different paint colors and wallpaper. I would rather plan dinner than work any day.

I would also like to stress that this is not a book about the virtues or failings of feminism. It does, however, constitute a sharp rebuttal to those foes of feminism who—whether through ignorance, negligence, or deliberate, politically motivated dishonesty—encourage women to adopt a high-risk lifestyle that no longer serves their best interests, if indeed it ever did.

What I want to do is sound a warning to women who forgo income-producing work in favor of a domestic role predicated on economic dependency. My first goal is to document the long-term dangers of that choice in hopes of persuading these women to reevaluate its costs. My second goal is to reaffirm the immense value of income-producing work that gives women financial autonomy along with innumerable other rewards. In the endless acrimony of the culture wars, those key factors seem to have been largely overlooked, at least in the media and the standard public debate.

But unless they've got their eyes tightly closed so they won't have to see it, most women—certainly those past the early years of adulthood—secretly know the truth. When I finished writing this book, I gave it to a friend to read. A classic suburban soccer mom, she is struggling valiantly to support her children after downscaling her career to stay home, only to find that she couldn't get a decent job when she needed to resume full-time work after her husband ended their marriage and defaulted on his child-support payments.

Her reaction to reading the stories contained in this book was intense. "I just can't believe the way women get screwed," she said bitterly. "I finished your manuscript at the soccer field, where I was watching the game with three other women. Two of us are divorced; our husbands left us for younger women. One is widowed; her husband suddenly dropped dead last year. Only one of the four is still married. Then I went home and ran into my next-door neighbor, who told me her husband just announced that he's in love with someone else and he's moving out. She's a lawyer, but she hasn't worked in eighteen years and has no idea how to get a job. I tell you, it's carnage out here."

Still wearing the impressive diamonds her ex-husband gave her during their marriage, this particular friend always looks like the picture of affluence; but the truth is that she can barely pay her monthly bills. In coping with such an unwanted challenge, she has a dismaying amount of company. I've been a reporter for more than three decades, and I couldn't possibly count the number of women I've interviewed who thought they could depend on a husband to support them but who ultimately found themselves alone and unprepared to take care of themselves—and their children. With heartbreaking frequency, I've sat in so many lovely living rooms over the years, listening to women wearing beautiful clothes and expensive jewelry tell me they are broke and have no idea how they'll earn a living on their own, now that their breadwinner is gone.

"The feminine mistake" has cost women far too much over the last century, but we can escape it only by recognizing economic dependency for the dangerously anachronistic trap that it is. It's high time to confront reality, to protect ourselves and our children, and to embrace the happier, more secure lives we can earn by taking full responsibility for our own futures.

But in order to do so, women must reevaluate their assumptions and consider their long-term interests as well as their family's short-term needs before making major life choices. My hope is that this book will help them do that more effectively. Knowledge is power, but all too often, women make critical decisions that will circumscribe their futures without fully understanding the facts—and then get blindsided by the consequences.

Far better to arm ourselves with adequate information, prepare for reasonable risks, and march forward with strength and confidence to enjoy the intellectual, emotional, and material benefits of an independent life. That's a lot more fun than cheating ourselves out of all those rewards and resigning ourselves to living with insecurity and fear—because dependency inevitably breeds fear. Anyone who is not in control of her own circumstances must, unless she's got her head firmly buried in the sand, at times feel anxious about what could happen to her if something happened to her spouse.

What a contrast with taking control of your own destiny, which is both exhilarating and profoundly empowering. Women rarely talk about what it feels like to have power; many don't even think they have any, and those who do typically observe the social taboos that inhibit females from talking about it. In this culture, power is seen as a male attribute; the very word seems unfeminine. And yet having power over our own lives is a vital component of happiness. Enjoying a broad range of options, and knowing that we can exercise them to change whatever we don't like about our circumstances, is tremendously liberating, not to mention the best possible hedge against depression.

Although my children are growing up and I am well into my fifties, I have never felt more excited and energized about my future as an individual. My daughter is preparing to leave for college, and I will miss her tremendously, but there's so much I want to do in my own life that I feel as if my personal universe is expanding rather than contracting. When the road ahead is full of enticing opportunities and unexpected possibilities, every new day is an adventure. The only thing I regret, as a working mother who has spent the last eighteen years raising children, is all the time and energy I wasted on feeling guilty about dumb things.

And yet women continue to buy into a mythology that puts them at risk and consigns them to living what amounts to half a life, because nobody is telling them the truth about the feminine mistake. Wouldn't you rather focus on all the astonishing pleasures you can reap from making a different choice?

What I offer you in the pages that follow is the bad news and the good news. The bad news is a lot worse than you've been led to believe.

But the good news is infinitely better than you ever imagined.

Excerpted from "THE FEMININE MISTAKE" by Leslie Bennetts. Copyright 2007 Leslie Bennetts. All rights reserved. Published by Voice. Available wherever books are sold.

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