Feeling battered by the attacks on me and The Feminine Mistake
, I turned to a friend for consolation. "You knew this book would be controversial," he said calmly.
"But I thought people would be addressing the facts, not attacking me personally!" I protested.
"This book is like a Rorschach test," he replied. "We live in a very polarized culture, and you've put yourself in the middle of the shooting war."
Jeez, Louise. Maybe I should have known, but in all honesty, I wasn't prepared for the personal insults and the crackpot lies about me that are ricocheting around cyberspace. So call me naïve along with all the meaner things they're calling me.
But everywhere I go, I get other reactions as well ? ones that make me feel as if there are at least some people who are willing to hear what I'm saying. I gave a speech about my book at the University of Pennsylvania the other day. The event was held at the Penn bookstore, where curious customers also stopped to listen. When the Q&A started, the first person to raise her hand was a middle-aged woman standing at the edge of the crowd.
"I was just walking by, and I have to tell you I'm a poster child for everything you're talking about," she said. "I married a rich guy, and had kids, and thought everything was great ? until he decided he didn't want to be married to me any more. He left, cut off my credit cards, and stopped paying for us. We were in a really desperate situation. I ended up getting a scholarship and going back to school to become a teacher. I'm managing now, doing okay ? not great, but okay. But it's taken me years to get to this point. It's been really hard."
The Penn students were staring at her, wide-eyed. "You just never know what's going to happen in life," she told them, her haggard face underscoring the gravity of her words. "You have to be prepared to take care of yourself."
At a luncheon benefit for an organization of women in the legal profession, the woman sitting next to me shook her head sadly when she heard what my book was about. "I was married to an investment banker," she said. "My daughter was four years old when he died."
The first journalist to interview me for a magazine article about my book ended our conversation by confiding that her husband, who had never smoked, died of lung cancer at the age of 34, leaving her with two small children to support.
Many of the stay-at-home mothers weighing in on The Feminine Mistake have accused me of scare-mongering for reporting stories similar to these; they're convinced that nothing bad will ever happen to them. Others claim to recognize the economic risks of giving up their incomes, but they believe they'll beat the odds.
But do they know that more than twice as many older women end up in poverty as do men? Do they realize that four out of five of these women were not poor while they still had husbands? Do they have any idea that by the time they hit 60, approximately two-thirds of American women are already without partners? Given the lengthening lifespans of females in this country, many will have to survive on their existing financial resources well into their 90s. Do the husbands of these stay-at-home moms have such large life insurance policies that this will never be a problem? Mine sure doesn't, and neither do I, because we can't afford those kinds of premiums.
I often wonder what these full-time mothers would do if they had to deal with some of the unexpected crises I've faced in the last few years. After nearly a decade in one job, my husband found himself unemployed when the company was sold and the new owner brought in new management. A couple of years later, my husband was happily ensconced at a different job when that company's financial backer suddenly pulled the plug, closing the place down a few days before Christmas. My husband received two weeks' severance pay. It's not that easy for fiftyish men to find full-time employment with benefits; this time it took him six months to get a new job.
But my critics just assume that my reporting on the economic risks of dependency means I'm a selfish materialist obsessed with luxury goods and Caribbean vacations. Because they haven't read my book, they are apparently unaware that I've spent many months as my family's sole breadwinner, fighting panic and trying to keep our household afloat. What made me lie awake in the middle of the night was worrying about how to make our mortgage and health insurance payments, not planning jaunts to tropical islands or contemplating which obscenely expensive designer handbag to buy next.
Penelope Trunk, the Boston Globe columnist who wrote a blog saying that women should ignore my book because I was "incredibly fat," recommended that I ought to stop working for a year, go on a diet and "take care of" myself. It might indeed be pleasant to spend a year lavishing attention on myself while abandoning my financial responsibilities, but a year of Pilates classes and spa treatments for Mom has never been in our family budget ? and that certainly won't change as our older child goes off to college in the fall.
Many of the wives who are excoriating me actually seem to live on a different planet from the one I live on, where even the most loving and dependable husband can't necessarily provide a comfortable lifestyle for his family on one income alone. How do all these women who don't work for pay plan to cover the cost of their children's education if their husbands lose their jobs, let alone divorce them or die? All I can say is, I hope such women have substantial trust funds, or maybe parents who will foot the bill for them. But for those of us who actually have to take responsibility for our own children, more practical measures are a necessary part of the equation.
I started The Feminine Mistake by saying that it is not about feminism or the Mommy Wars. The book is a compilation of reporting and interviews, both with experts from many fields and with women of every description ? rich and poor, black and white, working and stay-at-home, married, divorced, widowed and single, ranging from the age of 17 to 80. I had hoped that people would focus on the facts and information I collected about the lives of women today, rather than using my book to defend their own personal ideology or lifestyle ? let alone to attack others.
Because this isn't about ideology. It's about survival. A parent's first responsibility is to provide her children with food and shelter.
And it doesn't matter which side of the culture wars you're on if you can't pay the grocery bill.