The Mommy Economy: A Review of The Feminine Mistake

“Motherhood is a state of being, not a job description.”
– Sara NelsonWhen I announced to one of my sisters that
Jeanine and I plan to work full time after the baby is born
adopting a newborn boy
and he arrives in December!), she asked,
“What’s the point of having children if you’re both going to

The question, coming from
my competitive sister
, was hardly a surprise. After all, she
gave up her career as a CPA to stay at home with her three young
children and in her mind; this was the just the “right” thing
to do. With the youngest now in first grade, she went back to work
part time. Of course, I wanted to ask: why on earth would you have
children if you were going to work?

I didn’t because I already knew the answer: it was based on
economics. They need the money. Most families do these days. That
said, my sister seems happier (and I think is probably a better
mom) when she’s working. These are the same arguments made by
Leslie Bennetts in her book: The
Feminine Mistake: Are We Giving Up Too Much?

I met Bennetts recently at a panel discussion in Los Angeles
entitled: Baby I’m Bored: When Did Motherhood Become a Career
and is it a Professional Disaster?
The audio
broadcast is available here
. It was moderated by the brilliant
Meghan Daum:

Forty years ago, the term “stay at home mom” would
have been considered redundant. Twenty years ago, “housewife”
had become a dirty word and the ability to balance family and
career was seen as an extension of female self-respect and
empowerment. Today, some women are rejecting the 1980s-era notion
of “having it all” by dropping out of the workforce–sometimes
permanently–to raise their children. In her book The Feminine
Mistake, journalist Leslie Bennetts suggests that women have been
oversold on the idea they must choose between being good workers
and being good mothers. Using extensive data, she suggests that
women who stop working even temporarily sacrifice much more than
financial stability.

A lot of people disliked this book when it came out last year.
There were plenty of SAHM’s that thought Bennetts was the
anti-Christ. Of course, it makes perfect sense they would be
defensive about their choice to opt out of the workforce. I was
surprised though when the writer at
The New Yorker
gave it a tepid review.

Unlike those above, I loved this book for its financial stance and
have been sounding the trumpets ever since Bennetts signed my copy
and warned that many gay and lesbian parents were falling into the
same trap as their traditional counterparts. In the book, Bennetts
cautions women:

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

I meet more and more gays and lesbians who are opting out of the
workforce to stay home with their kids. They cite many of the same
reasons that straight mothers use: the high costs of childcare out
weighs the income and benefits of working, it’s better for the
kids if one of us stays home, my partner’s career is more
important (and he/she makes more money).

According to the trade group, the National Association of Child
Care Resources and Referral Agencies, the average cost of infant
care is 10.6 percent of household income. Bennetts writes:

Discouraged by such warnings, women often decide to
give up their careers, rationalizing that choice with the thought
that they would be working only to pay for child care, and that
their work would therefore be pointless. But this argument
completely fails to take into account the long-term development of
any worker’s earnings potential. Your own career is an investment
you make in yourself, one that – unless it is interrupted or
derailed – will pay dividends throughout your life.

Some benefits are financial, some are intellectual or creative, and
others involve different kinds of personal growth. If you devote
your life to supporting your husband’s career, all those
dividends belong to him – as does the career itself. Ultimately
it’s his asset, not yours. This basic fact many not become
apparent unless you lose your breadwinner, whether through divorce,
illness or death – but the harsh truth is that a dependent wife
spends her life enhancing an asset that, in the end, may not even
belong to her.

This makes about as much sense as putting millions of dollars’
worth of renovations into a house you don’t even own. Few
intelligent people would sink a lot of money into refurbishing a
rental, but stay-at-home wives think nothing of subordinating their
own financial interests to those of their husbands, blithely
assuming that those interests will never diverge.

What spoke to me about this book is how quickly we’ll give up our
financial independence in the name of motherhood. Of course, the
intent of this review and post is not to start the lesbian mommy
wars. Actually, I think the review at
says it best:

In the end, I’m not sure the book’s bravado will be
entirely convincing to all of the women she wants to persuade.
It’s deaf to the way a child and family-centered life calls out
to a lot of women, and to some men. When I’ve written on these
topics before and gotten shrill about the importance of having a
career and keeping maternal urges in check, I’ve gotten
thoughtful and sometimes persuasive letters from women and a few
men who derive more joy from family than from work, who’ve
sacrificed to make sure at least one parent is regularly home with
their kids, who take the time to make their house a home, not in a
competitive or compulsive way, but out of love and longing. I no
longer dismiss them as victims of a new feminine

Still, I’m glad to have “The Feminine Mistake”
reminding women to protect their future and that of their kids. In
the end, women have to search their hearts, and not merely books,
to find the right balance of child rearing, work and home for their
own lives.

After reviewing a book on Queercents, I typically raffle it off to
those that entertain me in the comments section below. Sorry gang,
I’m keeping this one. I want it for our library so if Jeanine
ever comes home after a hard day wanting to opt out of the
workforce, I can point to it and say, read! Or who knows, maybe it
will be me that gets the crazy idea…

I certainly understand that making money isn’t the cure all and
I’m just about to find out how hard the balancing act is. After
all, I’ll be a
paying for childcare, but still traveling internationally
for my job. I write this on the brink of packing for another 7 day
trip: London, Paris, Rome. It all sounds so glamorous as a
childless career girl. But wow, the reality of motherhood is about
to hit our household. And I’ll be turning to Leslie Bennetts’
book as a reminder that financial independence still trumps diaper
duty in my Queercents opinion.

So lesbian mommies (and gay daddies too!), what’s your take on
this topic? If you’re a stay at home parent, are there any
safeguards you can put in place to protect your finances and
ability to return to the workforce down the road?

This post is cross-posted at Queercents