Flanagan is a self-proclaimed anti-feminist who makes no bones about the fact that she believes a woman’s place to be in the home. Her articles, which focus on domestic life, the family and husband-wife relationships, have been enraging feminists and working mothers since they first started appearing in U.S. based current affairs magazine Atlantic Monthly five years ago. She is currently a staff writer for the New Yorker magazine.
“When a woman works, something is lost,” she once proclaimed in one article, and that contention is the foundation upon which she builds most of her arguments about family life.
“To Hell with All That” is a collection of essays in which Flanagan opines on subjects ranging from sexless marriages to mother-nanny relationships to the irony of traditional white weddings, which she describes as “a piece of theatre.”
Last week, Flanagan traveled to New York from the wealthy Los Angeles suburb of Hancock Park, where she lives with her husband, Rob Hudnut and their eight-year-old twins Patrick and Conor (the latter named after the famous Irish writer Conor Cruise-O’Brien, whose wife is Flanagan’s godmother).
“I’m here in New York for four days and that’s my entire book tour,” she said as she sipped a cup of tea in the plush Park Meriden Hotel, having just returned from an appearance on the “Today,” show.
Dressed in a pink cashmere cardigan buttoned over a high-necked white t-shirt and sensible grey trousers, she looked every inch the suburban American mom. A huge diamond sparkled on her slim, perfectly manicured ring finger as she lifted her cup delicately, holding the saucer in her other hand.
“This is a big book, but I’m not going to one book store,” she continued.
“My publicist’s not very happy about that but I have to be home — want to be home — with my children. Last night I called home. We have this thing at the dinner table every night called highs and lows. My son Patrick got on the phone and I said: ‘Hi Patrick, you know, high-low?’ And he said: ‘high is that I’m talking to you right now and low is that you left.’ There it is, you know?”
Flanagan had what she describes as a traditional upbringing in Berkley, California. Her father, Thomas Flanagan, was a professor of Irish literature at the University of California, who also wrote novels and contributed regular pieces to the New York Book Review. Her mother, Jean, was a trained nurse but did not work while Flanagan and her older sister were children. The family spent many summers in Dublin, where they owned a house in Rathgar.
“The person who had the skills set that I wanted was my mother,” she said.
“I really wanted to be like, a really good cook and a really good homemaker and a really good ironer and I had no ability, no inclination, no talent, everything I cook gets ruined. The last thing I wanted to be was a writer. My father was in Berkley, his study was at the top of the house and you had to be very quiet when he was writing, you could never disturb him. There was a big tree right outside his window and sometimes I’d climb up so I could wave at him and he’d kind of wave at me and I was like: ‘who in the world would want that to be their life? Cloistered away from everybody, surrounded by books and typing?’ So I guess I didn’t want his skills set. I got it. So then I put my longing for this together with my ability for that and there was my subject.”
When she was twelve years old, Flanagan’s mother decided to return to work, much to her devastation.
“To my thinking, my mother’s change of heart constituted child abandonment, plan and simple,” she went on to write in a New Yorker piece.
“I missed her presence in the home, even though I was twelve and I missed the way that our household was when she was at home full time,” Flanagan explained.
“You know, the flowerbeds were tended to and it was nice to come home from school and your mother was there. That was a big thing for me.”
Flanagan’s critics have accused her of being a hypocrite. As a successful career woman herself, why criticize other mothers for wanting to work?
“I get what my critics are saying,” she admitted. “It’s like: ‘you’ve got this big book deal, you’re a writer for the New Yorker but you’re an at home mother.’ I realize that the label is becoming increasingly preposterous, but I got this opportunity to write this column when the boys were two years, five months hold, which was right when they were starting two hours of nursery school five days a week. It basically all flowed organically from there. In the beginning it was just like, every now and then I’d write a column, news from home, you know? And then it grew and grew.”
Flanagan insists that her criticisms are focused on working mothers who can afford to stay at home, but she has no advice to offer families where both parents must work to maintain economic stability.
“I’m not saying like, I’m every woman, I don’t think I stand for anyone,” she said. “I’m just telling you the choices I have made within the context of the luxury I have that my husband supports me. I can understand why someone in the lower income bracket has to work these hours, but why would two people at the top choose that?” she said.
“Their children must not be as important to them as their work. If you spend an hour in the morning and an hour at night being a brain surgeon, what kind of brain surgeon would you be? People at the bottom who are trying to get into the middle, I think they feel very sad and are quite open about how they would love to spend more time with their children. What always amazes me is people at the top of the pay scale, two-career couples, that they are allowing themselves to be worked that hard when they don’t have to economically.”
Flanagan’s enthusiasm for the stay at home life must also be assessed in the knowledge that it does not involve cleaning, cooking or gardening, for which she hires staff.
While Flanagan may not please everyone with her subject matter, even her harshest critics have conceded that she writes with wit and intelligence. In a relatively short career span, she has earned two National Magazine award nominations.
In the final, poignant chapter of her book, Flanagan describes her battle with breast cancer. She was diagnosed in January 2003, two years to the day after her mother’s death.
“I don’t want my husband now, I want my mother, for the first time, two years after watching her die I realize — I truly understand, to the marrow of my bones — that I have lost her,” she wrote as she recalled walking out of the doctor’s office, bleeding and shaken after a biopsy.
Like adolescents who are loath to admit that their mother is right, many critics refuse to acknowledge that at least some of what Flanagan says makes sense.
“What really bothers critics about Flanagan is that, no matter how vociferously they disagree with on some things, they find themselves agreeing with much of what she writes,” wrote New York Times book critic Pamela Paul in a recent review of “To Hell With All That.”
An example is Flanagan’s reasoning as to why she thinks women make better homemakers than men.
“I just think it’s a really good idea to have one parent home full time with the kids. That parent can absolutely be the father,” she said.
“But I think what doesn’t work is that a lot of times in that arrangement, the wife can’t really let go of the domestic stuff. So she’ll come home and say: ‘Well he didn’t wash the way I would have done the washing and I’m angry about that or I thought he was going to pick up all this stuff on the floor and he hasn’t picked it up.’ Because she’s got a womanly view of what needs to be done.”
Nevertheless, many of Flanagan’s ideals seem rooted in a simple, sentimental reverence for the good old days — a phrase she uses liberally throughout the book. Does she really think that women were better off in the good old days of pre-feminist America?
“Absolutely not, and in some ways you bet,” she said. “The absolutely not is… you know… you can go through all the different laws that have been created that lifted women up, from availability of birth control from legalizing abortion from legal pay for work.
“But, you know, I think it was satisfying to have a lifestyle where our homes were really nice, they were really important, we considered them a haven and, you know… that term homemaker, someone has to make the home.”