Wednesday, June 16, 2004

The remake of “The Stepford Wives,” now playing at a theater near you, could have been a fascinating movie. Too bad, the new version is a dull-witted, ditzy, dated and campy version of the 1975 flick about men who set out to get total control over their mates.

The new version should have depicted career women as the authors of the robots, assigned to replace the new generation of women who are turning their backs on work beyondthe hearth. The career women have declared war on stay-at-home mommies with the vengeance that the Stepford husbands applied to stereotyping their wives a quarter of a century ago. It’s not clear whether the career women are driven by defensiveness or a fear that they’re missing one of life’s great experiences — raising their children.

A year ago, Maureen Dowd of the New York Times took a break from assaulting Rummy, Dick and W. and aimed her ink at all those retro women who are “deserting the fast track” to spend their days pushing baby strollers with frequent stops for a latte at Starbucks. Full-time motherhood, in this dowdy view, is just another lifestyle choice of a Stepford wife.

“The day your column ran,” an angry reader told her, “I was catching and mopping up my weeping daughter’s copious vomit, trying to comfort her, carting her off to the pediatrician’s office and worrying. Finally, at 5 p.m. she fell asleep and I was able to slip her into the stroller and get out of the house. Some pleasant life of leisure.”

The New York Observer, which pays attention to journalistic trends with the devotion that Vogue pays to French fashion, recently devoted a full broadsheet page to the “mommy wars.” The current target of opportunity is Caitlin Flanagan, who with wit and daring defends stay-at-home moms. She’s at work on a book called “Housewife Heaven.” The title is not meant as satire.

Ms. Flanagan enraged career women with a 12,000-word polemic in the Atlantic Monthly called “How Serfdom Saved the Women’s Movement,” accusing career women of making it on the backs of their nannies. Her critics were further enraged when they learned that she has a nanny herself, to help with twin sons. She sticks to her point nonetheless: “When a mother works, something is lost.”

She doesn’t quarrel with women who must work; her argument is with smug upper-middle class mothers who not only want a career outside the home but who assert that they’re not missing anything in their children’s lives because there’s nothing to miss. “If you want to make an upper middle-class woman squeal in indignation, tell her she can’t have something,” she says. “If she works, she can’t have as deep and connected a relationship with her child as she would if she stayed home and raised him.”

Ms. Flanagan has her own inconsistencies and contradictions, and she may be as concerned with creating controversy as she is in defending at-home mommies. Her editor at Little, Brown insists “she’s no right-wing reactionary,” though she describes herself as “anti-feminist.” The Gotham catfight was ignited when the New Yorker magazine, ever au courant, hired her to cover “family issues.”

But the New Yorker is clearly on to something. There’s definitely an identifiable trend toward full-time motherhood for women with infants and part-time at-home motherhood for women with older children. In 1994, 9.3 million children younger than 15 had stay-at-home married mothers, but by 2002 that number had risen to 11 million. In a survey of Harvard Business School graduates of 1981, 1985 and 1991, only 38 percent were found to be working full time. More than a third of women with both a college degree and an infant in 2001 were still staying home in 2002, according to the Census Bureau.

Like all else, the high cost of working mothers falls hardest on those who work out of necessity. Caitlin Flanagan concedes that she was both snotty and privileged when, from her comfortable perch at home, she judged harshly those who couldn’t afford a life like hers.

In the 1975 version of “The Stepford Wives,” none of the mothers had strong career ambitions. The character played by Katherine Ross described herself as a “would-be-semi-professional photographer.” In the new version, the same character by Nicole Kidman is the high-octane president of a television network who produces ridiculous reality shows. When she is fired from her job she quits the business and has a nervous breakdown.

One of her zany reality shows is a satirical uptake on sleazy coupling called “I Can Do Better.” This is precisely how a lot of modern mothers describe how they raise their children. The women behind the curve are not the women behind the strollers.

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