Desperately Seeking Sanity
It isn't the 1950s, but you wouldn't know it from the baby gold rush in Manhattan these days. Everyone I know is either pregnant or has just given birth, is fighting for a place in preschool, or cashing in their IRAs for multiple rounds of IVF. Oh, and adopting.
When I walk the streets of the East Village, my old haunts before I reproduced myself out of the city, I see young men hunched over tables in the café windows and for a moment, I think I know them. Then I remember, the guys they look like are all daddies now. They have jobs, and no longer linger over espresso, looking like they're reading Dostoevsky or dreaming of the day when their screenplays might sell.
Their girlfriends, those lissome working babes who thought nothing in the 1980s of having abortions and smoking cigarettes, consider themselves lucky jackpot winners because their ovaries functioned. Some of these gals still have jobs, and even care deeply about their jobs. Others are drifting, drifting away from the office, ceding that realm to men, while they learn the best way to remove stains from Onesies and transition from bottle to sippy cup.
We don't live here anymore.
We have all been vaporized from the vibrant streets of Manhattan, teleported into the domestic realm, for better or worse, and with varying degrees of shock, joy, misery.
That's why I like the new ABC hit "Desperate Housewives." As a mother of two dabbling in stay-at-home housewifery only at peril of my mental health, I couldn't agree more with the premise that women who stay home all day go utterly mad.
I'm a working mother who would rather fight than quit my job, and I'm sick of hearing about the "complexities" of modern women's lives. I'm tired of the very sound of the words, the earnest lexicon, the endless lather over how we can "manage" to "juggle" our "choices."
As Mary Cheney would probably say, in another context, it's not a choice.
"I admire the way you're keeping so many balls in the air," some well-meaning person (female) said recently. Fuck you, I thought, smiling. I wouldn't have it any other way.
I have heard women say they actually prefer to stay home with their children. I don't personally know anyone who can say that believably. In fact, I've always detected a whiff of scary depression inside the minivans and cozy homes of stay-at-home mommies, starting with my own mother's house in the 1960s. I think I suffer from vicarious post-traumatic stress disorder – the lasting psychological consequence of watching my mother trapped alone in the 1960s with three children, including me.
So "Desperate Housewives" rings true on a fundamental level, even if it's a little fake. Wisteria Lane is a mythic place, where the wives are admirably taut, and don't have to work. Financially set, thin mothers (most of them), they are living out the final stage of the fantasy that hip baby-dreamers in Manhattan are chasing. They have found the golden key, turned it in the lock and entered:
"Desperate Housewives" puts the lie to all the post-mod happy homemaker myths, rehabilitated and updated for this decade's baby boom. The collective memory has erased Betty Friedan, and we're all back to believing that real fulfillment starts at the business end of a baby.
I suspect that even the healthy, seemingly happy women who stay home with their children all day for years at a time are secretly on Prozac. The only women I know who could do it had to be medicated. It's a simple fact that the adult attention span is longer than the infant and toddler attention span. The worst thing about spending vast amounts of time with baby is losing access to that part of yourself that can focus. Some women seem to give it up with ease, others need to be medicated to turn it off.
A part of me relates to all of the characters. One critic's cliché is another's archetype.
My favorite character, Bree, is Martha Stewart on crystal meth. I too get that mad urge to put things right in the midst of family chaos at least five times a day. I recognize exactly how insane it is when I'm reaching down to wipe up a smear of spilled dinner on the floor, while at table level baby is reaching for a knife and five-year-old is knocking over his milk. But I still can't stop myself.
I've screamed for order at dinnertime, if only in my head. I know the sound of the other screams too. I've not tried it yet myself, but I recognize the motivations of the sexy woman who seduces the high school kid to get revenge on her self-absorbed husband, and of the divorcee who can only get over her husband's infidelity by catching the eye of the plumber. Last but not least, I know well the career woman pretending to like staying home with four brats, haunted by the ghost of her former life.
There are bits of each of the Housewives in me, whenever I'm pottering around the house on a weekday, picking up toys, dressing for nobody.
I've actually experienced a version of the scene with Lynette being pulled over by a cop because her unbuckled, rowdy brats in the back seat attracted his attention. The cop backed down, but my son has never forgotten that mommy can be sent to jail for a long time – maybe forever – if he unbuckles again.
Like Lynette, I also know that hell is other parents (the fat woman ready to call a social worker after she left her kids on the side of the road as a buckle-up lesson). I could even donate a colorful scene from my real life to the writers: being screamed at by a pack of toothless female rednecks in a diner and having the short order cook emerge from the back and threaten to call the state police on me for leaving my sleeping infant in the car seat outside while I ordered something to go for my five-year-old, who then disappeared off into the video rental section of the fine establishment.
The show was created by a man and six of the ten writers are men, but the sex – so far anyway – isn't the gay male fantasy Sex and the City variety, where poor Sarah Jessica Parker and three other perfectly fine actresses spent years channeling the queen-y, voracious desires of Michael Patrick King. The Housewives treat sex the way real married women do – as another necessary bodily function, if not a household chore.
ABC, the critics and its advertisers, are surprised at the show's popularity. It attracted 20 million viewers an episode, the majority, 63%, of them adult and female, in the first two weeks. Not surprisingly, the critics rate it below the high-end cable shows like The Sopranos and Six Feet Under, to which, in tone at least, it owes some debt. This is the female version of those satires, and the fact that it showed up on network television in the age of reality-based swill is a welcome sign.
One female critic complained that "Desperate Housewives" is just another show about women written by a man. It is that, but I don't agree it's a problem.
Men know what housewifery does to women. That's why they're still avoiding it.