Maybe we’re all in trouble
Maplewood author’s novel travels past parenting road signs
Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News
So, I didn’t score an interview with the literary it-girl of the moment, Taffy Brodesser-Akner, whose first novel, “Fleishman Is in Trouble,” was published in June by Random House.
Brodesser-Akner is a New York Times writer who made a name for herself by crafting celebrity profiles in GQ that often say as much about herself as they do about her subjects. She is Jewish, lives in Maplewood, sends her two children to Golda Och Academy in West Orange, and is a member of Congregation Beth El in South Orange — where she was honored with an aliyah on the Shabbat morning after the book’s release. So, as a subject for NJJN, she’s a no-brainer. It doesn’t hurt that all the characters in “Fleishman” are Jewish, and one of them, the narrator, lives in a Jersey suburb that bears a striking resemblance to Short Hills.
References to Hebrew school, a junior year in Israel, and Friday night services set a familiar backdrop, but the book is not about being Jewish.
In interviews and columns, Brodesser-Akner has said that the novel is about divorce. But the book also raises broader issues about relationships and, pointedly, whether women can achieve success in both career and family life. It’s about which roles are acceptable for women, how society treats people who take on the “wrong” roles, and, yes, the limits of marriage.
The narrator, a writer and suburban mom, describes the ways in which women are considered “less than” men and how she navigated that reality while working at a men’s magazine. “Whatever kind of woman you are, even when you’re a lot of kinds of women, you’re still always just a woman, which is to say you’re always a little bit less than a man.” Her solution? Tell the story through a man. “Trojan horse yourself into a man, and people would give a sh*t about you.”
It’s a perspective you want to rail against, until you start to recognize it.
“Fleishman” focuses on a man, Dr. Toby Fleishman, who finds himself filling the traditionally defined role of a woman — a mother. He is the narrator’s Trojan horse of a man.
Successful as a physician, Toby is also the primary caregiver to his children, “the one who got the first call when Hannah was running a fever at school, or when Solly had a diaper rash that defied traditional recourse…. He was the book fair volunteer and the brownie-baker for the Hebrew school fundraiser.” Toby likes that role; he embraces it. But being the “mom” takes a toll on his career and, ultimately, his marriage.
His wife, Rachel, is a talent agent at a large firm. When she is denied a promotion because of a pass that she rebuffed and a pregnancy, she leaves, takes her clients with her, and starts her own agency. “The clients followed her without a question; they knew relentless when they saw it,” the narrator explains.
It’s a neat sleight of hand. We are reading about a man in a traditional woman’s role. As Toby realizes that serving as “mother” will limit his success, our omniscient narrator recalls some parental wisdom from his youth.
“There’s only room for one star in every relationship.”
In Fleishman’s world it is easier for men to break the traditional gender mold than it is for women.
As our narrator explains, something essential shifts in parenthood: Gender roles lose their fungibility. If there were any equality before children, it diminishes. “I realized my problems were now different,” says the narrator. “They could no longer be grafted onto a man because they were so unique to the problem of being a woman.”
Toby has privileges men take for granted. He is even admired for his mothering. Rachel finds her role more difficult to navigate; people’s expectations of her grow confused and threaten to unmoor her.
For anyone who has children, at least some version of this story will ring true.
From the time I was little, I noticed how women and girls were automatically devalued. Their interests and roles were always “less than.” I promised myself I would never be “a girl” and would take on any challenge any boy took on, any class, any interest. I would have a career trajectory to match any of them. And I doggedly worked toward that goal through my school years. But, as it will, reality intervened, just about the time we had children. My husband and I, who had trained equally, had planned to care for our children with equal responsibilities. But when an emergency arose on my assigned days, it was relatively painless to manage. When it happened on my husband’s, colleagues wanted to know why his wife couldn’t handle it. I had by then left the less-forgiving legal environment for writing in the Jewish world, and, amazingly, I could handle child-care issues without much pushback (within reason).
Childcare exigencies were going to derail his career where they would merely inconvenience mine. That’s when he chose to be a star.
I switched jobs to be closer to home. I passed on opportunities that required longer hours or too long a commute. I followed a trajectory that did not lead to that sparkling career I had single-mindedly pursued. Instead I managed interviews and writing by day; activities, logistics, and bedtime by night. I allowed myself to believe I was “less than.” I earned less money, and I enjoyed less prestige. I spent more time with my children. I had become a “girl.”
In a recent article in The Atlantic magazine, author Emily Oster, an economist at Brown University, urges, as the title suggests, that millennials “End the Plague of Secret Parenting.” She argues that the practice of pretending not to have children at work — calling in sick when child-care glitches occur, never giving having to attend an afternoon baseball game as a reason to leave early, never arranging the schedule to be home when small children are still awake — seems a strange way to do business.
“Openness about, say, sickness would also force employers to confront that even the best-laid child-care plans break down,” Oster writes. “Parents should have the flexibility to (occasionally) have a kid in their office or, better yet, be given access to emergency child care.” She concludes, “We can’t improve the lot of parents at work if we pretend we aren’t parents.”
Revolutionary, I thought: an idea that shows how far we have come from the time when organizing work around family would be held up as proof that women don’t belong in the workplace — or that if they do, they are fit only for the cubicle, not for the corner office.
“Fleishman” suggests that Oster’s next-level questions about family and work are aspirational at best, that traditional gender roles (and marriage norms) are still very much with us — the “one star” theory — even when we defy them.
I wanted to dislike this novel. I wanted to dislike its perspective when, as my children tell me, the world is no longer binary, let alone traditional, when it comes to gender. I also want to argue that its characters live in a homogeneous sliver of 2 percenters, and that to cast a doctor in the role of one who has sacrificed his career is a bit ridiculous.
Whoever told us — and how did millennials come to expect — that we could have it all, anyway?
Betty Friedan did. She famously said that women can have it all — just not all at the same time. In my generation, as in the generations that preceded and followed, we drank the idea like Kool-Aid.
The world Brodesser-Akner explores is one I know — not as a 2 percenter, but the rest of it, down to the physician. My closest friend happens to be a doctor who made similar choices. Her husband chose to be the star.
But she does not see herself as “less than”; she’s the rare person who sees herself as “more than.” She follows nobody’s road signs but her own. When the impetus in medical school was to choose the highest-paying specialty, or the most prestigious, she instead chose one that would enable her to control her hours, so she could also be a mom. She understood early that she couldn’t have it all.
Brodesser-Akner’s novel explores the messages society sends that leave half of us unfulfilled, that set marriages up for tensions and resentments that are tricky to navigate. It reveals that we still need to work on those structures, as the Brown professor suggests. But maybe “Fleishman Is in Trouble” is also telling us that modern life requires a lot of off-road navigation, and we need to look beyond the old binary road signs.
It’s a difficult lesson, out of reach for most of Brodesser-Akner’s characters.
But maybe it’s not out of reach for the rest of us. I embraced motherhood, something that still shocks me. And why does that have to be “less than”? I’m way off-road. I’m not the successful attorney I once envisioned, nor the kind of journalist I once might have aspired to be. The choices I’ve made have molded me into something altogether different, perhaps even more than I once imagined. It’s all in the framing, really. The novel’s narrator allows the men’s magazine to set her point of view. That’s her choice, but it’s no longer mine.
And not scoring an interview with Brodesser-Akner? It’s a bummer, but I’ll get over it. And maybe someday we’ll sit down for coffee, perhaps even at kiddush, the it-girl and me.