| [Photo: Kevin Van Paassen,
"Ten years ago if you went to the park, it was filled with nannies. Now, it's filled with sleek-looking mothers in their capris and sunglasses," says Danielle Crittenden, whose first novel, amanda bright@home, is about a woman who abandons her job to raise her children.
I'm looking forward to meeting Danielle Crittenden, in town to promote her first novel, amanda bright@home, which started as a serialized novel for The Wall Street Journal, and was also recently featured in People magazine. The book is good, but I must admit, it's not the only thing on my mind as I start the interview. There's also that infamous e-mail incident. You remember. Crittenden sent an e-mail to some friends informing them that her husband, David Frum, then a speechwriter for the Bush administration, coined the presidential phrase "axis of evil," an e-mail that some say resulted in Frum's firing from the White House (a claim, by the way, he has publicly refuted). But I'll get to the e-mail later. It would be downright rude to start the interview with that question. I'll have to build up to it, I decide.
"I like your book," I tell Crittenden, and I mean it. It's a book I can relate to, because, like Crittenden's character, Amanda, I found myself (is it really almost 20 years ago?) abandoning my job (as a TV news anchor) to raise kids.
Amanda, Crittenden tells me, originated in a piece she wrote for George magazine, "but George folded just before my article was to appear." After the serialization in The Wall Street Journal, Crittenden reworked the story into a book, and added an ending.
"The issue I've always been interested in is this generation I've grown up with, ambitious women having children. When your whole life is directed towards having a career, what happens when you have children?" That's where Crittenden's fictional character, the angst-filled Amanda, enters the picture. "Things have changed," says Crittenden. "Ten years ago if you went to the park, it was filled with nannies. Now, it's filled with sleek-looking mothers in their capris and sunglasses. Some are former lawyers and bankers, and now they're at home."
Crittenden's research has shown her that this new breed of woman is totally surprised by motherhood. "It was like an explosion going off in their life," she says. "Ten years ago, any career woman was expected to go back to work and make child-care arrangements, and if you didn't go back to work, you were a freak."
"I was a freak?" I ask about my decision to leave television. Apparently so, but times have changed, according to Crittenden. "Work, to these women today, is no longer the new frontier. They expect to have jobs. But these new mothers have no idea how to be at-home mothers and at-home wives, and it affects every aspect of their being. Aside from economics, they're not doing at 35 what they imagined they'd be doing at 35, when they were 20. Instead they're sitting in the park singing Itsy Bitsy Spider."
And it's not just the mothers who are affected. Crittenden, who also explores the dynamic of marriage in the book, says, "What happens when the woman stops working is it's just as hard for the man to adjust. Remember he's a modern guy, he didn't know that he was going to have to support a family, he thought he would be supporting half a family, and his wife would be contributing."
In comparison to her own mom, Yvonne, also a writer, Crittenden says, "What I'm most envious of is that, with my mother, it was all subconscious. It wasn't an issue, she just did what she thought was right." But, adds Crittenden, "there are so many moms from that generation who were either 'frustrated housewives' saying to their daughters, 'Don't make the same mistake I made,' or feminists saying, 'Go to work.' " As Crittenden explains it, "Amanda is very torn and miserable, but this story is about not just learning to accept, but learning to value the role you play."
"So what's the answer for women?" I ask.
"I don't think there is a perfect answer," she says, "but as they say in the Disney movies, 'Follow your heart.' Many women are afraid to do that. A woman shouldn't be afraid and embarrassed to stay at home if that's what she feels."
"So when I left my career to raise kids and clean the stove, I was a pioneer?" I marvel. She nods. After all my years housebound with kids, after all my friends saying, "Are you crazy? Why did you leave your job?," finally, vindication! Gee, I feel better.
And now having established myself as a pioneer, I'm feeling braver. No better time to ask a probing question. "Is that a plastic bra you're wearing?" What looks like a plastic bra strap is showing on Crittenden's shoulder. "No," she assures me, aghast, "it's supposed to be an invisible strap."
I feel I should be honest. "It's not invisible," I tell her. With that, all of a sudden, it doesn't seem so difficult to ask that other question. "What happened with the infamous e-mail?"
"It's an interesting coincidence," Crittenden tells me, still focusing on her novel. "In the book, Amanda gets her husband in trouble. She talks to a gossip columnist and her words get distorted, and bring embarrassment to her husband. I wrote that in 2001," she tells me, "and the e-mail incident didn't occur until January, 2002. This wasn't life imitating art," she laughs. "It was the other way around."
I ask her how she felt when the whole e-mail fiasco hit the media.
"Half of me was completely mortified," she confides, "but the other half, the writer half, was intrigued." She says that she couldn't help but compare her own situation to her character's similarly embarrassing dilemma in the novel. "I didn't know going through it would be so hard," she admits. "But at least my character and I both had to throw a reporter off our front stoop."
"Do you think you were treated fairly by the media?" I ask.
"It's just the way it is," she shrugs, adding, "am I happy someone forwarded my private e-mail to Slate magazine? No."
"Are you more careful now with what you write in your e-mails?" I ask.
"Yes, my e-mails are now very boring."