''This is what I was meant to do,'' one stay-at-home mom was quoted as saying in Belkin's article. "I hate to say that because it sounds like I could have skipped college. But I mean this is what I was meant to do at this time. I know that's very un-PC, but I like life's rhythms when I'm nurturing a child."

Belkin found plenty of others — physicians, attorneys, women with MBAs — who were giving it all up to focus on parenthood.

But as discomfiting as some feminists find the trend, there's still a big difference between the women profiled by Belkin and what Venker is advocating. Indeed, the women stressed to Belkin that it was their choice to opt out, not a cultural directive.

Jennifer Silverberg
Conservative author Suzanne Venker at home with her raison d'etre: Emma, eleven, and Henry, eight.
Jennifer Silverberg
Conservative author Suzanne Venker at home with her raison d'etre: Emma, eleven, and Henry, eight.

Feminist scholars, not surprisingly, mock Schlafly and Venker's assertion that motherhood is a woman's only path to happiness as backward and simplistic. In fact, Dr. Linda Nicholson, a professor of history and women's studies at Washington University, goes a step further, calling Venker's ideas "shameful."

Venker is "making a mistake that a lot of people from her political vantage point make," Nicholson says. After all, the "traditional" nuclear family and the gendered division of labor that Venker and her ilk praise is actually quite new, arising only after the economic boom following World War II: "If we really wanted a traditional family structure, we should reorganize ourselves into tribes."

Women tying themselves to their homes is a societal disaster, Nicholson says. Domestic violence goes up when women depend on men for money, because they can't leave, and men know it, she says. Women staying home also deprives society of women's "unending" contributions.

"You can't have a highly productive work force and say that half your population should not be in it," Nicholson says.

As for the idea that women are biologically programmed to nurture, Nicholson says it's so crude as to be laughable. "As any biologist will tell you, there is no gene for any specific type of behavior — certainly not a complex one like staying home with children. We're built to be adaptive! History abounds with examples of women working, women doing provider work, of men doing child-care."

She agrees with Venker that society doesn't value the work of motherhood. But to pin that on feminists misses the boat. "Feminists today don't trounce on women who stay home. It is the larger culture that does this," she says. "It's feminists who've pointed out the undervaluing of women's labor."

As the mother of two preteen girls, Sharon Dunski Vermont is quick to admit that she has been lucky in arranging her life. Vermont describes herself as a part-time pediatrician, part-time writer and full-time mom. She writes from home and sees patients a few days a week. Mostly, she's home when her girls are home.

Her husband is also a pediatrician with a fair bit of flexibility himself, but it is Vermont who handles the bulk of the work of running the household. And that's OK, she says.

There's no one-size-fits-all answer, after all.

"Before I had kids, I always said I'd work full-time and put my kids in day care. Then I had my first child!" she says. Even as a pediatrician who routinely counseled new and expecting moms, she was broadsided by the love she felt for her daughter.

"I went from being full-time to working part-time. Then I had my second child, and I decided I was going to quit working. That lasted a few weeks."

Vermont was caught between two urges: to be a mother and to be in the office, seeing patients and using her brain. She was fortunate to be able to afford child-care and to have help from her own mother, who was close by.

"I don't believe it's healthy for a child to be home with her parents 24/7," she says. "They need to make friends and learn social skills, learn to trust other adults. If you're home with your kids all day long and not having adult conversations and not using your brain, it's not healthy, either."

Nicholson says Venker's message is ugly and intolerant, serving only to demonize women who don't make the same choices she does.

"Are you going to tell your daughter who wants to be a doctor that she, unlike her brother, can't have both?" she wonders.

From a very young age, Suzanne Venker knew what she wanted.

In the intro to Flipside, Venker writes, "I assumed motherhood and marriage would be the center of my life. I always knew I would work outside the home, but I never expected my career to become my life."

Venker had these values in place when, in college, she met the man she would marry — and then divorce.

Her ex-husband has moved on and has a wife and kids of his own, and Venker's uninterested in involving him in this story. She never allows bitterness to color the discussion of her divorce, though it's clearly a sore point. In the intro to Flipside, she writes, "I even struggled with my boyfriend (who would become my husband — and then, duh, ex-husband), who I mistakenly thought shared my values.... I didn't realize people could vote Republican and still be liberal. Today, this is obvious to me."

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