Some women have it all but maybe they shouldn't. Controversial radio therapist and self-help guru Dr. Laura Schlessinger argues that mothers' careers belong on the back burner while they raise their children themselves. A self-described "recovering feminist," Schlessinger says watching a documentary on childbirth at age 35 summoned the maternal instincts she believes are present in even the most "liberated" of women. She spoke with TIME about her tough-love advice, her talking action figure and her 12th book, In Praise of Stay-at-Home Moms. (Read "What Mother Nature Teaches Us About Motherhood.")
Are women not respected for raising kids these days?
There are a lot of women out there who feel inadequate and lost when they want to be with their children. I've been on the air almost 33 years, and after hearing so many mothers feeling undervalued I thought it's time to praise the ones who make this sacrifice. (Read "When Mother Stays Home.")
I was in college in the 60s, and the whole feminist movement had swept me up. Being a wife and mother somehow betrayed the sisterhood. It was tantamount to slavery. I've been on both sides of this mentality, and I am grateful my head got switched around.
What about families who really need that second income?
For families who make raising their kids themselves their priority, it's amazing they find a way. They move, they do something. One woman wrote in and said we pile into the car and do picnics and play board games. What I'm discovering is that people are getting more clever.
Let's say a young woman aspires to a demanding professional role, like a surgeon or an engineer. Is motherhood not a responsible choice for her?
We all have to make choices in life. I've had plenty of female CEOs and MDs quit and stay home with their kids. Once their kids were in school they would go back part-time. You may not be able to be a surgeon on call, but lots of people go into, say, dermatology, where you can work certain hours. (See 10 facts about Sarah Palin.)
When my kid was young I got up at 4 or 5 in the morning and I would write. Then I would get him up at 7, take him to school, do my radio show and pick him up. Once the kids are in school, it's amazing what you can do.
Your book focuses on Mom staying at home. What about Dad?
Most everything from common sense to basic research seems to indicate that for the first three years it really needs to be Mom. After that, flip a coin as long as they've got a loving parent, I'm happy. But there's something unique about the mother-child bonding: they came out of our bodies.
All too often, when the man's at home and the woman's at work there's some resentment women often don't see their husbands as masculine, as sexy. Sometimes that's a problem in a marriage.
Have the calls to your radio show changed much since you started?
Oh, night and day. With kids, it used to be "I don't like my forehead" or "I'm not pretty enough." Now it's, "How can I get my dad to call me? He's shacking up with some girl."
We've gotten to the place where whatever you feel like doing you should do. That's why I'm feeling such a need to support the women and families who make the hard choice to be with their kids, because they have a whole society saying "do what you feel like doing."
Are you ever unsure or conflicted about what advice to give?
Yes. But I do my best.
You do a good job of not letting on.
Well there are times I say, "You know what, this mess is so deep, I really don't know what to do to get out of it." Some things are so painful say, losing a child. I don't have the words that are going to make it all better.
You use some pretty tough language with your callers. Sometimes you call them "brats" or "whiners." Saturday Night Live even spoofed the way you talk on the air. What do you say to people who think you don't show much compassion or sympathy?
Some people seem to see compassion as being mushy. I see it as having the intent to really help because you understand their pain, and sometimes people need a smack aside the head. I'm willing to risk that some people will say, "Oh, she's such a bitch," because I want to help.
In 32 years, I think I've had four, maybe five hang-ups. You would think that if a caller really believed that I was not compassionate, they'd hang up.
The Obamas may be the most famous family in the country right now, or even the world. What's your take on them as role models?
The imagery looks very healthy. Every time I saw Mrs. Obama, I saw the kids with her. And that the President is talking about the value of fathers oh my god, it makes all the difference! The emotional debris that I have to talk about every day on the air, a lot of it is due to divorce and no dad.
You're best known as a radio host, but you're practically your own industry. You sell exercise tapes, you make jewelry for charity, you have a stage show. I had no idea I could buy a talking Dr. Laura action figure. Are you a brand?
Ok, real openness here I don't look at myself as a celebrity or a brand. I've gained a lot of respect from an audience by talking about values. I feel a sense of responsibility to walk the talk. If you saw the exercise tape, you'd see I'm in damn good shape. That's inspiring for other women. The doll was something silly, I don't even think it looks like me. It looks like Barbie.