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The Motherhood Problem

On “Perfect Madness” and other matters

Review and commentary by Judith Stadtman Tucker

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Perfect Madness:
Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety

By Judith Warner
Riverhead Books, February 2005
Is every American mother so hopelessly preoccupied with conforming to a manic, misery-inducing style of over-parenting that we’ve lost the capacity to imagine a more mother-friendly alternative? Probably not, but Judith Warner, author of Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety, would like us to think so. And given that Warner and her publishers have positioned Perfect Madness as this generation’s answer to The Feminine Mystique, it seems important to pay close attention to Warner’s message and the unprecedented publicity her book has received.

First things first: it’s unlikely Perfect Madness will jump start the next big wave of the women’s movement, or even inspire a decent surge of righteous indignation over the astounding lack of profamily policy in the U.S. While Warner does throw an assortment of new and thought-provoking insights into the mix of recent writing on motherhood and society, Perfect Madness is hardly revolutionary (or even strikingly original), nor does it compare to Friedan’s 1963 classic in either depth or scope. A certain subset of affluent mothers may see their lives and lifestyle sharply reflected in Perfect Madness, but whether Warner’s mildly condescending summary of their plight is persuasive enough to trigger an explosion of political consciousness among upper middle-class moms— and whether that would be enough to set the world on fire— is anyone’s guess. It could happen, but I’m not holding my breath.

Warner suggests that a “widespread, choking cocktail of guilt and anxiety and resentment and regret” is “poisoning motherhood for American women today… Lowering our horizons and limiting our minds. Sapping energy that we should have for ourselves and our children. And drowning out thoughts that might lead us, collectively, to formulate solutions.” Because Warner’s children were born while she was living and working in France— where, she reports, she was able to take advantage of excellent low-cost childcare and mothers are expected to prioritize their attachments to the adult world— she was taken aback by how desperately frazzled and unfulfilled American mothers seemed to be when she returned to the States. “I listened to my friends, listened to talk radio, to mothers on the playground and to my daughter’s nursery school teachers, and I found it all— the general culture of motherhood in America— oppressive,” she writes. “The pressure to conform, to attain levels of perfect selflessness was insane.”

To confirm her suspicion that motherhood, American-style, is driving women around the bend, Warner interviewed 150 middle-class mothers. Most were white, many were African American, and over half lived in pricey neighborhoods in and around Washington, DC. And while she assiduously avoids making any distinctions between mothers who stay at home and those who work for pay, Warner found many of her interview subjects through organizations which provide social networks and support for at-home or “sequencing” moms. Despite the obvious limitations of her sample, Warner concluded that an entire cohort of women— those born between 1958 and the early 1970s— had devolved into a nation of obsessive-compulsive mothers, each and every one haplessly enslaved to an unforgiving “mommy mystique” which “rests on an almost religious adherence to ideas about child-rearing, about marriage and sex roles and society that supports the status quo even as mothers denounce it, even as children complain about it, even as ‘the experts’ warn that our way of doing things is stressing our children to the core.” Above all, Warner cautions, this regressive practice of super-selfless mothering is “a form of self-blinding” that prevents mothers from “thinking clearly about what is happening to their lives and what they can do to change it.”

Based on her research, Warner decided that “all mothers in America, in differing ways and to differing degrees” are sucking up a toxic combination of guilt, anxiety, stress, rage and exhaustion— all exacerbated by an especially pernicious standard of maternal over-achievement— she describes as “the mess.” According to Warner, mothers’ neurotic (and, she implies, foolish) absorption in the minutiae of their children’s daily lives leaves them suspended in a kind of infantile state, where they are rendered incapable of thinking for or about themselves— let alone the social, economic and cultural factors that contribute to their distress. For as Warner observes, the mothers in her focus groups were not happy about any of this— in fact, they felt quite miserable and trapped in their motherhood.

Warner also contends that mothers who limit their outlet for self-expression to x–treme hyperparenting end up preferring the playroom to the bedroom, and their marriages suffer as a result. “I often wonder if our ‘mommy frumps’— those awful jeans and spit-stained shirts and dreary haircuts we sport like punitive uniforms— aren’t a kind of protective shield. Looking crummy all the time, being ‘just a mom,’ may be a way to beat back the prospective demons of sexuality we don’t want to deal with, with the sense of possibility it might awaken, reminding us of other times, broader horizons, bigger dreams— and happier marriages.” Warner links all this to the “undeniable” epidemic of sexless marriages in the U.S.— she cites a report suggesting that 15 to 20 percent of married couples have sex less than 10 times a year— but she seems more concerned about the unmet needs of frustrated husbands than the unmet needs of wives who would like to have much more help around the house than they get from their “ideal worker” spouses.

But, Warner says, “Instead of talking about their anger, women talk about other things. How hopeless men are at taking care of children… How lucky they are not to be like men… How lucky their children are to have mothers like them, women who aren’t afraid to be real moms.” There’s no denying this compensating discourse is real and fairly common, but as Cynthia Fuchs Epstein notes in her 1988 book Deceptive Distinctions: Sex, Gender and the Social Order, it’s nothing new, nor is it exclusive to unenlightened middle-class mothers. “There has always been a theme in women’s folklore, at least in the Western world,” Epstein writes, “that women know best what men need, that men are often childlike and incompetent, that their egos need bolstering because they are unsure of themselves and easily threatened at work, that they are vulnerable weak reeds depending on a woman’s strength in matters of emotion, and that they cannot cope with children, the home, and other aspects of life in the female domain.” (For more on sex, gender and the breakdown of the ideal of shared parenting, see Doing Difference in the MMO Motherhood Papers.)

Warner concedes that fathers’ failure to take on more of the grunt work of family life tends to ratchet up mothers’ levels of stress and fatigue, but like the mothers she interviewed, she’s inclined to let men off the hook. In a recent interview in Salon, Warner comments that trying to get fathers to do their fair share of child care and housework is “largely a lost cause for our generation. It’s too late.” In fact, recent studies from the Families and Work Institute indicate that post-boomer fathers are far more invested in family life than older male workers, and that fathers in dual-earner couples are, in general, spending more non-work time on household chores and child-minding— not nearly enough, but the situation is hardly as intractable as Warner makes it out to be.

The real answer, Warner says, is for society to give mothers some much-needed relief in the form of policies that lead to the creation of more flexible, affordable, well-regulated, high-quality child care. This, she reasons, would increase the comfort level of employed mothers— who might otherwise worry about the quality of care their kids are getting while mom’s at her job— and permit at-home mothers to get out of the house once in a while and get a life. Finally, Warner offers a vague proposal that society could take steps to make life “less expensive and stressful for middle class families so that mothers (and fathers) could work less without risking their children’s financial futures.” But to accomplish any of this, Warner suggest, mothers need to get a grip on themselves and wake up to the fact that, well, some things are much better in France.

The issue of class looms large over Warner’s research methods and analysis

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