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The Motherhood Problem
On “Perfect Madness” and other matters

page two

While Warner gives a condensed overview of cultural and structural factors which contribute to the contemporary motherhood “mess,” her primary focus is on how the present generation of mothers has internalized certain patterns of thinking and behavior that leave them more susceptible to the unreasonable demands of “intensive” motherhood.(1) “If you have been brought up, all your life, being told you have wonderful choices,” Warner reflects, “you tend, when things go wrong, to assume you made the wrong choices— not to see that the ‘choices’ given you were wrong in the first place.” Warner argues that this disconnect sends young women into a kind of existential tail-spin that plays out in a unusually self-destructive way once they become mothers. Yet— in a very un-Friedan like manner— Warner declines almost every opportunity to probe the possibility that the “choices” mothers have are ideologically defined, structurally reinforced and generally serve the interests of individuals and institutions that benefit from the social subordination of women.  

The issue of class looms large over Warner’s research methods and analysis, although she defends her attempt to generalize the experience of the very privileged women she interviewed to mothers at large. “It is very hard to write about the middle class in America without excessively focusing on the upper middle class,” she insists. She notes that “every other book on ‘American’ motherhood I have read” suffers from the same bias. (But since Sharon Hays’ Flat Broke With Children, Jodi Heymann’s The Widening Gap and Rickie Solinger’s work are listed in Warner’s bibliography, one has to wonder. Either she was under the impression these texts concentrate on the lives of upper middle-class mothers, or she did not read them very carefully.) Warner argues that the upper middle class “is our reference point for what the American good life is supposed to look like and contain.” Therefore, she suggests, “the ways of the upper middle class affect everyone— including, to their detriment, the working class and the poor.”


This is undeniably true, but probably not in the way Warner wants to spin it. As Hays shows so brilliantly in her analysis of welfare reform legislation in Flat Broke With Children, dominant cultural values in America— and by default, the ideological dictates of motherhood and broadly accepted parenting norms— have everything to do with class and the distribution of wealth and care, but they affect mothers quite differently depending on where they are situated in the class hierarchy. (And then again, it’s probably safe to assume that a fair number of middle- and upper-middle class mothers have never been blindsided by paralytic indecision when dealing with such “mindless trivia” as whether to order the regular or deluxe version of the Hello Kitty birthday pack. I, for one, have never experienced anything quite like that, even though I’m well acquainted with maternal anxiety and fit squarely into the demographic Warner claims to speak for.)(2)

Yet in her concluding chapter, Warner reverses herself on the significance of class when she states that “The focus on the motherhood dilemmas of the very successful which runs through so very much of the thinking and writing on and media coverage of motherhood in our time, poses the problems relating to motherhood and family life in America in terms that are not only irrelevant to most women but also harmful to their interests.” (Italics in original)

The major problem is that the experiences of these wealthy women have come, despite their irrelevancy to the vast, vast majority of the population, to define the terms through which we understand motherhood in our time.

They determine the vocabulary with which we discuss motherhood— using words like “choice” and “options” and “priorities” and “balance.” As though they had universal validity. As though they had any meaning at all in the majority of women’s lives. And they have inspired the story— the master narrative, if you will— that we tell now about women’s progress and the problems of motherhood.

Um, OK— I agree. (Mary Ann Mason offered a similar critique in her 1988 book, The Equality Trap.)

But I’m confused.

Warner is not the first to proclaim that unobtainable standards of self-effacing, over-the-top mothering are detrimental to mothers and others. In The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood and How It Has Undermined Women (2004) co-authors Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels cover much of the same ground, and one has to wonder if Warner’s effort to position herself as the go-to gal on motherhood issues has something to do with the fact that she fails to cite The Mommy Myth (and several other highly relevant works) in Perfect Madness. But while Douglas and Michaels document the influence of media messages on the rise of “the new momism” and map the relationship between the renewed acceptance of traditional sex roles and the changing political climate of the 1980s and 1990s, Warner proposes the destructive perfectionism that’s killing off mothers’ social consciousness is the product of internalized patterns of self-defeating behavior. When confronted with the unhappy reality of workplaces and romantic partnerships in which equality of opportunity and respect remain in short supply, the generation of young women who were raised to believe they could do and be anything hunkered down. Instead of fighting the power, Warner asserts, they settled for fine-tuning their pathological eating habits, obsessing about body image, and— when they became mothers— micromanaging the lives of their children. “Rather than becoming rebels of pioneers like our baby boomer predecessors,” Warner laments, “we became a generation of control freaks.”

And as Warner hastens to add, control does not equal power. “And control through what means? The only ones available to us then in the political landscape of the deeply reactionary Reagan and Bush years: self-control, personal achievement, self-perfection. This felt like empowerment, but it wasn’t— not in the long-term.” Warner says this “obsessive looking inward” hides “a kind of despair… Our outlook is something very much akin to what cognitive behavioralists call ‘learned helplessness’— the kind of instinctive giving-up in the face of difficulty that people do when they come to think they have no real power.” (For a more sophisticated discussion of the inner lives of women, perfectionism and forms of power, see Women & Shame by Brené Brown, PhD, and Toward A New Psychology of Women by Jean Baker Miller.)

This is one of Warner’s more interesting theories, and while it’s dicey to compare excessive mothering to an eating disorder— or to minimize the magnitude of psychic pain that causes women to compulsively starve themselves— the question of what happens to women when sexist attitudes and institutions thwart their sense of agency is one worth exploring in greater depth. It’s possible that some women do take to mothering with a vengeance— after all, motherhood is the only locus in which our society reflexively grants women a smattering of social power, social power that hinges on the myth that children are perfectible and mothers have the ultimate control over children’s optimal development. Whether or not one accepts the proposition that motherhood is “the most important job in the world,” for the sake of argument it’s important acknowledge that this tired sentiment is born out of cultural ideals and human longings that lend such maxims the sheen of sacred truth. And as Rhona Mahoney points out in her 1995 book, Kidding Ourselves: Breadwinning, Babies and Bargaining Power, a woman’s autonomy is significantly compromised when she has dependent children, and mothers tend to fall back on sacred truths and familiar gender roles when the pursuit of equality blows up in our face.

Warner’s transition from pop psychology to public policy solutions is problematic, notes Daphne de Marneffe, clinical psychologist and author of Maternal Desire: On Children, Love and the Inner Life. “There is no suggestion that there is an actual person in the center of this, someone who has to evaluate social messages, get clear on her values, tune out trivia, and work for a better world through the sometimes boring and unsensational attempt at coalition building, political action, etc. We go directly from a (particularly tortured) personality type to a large scale political solution, with no account for the mediating self.”

De Marneffe feels that Perfect Madness “is a symptom of the very condition it purports to be trying to cure. If you write a book with the explicitly narrow focus on (upper-middle class) mothers’ obsession with externals and appearances and competition, you can’t very well turn around and ask in good conscience ‘Does anyone have an inner life?’ The way you’ve picked your topic and constructed your argument guarantees that you’ve left out the very terms that could question and subvert and discredit the reality you’re describing.”

“But I think the deeper issue is that Warner refuses to engage seriously the issue of women’s own desire,” De Marneffe says, “including their own lived sense of complex subjectivity and their own responsibility to their better selves. In Perfect Madness, desire is aligned, in a totally clichéd way, with all the things that women want ‘for themselves,’ that is, apart from motherhood— jobs, achievement, time, looking nice, dates with husbands— and never examined as an integral part of their experience of motherhood. Feminism’s ideal was to free women to be the author of their own lives, and to know and act on their desires. Warner’s argument expunges the desiring voice of women by not analyzing more deeply what is going on to make women suppress their awareness of it.”

There are several more problems with Warner’s attack on “total reality” mothering

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