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The Motherhood Problem
On “Perfect Madness” and other matters

page three

There are several more problems— big ones— with Warner’s all-out attack on “total reality” mothering. And if Perfect Madness had not received inordinate attention from the mainstream media— the cover of Newsweek, front page of The New York Times Book Review, a two-part segment on NBC’s Today Show, a feature in People magazine, and reviews in major dailies— I would be tempted to address its shortcomings in a paragraph or two and move on. Perfect Madness is not an awful book, but it's not an exceptional one; other important books on the personal, historical and social dimensions of today’s motherhood problem have been published in recent years, and most are at least as finely crafted and more compelling than Warner’s. (Readers can find a list of many of these titles and more on the MMO book list.) So the inevitable question arises: why has this particular book been singled out, and why now? And is the average middle-class mother really as insensible of the root causes of her unhappiness— and the policy solutions that could relieve her social isolation and economic vulnerability— as Warner suggests?

“Too many of us now allow ourselves to be defined by motherhood and direct every ounce of our energy into our children,” Warner writes:

This sounds noble on the surface but in fact it’s doing no one— not ourselves, not our children— any good. Because when we lose ourselves in our mommy selves, we experience this loss as depression. When we disempower ourselves in our mommy selves, we experience this weakness as anxiety. When we desexualize ourselves in our mommy selves, it leads us to feel dead in our skin. All this places an undue burden upon our children. By making them the be-all-and-end-all of our lives, by breaking down the boundaries between ourselves and them so thoroughly, by giving them so much power when they’re very small, we risk overwhelming them psychologically and ill-preparing them, socially, for the world of other children, and, eventually, other adults.

At least in this instance, Warner’s treatise is not so much about freeing mothers from the tyranny of the “mommy mystique” as it is about escalating their anxiety and faulting their false consciousness— which, as we know from the hard lessons of the women’s liberation movement, is not a particularly effective way to raise awareness or promote social change. But Warner chooses to downplay the possibility that the sense of panic threatening to overwhelm American mothers is something other than a by-product of women's warped psychology, nor does she take into consideration that not all mothers react to it in the same way. Other writers and scholars have argued— quite credibly— that the pressures driving today's mothers to distraction have a discreet cultural origin and social function. As Janna Malamud Smith writes in A Potent Spell: Mother Love and the Power of Fear (2002), throughout the course of modern and post-modern history, cultural authorities have evoked maternal fear to secure mothers compliance with the status quo. In this day and age, the media takes the lead in the process of escalation and enforcement -- Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels track this trend in great detail in The Mommy Myth. But Warner is adamant that “the demon images of perfect motherhood that haunt us are largely of our own creation."

It isn’t even, exclusively, a matter of our trying to fit into unrealistic, unnatural ideals imposed on us by the media, or by that nebulous thing, ‘society.’ After all, like men, we now shape the media. We are fully part of society, not marginal to it.

It must be Warner’s own exceptional privilege or amazing luck that allows her to make such a sweeping pronouncement— at the very least, she seems blithely unaware of recent studies finding that women hold only a small fraction of influential positions in the broadcast and communications industry. Even more confounding, Warner’s faith that the "enemy is us" contradicts her assertion that culture does matter, as when she observes that mothers in France— where “guilt just wasn’t in the air” and excessively child-centric mothers were viewed as “Obsessive. Inappropriate. Just plain weird.”— seemed to be so much happier and more self-possessed than the poor frenzied creatures she encountered in the U.S.

Meredith Michaels, co-author of The Mommy Myth, notes that Warner “wants to discredit analyses that point to cultural factors— by dismissing them as ‘media blaming’— but her argument is simply silly if she really thinks that women alone somehow become mommy-freaks just by seeing the blue line in the positive pregnancy test. And she knows this because she cites so many media/culture-related examples as she moves through her interview material.”

“How about looking at the intersection of the individual and the culture?” Michaels asks. “How about thinking through the control/choice frame so that it can be recognized as a mechanism— one among many— that is produced by ideological interests? Is that really how women think? Is it the only way women think? Because Warner pays no more than lip service to the context within which women mother, she leaves the impression that she is ‘blaming’ mothers for their plight.”

It’s worth mentioning that the same week Newsweek ran its cover story on Perfect Madness, Time magazine devoted its cover to “Parents Behaving Badly,” a feature on “pushy parents pushing for the wrong things” who make it harder for teachers to teach and more likely their children will miss out on important “lessons in self-reliance.” The Time story shares some thematic elements with a recent story in Psychology Today, which suggested that “hothouse” parenting leaves the nation’s youth incapable of coping with the “normal vicissitudes” of life. “That not only makes them risk-averse, it makes them psychologically fragile, riddled with anxiety. In the process they’re robbed of identity, meaning and a sense of accomplishment, to say nothing of a shot at real happiness” (Hara Estroff Marano, “A Nation of Wimps,” November/December 2004).

Indeed, the reading public has been treated to a veritable rash of feature stories and commentaries on perils of over-parenting and over-scheduling America’s children. New York Times columnist David Brooks recently complained that we are living in “the age of the lily-livered, in which fretting over things like excessive caffeination is built into the cultural code.” (“Saturday Night Lite,” March 12, 2005). “I blame parents,” he writes. “Kids are raised amid foam corner protectors and schooled amid flame-retardant construction paper. They’re drugged with a vast array of pharmaceuticals to keep them from becoming interesting. They go from adult-structured tutorials to highly padded sports practices to career-counselor-approved summer internships.”

Those who criticize the practice of over-involved parenting often cite the desperation of affluent parents— who, by all accounts, are petrified that unless their children are raised to be “top notch” achievers, they will find it impossible to maintain their membership in the middle-class . Warner is rolling with the zeitgeist when she identifies this dynamic and elaborates upon it:

[N]one of this is natural, or necessary, or even normal. Things used to be different in America. There used to be structures in place that gave families a certain base level of comfort and security. Things like dependable public education. Affordable housing. Job security. Reliable retirement benefits. Things, even, like leisure time— which was a naturally occurring, unscheduled thing just one generation ago, when we kids, and most fathers came home at night at 6 o’clock and didn’t work on weekends.

But if Warner’s “mommy mystique” feeds off the free-floating anxieties of the shrinking middle-class, will exhorting mothers to cast off their pathetic strivings to raise 100 percent exceptional children really lead to any kind of meaningful change? Even if all those allegedly freaked-out moms rise up from their oppression and start campaigning for affordable child care, will that actually begin to transform the ideologies that create such a family-unfriendly society? Maybe. Maybe not.

Philosopher Joan Tronto, who has written extensively on the ethic of care, proposes there may be other reasons why middle-class parents are reluctant to press for policy solutions to support American families:

In a competitive society, what it means to care well for one’s own children is to make sure they have a competitive edge against other children. On the most concrete level, although parents may endorse a principle of equal opportunity in the abstract, their daily activities are most visibly “caring” when they gain special privileges and advantages for their children. Arguments about the value of universal public education and so forth lose their force when they affect the possibility of our children’s future.

If Tronto is right, upper middle-class families have a vested interest in keeping very high quality child care and K-12 education expensive, inaccessible and scarce, because it will guarantee their children have advantages that children from less affluent families can never attain. Unless our society realigns its baseline values to attribute a higher value to carework, Tronto argues, it’s unlikely there will ever be broad support for expensive policy solutions designed to promote the stability of the middle class (or the upward mobility of lower-income families)— policies like affordable child care for all employed and non-employed parents and assured health care benefits and fair pay for part-time workers.(3 ) “As long as caring remains a subordinate activity and value within the framework of a ‘winner-take-all’ society,” Tronto writes, “caring well within one’s family will make one not a friend but an enemy of equal opportunity.” (“The Value of Care,” from Can Working Families Ever Win, The Boston Review New Democracy Forum, 2002)

As far as Warner is concerned, the government’s steadfast disinterest in instituting the type of progressive child care policies she recommends has little to do with the systematic devaluation of women’s work and the marginalization of care in our culture. She dismisses attempts to raise consciousness about the social and economic function of unpaid carework as inefficient and wrong-headed, and denounces “pro-motherhood groups” for expending too much energy on trying to gain recognition for the value of mothers’ work “through measures like including unpaid household labor in the GDP.” Warner also accuses these groups of “diverting attention from the fact that without help from the government, mothers have only the most paltry options to choose from” and wasting too much time on “seeking validation.”

“It should not be the business of government,” she adds snappishly, “to provide validation for women who lack self-esteem. The needs of families are much too important for this.”

Warner offers no hope that there is a spectrum of resistance

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