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The Motherhood Problem
On “Perfect Madness” and other matters

page four

Predicatably, the thing I found most exasperating— and also disingenuous— about Perfect Madness was Warner’s constant refrain that all American mothers (unless they happen to have lived and worked in France when their children were small) are sadly uninformed about the social and economic conditions that reinforce their wretchedness. Warner offers no hope that there is a spectrum of resistance, that some mothers are actively describing and analyzing the internal and external factors which feed their discontent, that they are thinking and writing about motherhood as a social problem in books, memoirs, essays, commentaries— and all over the internet on web sites like HipMama, LiteraryMama and the MMO, not to mention hundreds, if not thousands, of personal weblogs. Given her topic, Warner seems inexplicably oblivious to evidence that even though there is (as yet) no centrally organized, progressive “mothers’ movement,” plenty of American mothers see the need for social change and are starting to do something about it.

Miriam Peskowitz, a feminist scholar and author of the forthcoming The Truth Behind The “Mommy Wars”: Who Decides What Makes A Good Mother (April 2005), is concerned that Perfect Madness portrays the motherhood problem as a lifestyle issue, and not an economic one. “Warner tells us that the problem is that too many moms are hand-painting plates for their kids’ birthdays. In real life, mothers are most frustrated because they’re doing too much work, not getting enough support at home, and not getting support at work in the form of fairly-paid part time work. The problem is not that some mothers like to do crafts, but that mothers face an all-or-nothing job market that makes it nearly impossible for them to parent and support their families at the sam  time.”

To top it all off, Peskowitz says, “We’re told that another country gives us an easy answer, in this case, France. We know the answers aren’t that easy. I’ve written a book that focuses on ordinary women who are acting for change— former welfare mothers who organize, and well-educated attorneys who organize. I want there to be room in our culture to talk about this. I see us all as a movement, articulated in different ways. My fear, of course, is that the media doesn’t want to hear about a movement, it only wants to hear about a single author, and about affluent women.”

It’s possible that Warner did not know about any of this rumbling, this setting-things-in-motion, that’s going on under the radar of the mainstream media. But if not, why not? Then again, it’s possible that she dismissed this uprising of consciousness as too fringe to have any real impact on the future of society. But given Warner’s conviction that “all mothers in America” are somehow trapped in the same crazy-making motherhood mess as the narrow sample of upper middle-class women she interviewed, it’s also possible she deliberately excluded examples of mothers who just say no to the mandates of intensive motherhood— many of whom might consider themselves feminist mothers— because it contradicts her core assumption that, politically speaking, every mother in 21st century America has her head buried in the sand.

This may be why a reference to the Mothers Ought To Have Equal Rights (MOTHERS) initiative is nowhere to be found in Perfect Madness— even though Warner cites the work of Naomi Wolf, co-founder of MOTHERS, several times. Warner’s failure to mention this project seems puzzling, given that of all the groups promoting organized action on behalf of mothers, MOTHERS has received considerable media attention and has the kind of proactive policy agenda Warner favors. And MOTHERS co-founder Ann Crittenden’s book, The Price of Motherhood (2001), has undoubtedly galvanized the political consciousness of thousands of middle-class mothers, another detail Warner fails to note.

It also seems strange that, apparently, Warner never took the trouble to speak with anyone in the motherhood field— not Wolf or Crittenden or Jana Malamud Smith, not Susan Maushart, Andi Buchanan or Faulkner Fox, not Susan Douglas, Meredith Michaels or Daphne De Marneffe— or any other writers who’ve touched on critical issues relevant to Warner’s subject, and whose voices might have added texture and authority to Warner’s analysis. (It's duly noted that Warner did speak with Joan Williams, author of Unbending Gender.)

“I like, very much, how Warner argues that the lack of a meaningful social net is a large part of what makes contemporary mothers so stressed out,” says Faulkner Fox, author of Dispatches From A Not So Perfect Life. “This seems completely true to me. And I’m glad if Warner’s book is getting this point more national attention. Mothers are doing an extraordinary amount on our own, and the lack of support can make at least some of us obsessive.”But, Fox adds, the 1970s were not a time of unmitigated empowerment for women. “The way Warner makes sweeping generalizations about what ‘we’ did in a given decade is quite problematic. Every decade is complex and full of mixed messages. And people have always had varied ways of interacting with these messages, ways decidedly more complicated than just blindly accepting them. Likewise, she extrapolates from a highly exclusive group of women— upper middle class women living in a tony DC suburb, who all seem to be married to incredibly ambitious men— and makes it seem like every American mother shares their values. Now this is perfectly mad. There are many, many parents— a majority, I feel certain— whose expectations fall between incredibly ambitious and not ambitious at all.”

“The response to Warner’s book suggests that women continue to be eager to hear that they are functioning within a particular, historically produced set of expectations about mothering,” observes Meredith Michaels. “Susan [Douglas] and I have certainly found that to be true. On the other hand, Warner does not provide an account of the situation that is sufficiently nuanced to explain how it is that some women evade the expectations, why others are excluded from them and how many are working actively against them.”

The truth is that not all the mothers Warner interviewed for Perfect Madness fit into the frantic control-freak model she claims is so pervasive. I can say this with great certainty because I participated in (and moderated) Warner’s online focus group with members of Mothers & More in December 2002. I can’t reveal the content of the 30 or so extremely thoughtful responses to Warner’s questionnaire. But I can report that while almost every mother who weighed in on the discussion agreed that “there is currently an ideal of perfect motherhood in the United States,” the vast majority also contested the validity of unrealistic standards of mothering and described how they were actively negotiating and/or resisting pressures to be All Mommy, All Of The Time.

Several members did confess they felt that their own perfectionist personalities made motherhood unnecessarily difficult for them, and one or two spoke openly about their encounters with debilitating anxiety. But during the two weeks Warner was a guest on the Mothers & More discussion forum, this same group of mothers also had lively exchanges about feminism, the influence of urban design and suburban sprawl on the mobility of young children and the shrinking maternal comfort zone, growing income inequality in the U.S. and the root causes of poverty, the fine points of progressive, conservative and libertarian ideology, part-time parity, and even “quality of life” as a political ethic. They swapped news stories and commentaries on the phenomenon of over-protective parenting, the pressing need for a national child-care program, and a Wall Street Journal article about mothers working to end the “Mommy Wars.” Whatever conclusions one might draw about this select group of highly privileged women, it would be difficult to accuse any one of them of lacking political consciousness. And while a number of these mothers were quite strident in their opinions, all seemed resolutely sane.

What is it about Warner’s version of the story— a story postulating that due to some twisted inner drive, American mothers are succumbing en masse to an irrational impulse to sacrifice themselves on the alter of über-motherhood, wrecking their children’s lives and marriages in the process— that holds such popular appeal? I suppose the reality— that every mother struggles to incorporate motherhood into her adult identity, that some go through this complicated and prolonged process more mindfully than others, but no two mothers ever go through it in exactly the same way, that American mothers’ biggest problem is living in a culture that refuses to support their work, either in or outside the home— simply isn’t as shocking and buzzworthy as Warner’s dire warnings of an epidemic of maternal derangement. The reality doesn’t aggravate creeping cultural anxieties about personal and public safety, economic insecurity, the erosion of the middle class, and the diminishing vitality of the American stock.

We could tell a different story about American motherhood. We could tell the story that mothers are imperfect, human and complicated beings who are fully endowed with volition, desire and the capacity to reason. That motherhood burdens them with more responsibilities, but doesn’t make them less competent. That their inner lives exist inside and outside the boundaries of motherhood. And while they may not openly protest all the social and economic conditions that make motherhood and equality incompatible in the 21st century, many mothers— if not most— sense that something which is not of their own making is constantly working against them. And for the most part, they are not as helpless and befuddled as some might like to think.

Why are we so stuck?

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