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The Motherhood Problem

On “Perfect Madness” and other matters

Review and commentary by Judith Stadtman Tucker

March 2005

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 about 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.

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's 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— 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.”

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.

But if mothers really are the thinking, self-determined creatures that populate this different story of American motherhood, why are we so stuck? As Warner comments on reading The Feminine Mystique, “Bizarrely, it is almost impossible to read the depictions of motherhood in Friedan’s time without a shock of recognition.” I had exactly the same reaction, although I did not find it so bizarre.

In her review of Perfect Madness for Slate, Ann Hulbert, author of Raising America: Experts, Parents and a Century of Advice About Children (2003), remarks:

If there is a ‘myth’ of motherhood these days, it is that mothers’ experience has been relentlessly, and romantically, mythologized. In print, at least, the opposite is the truth. Over the course of almost half a century now, women writers have been busy crafting a withering corrective to official versions of motherhood.

The proliferation of individual voices and personal dilemmas has been warmly welcomed, both by female readers eager for vivid portraits/polemics about overstressed parents in the dual-career era and by a media ever more obsessed with motherhood issues. Yet if you believe the authors’ own accounts, the accumulation of mothers’ “brutally honest” stories has done little to erode the power of those coercive myths of perfect motherhood— much less to shake up public policy, which resolutely ignores mothers’ work. … It’s enough to make you wonder whether the maternal memoir-cum-manifesto might be complicit in the privatizing, sentimentalizing, anxiety-inducing “momism” that Warner, like many of the genre’s practitioners, aims to eradicate to make way for an ethos of more collective support for mothers.

Andi Buchanan, author of Mother Shock: Loving Every (Other) Minute Of It, feels Hulbert’s critique is short sighted. As she wrote in a recent entry on her Mother Shock blog:

The more we tell each other our personal experiences, the more we tell our stories, the more we realize that what we grapple with as mothers and fathers trying to balance meaningful work and our young children is not primarily our own failure to have it all and do it all. The more we talk about what we're doing, the more we realize that our problems are not as individual as we might have thought, that what we're up against is not something we can fight only by ourselves.

Has publishing “Mother Shock” made a difference in the politics of motherhood? On a large scale, the answer is obviously no. But I can tell you from the e-mails I get from readers every single day, the book has made a difference to mothers who thought they might be alone, who were sure no one was feeling what they were feeling, who assumed they were to blame for finding it difficult to adjust.

Katy Read, a freelance journalist who has written on motherhood for Salon and Working Mother, sides with Buchanan. “There aren’t as many motherhood books as reviewers are always claiming,” she says. “Yes, a search on Amazon brings up 1,000 titles, with 30 of those coming out this year, but a search under ‘baseball’ brings up almost 7,000, including 200 from 2005. Women’s lives have gone through far more dramatic changes recently than baseball has, and it would be pretty weird if people weren’t writing a lot about how it’s going.” And, she remarks, typically 90 percent of motherhood titles are of the self-help or “girlfriend’s guide” genre.

Read recalls the books that were easiest to find when she was a new mother were not all that helpful or reassuring, let alone empowering. “When my first son was born— this was just 10 years ago!— I didn’t have internet service, nor time and energy to get to the library. I grabbed what few motherhood books I could scrounge... and instantly concluded that I was a terrible, evil, irresponsible mother. Everything I got my hands on was either sappy idealized crap about how wonderful babies are, or self-help books that ordered me to do things that I found a pain in the ass. A corrective book back then might not have improved the quality of my daycare choices but it probably would have made my first five or six years of caring for my kids much less angst-ridden.”

She thinks that one thing standing in the way of moving the discussion from books into organized activism is that the topic of motherhood is still dismissed as trivial. “I’ve encountered many books editors who have been reluctant or unwilling to run reviews of serious important books about motherhood— The Mommy Myth, even Hulbert’s!— because they automatically assume they are self-help or just generally unimportant. That’s my own experience, but I think it’s symptomatic of a larger attitude that sees motherhood-related issues in general as, well, a little silly.”

Even so, Hulbert has a point. Since 1970, there’s been a steady stream of books, essays and short stories written by mothers who longed to expose the mind-numbing, soul-killing grind of caring for small children day-in and day-out, to challenge unrealistic representations of mothers and mothering in popular culture, and to undermine the oppressive institution of motherhood— or simply to leave a record of the complexity of their experience.

Many of these books had something else in common: they argued that fathers can and should be tender, caring and competent parents, and that men’s equal participation in child-rearing and housework would make motherhood less burdensome and more enjoyable for women who mother. Some authors even offered policy recommendations aimed at reducing structural barriers to integrating paid work and caregiving, including universal, affordable, high quality child care, flexible workplaces, part-time parity, changing the hours of the school day to coincide with the hours of the standard workday, generous paid leave for infant and sick child care, and specialized training and educational programs for mothers entering or re-entering the paid workforce after an extended period of unpaid caregiving.

Most of these books are now out of print and difficult, if not impossible, to find.(4) Only a few early works— Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, Of Woman Born by Adrienne Rich and Jane Lazarre’s The Mother Knot— survive in reprint editions. But that does not entirely explain why, in the last 35 years, every new generation of mothers has felt compelled to start the motherhood conversation over from scratch.

I think this is an important question with a complicated answer— an answer that might tell us something about why mothers aren’t spontaneously banding together to better their lot. I think there’s also a simple, straightforward answer: the reason the message of The Feminine Mystique still resonates for today’s middle-class mothers is that, despite the acceleration of women’s progress in the last half-century, the underlying value system, gender norms and social conditions that disproportionately disadvantage women who mother haven’t really changed that much since Betty Friedan’s day -- or since Susan B. Anthony’s day, for that matter. Notwithstanding the nervy confidence of social commentators who've declared feminism is passé, the pursuit of freedom, equality and justice for women is still a work in progress.

But why, then, must we scramble to reinvigorate the popular discourse on motherhood as a social problem every decade or so? I don’t know for sure— it’s not a subject that’s ever been formally studied, although it really ought to be, and soon. But I’m willing to offer some theories, with the caution that they are only that, theories. Conjectures based on my own experience, and on listening to hundreds of mothers share their experiences, their grievances, and their visions for a fairer world.

From a purely feminist standpoint, one might argue that dominant groups and institutions have a stake in making sure this dialog evaporates. It would create a major headache for the powers with be if droves of American mothers suddenly realized that— at least motherhood-wise— certain things are way better in France, Denmark, Sweden, and even Canada. As Jana Malamud Smith notes in her April 2003 interview with the MMO, one of the reasons we lack a resilient common language to describe motherhood as a social problem is because it’s against the best interest of those who have a bigger piece of the pie to let these ideas flourish:

It’s important to understand that this language is missing for a politically important reason. One way to undercut the power of any group is to obscure the truth of their experience. We typically think about that as a silencing of voices. You might say it’s against the interests of the dominant culture to let groups who are marginalized or oppressed own a vibrant language to describe their reality. Instead, we construct descriptions and expectations of motherhood based on ideologies and stereotypes that preserve the status quo.

I also believe part of the need to constantly renew the investigation into the motherhood problem has to do with the very nature of becoming a mother. A woman may learn a lot about caring for babies and children in the course of her pre-maternal life, but it’s almost impossible to know what becoming a mother will actually feel like until you are one. It may hit you at some point during pregnancy, immediately after childbirth or adoption, or a few day or weeks (or months, years) after bringing your baby home. I really hate to admit this, but I was the callow sort of young woman who scowled every time a mother with an infant sat behind me on an airplane, who shot withering glances at mothers who, I assumed, would not or could not control their screaming toddlers in the supermarket check-out lane, who silently cursed mothers who blocked the bookstore aisle with their bulky strollers, who on more than one occasion thought to herself: Why the hell doesn’t someone wipe that kid’s nose? On one memorable subway ride, I listened in absolute horror as pre-teen girl berated her mortified mother over and over again: "Mom, you're NOT paying attention to my FEELINGS." What a consummate brat! I muttered to myself. What did that mother do wrong? In short, I was obnoxious.

Well, I’m a mother now. And what I know is that no experience, no classroom instruction, no book, no sisterly advice, no amount of therapy could ever have completely prepared me for what it would be like. Like birth and death, the passage into motherhood is, ultimately, something we do on our own. That does not mean, however, it needs to be lonely or unsupported. But in our culture, it usually is— which is one reason mothers feel ashamed and incompetent when their expectations of maternity turn sour. The lucky ones find a friend, or a book, or a blog that will counteract the inward spiral.

But before I became a mother, I would never have sought out literature about motherhood, although I was an avid reader. (I did read some Doris Lessing and Enormous Changes At The Last Minute and other works by Grace Paley, which supplied rich maternal images that still reverberate in my imagination.) But maybe critical writing about motherhood doesn't really make sense until we are ready to make sense of it.

The other thing I’ve noticed is that a lot of the mothers I know who are inclined to view motherhood as a political matter— or who are already working for social change on behalf of mothers— went through a some kind of experience, a critical disconnect, that severed them from the puffy pink fantasy of ideal motherhood. Maybe this mother came into motherhood with a feminist awareness that provided a framework for evaluating the social context of her post-partum stress and fatigue. Maybe she suffered from post-partum depression. Maybe she gave birth to a baby with a serious health condition or disability. Maybe, after planning for a natural birth, she had a caesarean delivery. Maybe she defecated on her OB during a vaginal delivery, or could not control her bladder for months afterward. Maybe she had a miscarriage or stillbirth; maybe she had more than one. Maybe she had a baby with 24/7 colic. Maybe she was unable or did not want to breastfeed. Maybe her race or ethnicity makes her more attuned to the presence of discrimination. Maybe she struggled with infertility. Maybe she gave birth to two children with extremely different temperaments. Maybe it was living with the stigma of being an unmarried, teenage mother. Or maybe a formerly devoted husband or boyfriend refused to “show up” after his baby was born— maybe he left for good. Maybe it was being unexpectedly overwhelmed with love for her new child, or the shock of discovering the depth of her ambivalence. Maybe she’s a lesbian. Or maybe it was the trusted boss who refused to negotiate a part-time schedule, or co-workers who rolled their eyes whenever she left the office at 5:15 to avoid paying a late pick-up fee at the day care center. Maybe it was relentless pressure to perform as an always-on-call ideal worker. Maybe, once upon a time, she lived in France.

Several of these things happened to me. The point is, something— some unanticipated event or emotion or crisis or opportunity denied— seems to occur in some mothers' lives that interrupts the illusion they are in absolutle control of the outcomes of their mothering.

Since motherhood is (ostensibly) the one thing women are “made” for, these disenchanted mothers may become sensitized to their outsider status. They learn that instead of being omnipotent, they are vulnerable, needy, fallible— everything a red-blooded American should not be— and shortly thereafter, they discover that no one is actually available, or willing, to give them a hand. Something allows these mothers to see through the myth of perfect motherhood -- the “mommy mystique” -- and realize it's all a load of bullshit.

It seems possible that thousands, maybe millions, of mothers may fall into this category. I can’t verify this. But perhaps someday I’ll interview a few hundred politically conscious mothers, and write a book about how they got that way. 

mmo : march 2005

Judith Stadtman Tucker is the founder and editor of the MMO.

As an endnote, I thought I’d share part of my personal response to Judith Warner’s 2002 questionnaire. The final question was, “Do you think that feminism has served us well in our lives as mothers?” This is what I wrote, slightly edited for style:

Yes, because I think feminism gives us a context to question whether or not the way mothers are systematically marginalized is right and just. It gives us a model that demonstrates women can be instrumental in creating social change on their own behalf. If we did not have a sense of entitlement to equality as members of society, it would be far more difficult to frame our current discontent as a social problem rather than the result of a personal failure to conform to cultural expectations. If we did not have a model of empowerment, it would be more difficult for us to conceive of how we might work collectively to transform our culture so that it projects a more positive, realistic and expansive view of who mothers— and fathers!— are and what they do best. We might not feel such momentum to change society so that the value of the all the work mothers do— in and outside the home, paid and unpaid— is fully acknowledged and accommodated by our public policies and private practices.

Now, does that sound crazy to you?


1. According to sociologist Sharon Hays, the ideology of intensive motherhood “is a gendered model that advises mothers to spend a tremendous amount of time, energy and money in raising their children.” For a more detailed discussion, see The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood, 1996.

2. Even though I was born two years before Warner’s cut-off date for the first cohort of the “post baby boom” generation, my children were born in the 1990s— around the same time many women in their early and mid-thirties became mothers. It’s quite possible that the decade in which a woman becomes a mother has as much, if not more, influence on the quality of her maternal experience— and the intensity of the pressure she may feel to conform to a certain style of mothering— than her age. I also lived in Washington, DC for many years— my oldest son was born there— and the culture among young, high-achieving professionals was exceptionally competitive.

3. The list of public policies that would adequately support America’s working families is, of course, much longer than this. However, these are the policy solutions Warner specifically calls for in Perfect Madness.

4. Here's a partial list of notable or popular books on motherhood which are currently out of print. There are undoubtedly other titles that could be added here; send your suggestions to

Anne Richardson Riophe, Up The Sandbox!, 1970

Sidney Cornelia Callahan, The Working Mother, 1971

Helena Znanieka Lopata, Occupation: Housewife, 1971

Angela Barron Mc Bride, The Growth and Development of Mothers, 1973

Shirley Rogers Radl, Mother’s Day Is Over, 1973, revised edition 1987

(Radl and McBride were the first to write about the “The Motherhood Mystique.”)

Ann Oakley, Women’s Work: The Housewife, Past and Present, 1974

Jesse Bernard, The Future of Motherhood, 1974

Letty Cottin Pogrebin, Family Politics, 1984

Sandra Scarr, Mother Care/Other Care, 1985

Barbara J. Berg, The Crisis of the Working Mother, 1986

Anita Shreeve, Remaking Motherhood, 1987

Mary Frances Berry, The Politics of Parenthood, 1993

Diane Eyer, Motherguilt: How Our Culture Blames Mothers for What's Wrong with Society, 1996

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