Can a book spur a revolution? That's the question of the day, after
reading Judith Warner's post-feminist mommy manifesto, Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety. (Riverhead Books).
In a powerfully wrought burst of due bitching, Madness
takes on modern motherhood with all its stretch marks and dark
under-eye circles. It demonstrates the frenzied reality of today's
middle-class mothers through fact and commentary gleaned from a variety
of sources, including nearly 150 mothers. And it bares the intimate
details of the all-but-universal "mess" of these women's lives.
"The Mess," Warner explains, is "the climate in which we now mother,"
charged by anxious perfectionism and riddled with guilt, exhaustion,
depression, sleep disorders, eating disorders, deflated ambition,
derailed careers, marital problems. Et cetera.
It's a condition that's prompting mothers to try to "do everything."
"Minivan moms," the author calls them, are madly ferrying children
between "school, piano, fencing, violin practice, Brownies, Cub Scouts,
Sunday schools" and themselves to "PTA meetings, volunteer work and
some kind of part-time, vaguely edifying, remunerative activity,"
hyper-parenting while seriously depleting their morale.
Lacking real options, mothers are regressing to pre-women's lib
lifestyles, Warner says. They are obsessing over trivia, such as
hand-sewn Halloween costumes and homemade baby food, while
subordinating their life's goals to motherhood and their husbands'
"Some of the most basic tenets of 1970s feminism -- things that we in
the 'postfeminist' generation grew up taking for granted -- [are] being
undone," she says.
Mothers are scrambling for security
Warner wrote Perfect Madness after returning from several years in France, where she bore two daughters.
"I never once, in almost six years, met a woman in France living her
life at this level of stress," she writes. In France, "Workaholism was
frowned upon. Vacation was sacred, as were weekends and holidays."
What's more, child care was generously subsidized by government.
In America, she noticed, working mothers and stay-at-homers were
becoming "uber-mothers" at equal pace. All shared the same underlying
insecurity: that our winner-take-all society did not take care of them
or their offspring, nor did it intend to.
By withholding "quality-of-life" policies that guarantee flexible work
environments, health care and high-quality child care, society's
message was clear: Mothers could choose to work, but if they did, they
had to be willing to live hyper-extended, stressed-out lives and put
their children's well-being on the line.
According to the author, mothers are on their own to choose and live
"how they wish" (within the limited parameters described above) and are
scrambling to be productive, to stay active in their children's
interests and to combat gnawing worries that they aren't doing enough
to stay afloat or to launch their kids into the world "successfully."
Hard to do in a country where the quality of public education is
Mothers are, in Warner's words, "trying to parent to perfection, so
that [their] children will be 'winners.'"
Messy situation, messy facts
Arguably a strength of Perfect Madness,
the mess of details -- particularly those concerning the evolution of
motherhood in America and its collision with feminism last century --
leaves a ripe sense of the chaos of women's lives. Less of a strength:
Warner can no sooner objectively critique the state of motherhood,
being a mother of school-age children herself, than the weatherman can
report on the storm while sitting in the eye of it. Thus she is given
to exaggeration, rambling and, some might say, as I have, bitching.
Also, by and large ignoring the plights of working class and
high-status professional mothers, the book aches for a wider scope,
maybe a sequel.
Finally, some readers may feel a bit criticized for their parenting
styles, whatever they may be. This is ironic, since Warner says she
would like to help stop the "Mommy Wars," or tension between camps of
attachment-parenting-type parents and the less physically attached.
Whatever its weaknesses, Perfect Madness provides a valuable mirror for modern mothers. Many ParentMap
readers will see themselves in the descriptions of overtired midnight
cookie-bakers, perhaps repenting: "Darn, I've messed up again." Many
will wonder about solutions -- ways to ensure that mothers' and
families' lives are equipped with real, viable choices at every stage,
and that that good-old American inalienable right to pursue happiness
is not obstructed by the need to wring excellence out of one's children.
Publicly funded social measures -- flexible, pro-family workplaces;
ample parental leave; standardized, high-quality child care; health
care benefits even for part-time workers -- comprise the author's basic
list of solutions. And that's where, she implies, the public must pick
Do mothers have the power to enact change?
A look at the recent New York Times
bestseller lists provides an interesting cross-section of women's
conflicting self-concepts. Number two on the children's list: Girls Hold Up this World (girls have the power to change and shape the world). Whereas, the top five listings for adult advice include: Winning (even you can develop attitudes for success), French Women Don't Get Fat (title says it all) and The South Beach Diet (another diet). Just below those? The Three-Hour Diet, Approval Addiction and Secrets of the Millionaire Mind.
Apparently, women are buying into and passing on to their daughters
equal measures of empowerment, self-worth and the self-defeating,
ultra-competitive thinking that propelled the gender from bra burning
to the insane do-everything-hood of today -- which, according to
Warner, is not far.
Warner is right. If we want "equality," then we need real, favorable
choices created through legislation. But first, we need to shift our
collective consciousness -- to recognize, loudly, that motherhood is
uber-important, and that it deserves support.
Sound like a dream? So did, at one time, the vote.
Natasha Petroff is a Puget Sound-based writer and mother.