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More than a ‘momoir’

Judith Warner's new book Perfect Madness tries to untangle the mess of motherhood.

Nancy McDermott

Topics Politics

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Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety, Judith Warner, Riverhead Books, New York.

A few years ago, it was the done thing to write ‘momoirs’ – witty books about motherhood. With titles like Dispatches From a Not-So-Perfect Life: Or How I Learned to Love the House, they had a common theme: formerly career-oriented woman stays home with the kids and goes a little crazy as a result. They were popular because they seemed to reflect many women’s
experience – but like most literary fads, momoirs soon dropped out of fashion.

Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety seems to have touched the same nerve. But Perfect Madness is more than a ‘momoir’. The author, Judith Warner, gives two explanations for why mothering has become such a hot topic in recent years. Despite feminism, despite the way that women have, over the past four decades, moved out of the home and into work, academia and politics, it is still women’s role in the family that shapes their destinies. Furthermore, shifts in the social climate in America and Britain have made mothering more difficult for women than ever before.

Warner was inspired to write the book when she and her family returned to the USA from Paris, where she worked as a correspondent for Newsweek magazine. In France she enjoyed the benefits of the pro-natalist policies that have been in place since the Second World War. She was able to afford a full-time nanny when her daughter was an infant for about $10,500 per year, followed by a preschool programme for only $150 per month. But it wasn’t simply that childcare was better and more affordable – there was a sense that raising children should not be the sole focus of a woman’s existence. It was expected that women should have time to themselves and be able to engage in activities with other adults without their children.

By comparison, friends from back home, and some American mothers she met while living in France, seemed oddly fixated on their children, following them around the playground clutching little plastic bags of Cheerios, or guilt-ridden at the thought of leaving them with the babysitter in order to go to work. She wrote these things off as personality quirks – until she moved to Washington, DC.

The first big shock was childcare. To afford the same level of childcare that Warner had enjoyed in France she discovered that she needed to take out a home equity loan. Some women she met spent their entire take-home salary on childcare, while others simply gave up trying to have a career, opting for part-time work or staying home with the kids.

The next shock was realising how women in America lived their lives. From abroad, it appeared to Warner that feminism had won American women ‘a sex-free public space in which they could operate with dignity, as people first and women second’. Up close, things were very different. Warner conducted over 150 interviews with women in the Washington, DC area and other parts of the country, and found a recurring pattern. A whole generation of middle-class women, many of whom had been successful in their professional lives prior to starting their families, were adjusting their living arrangements and expectations to meet the demands of raising their children.

For the vast majority, the result was a feeling of dissatisfaction, of being overwhelmed. It was, in the words of one newspaper editor working part-time at night so that she could raise her daughter, this mess.

What is this mess, and how did things get this way? According to Warner, this mess is a combination of the lack of public provision for childcare and other entitlements that would give women more flexibility in the way that they organise their domestic lives, and a climate in which adults focus intensely on children and child-rearing. This is a situation that affects everyone, but it affects women in a very deep and personal way.

Perfect Madness illustrates how the notion of what motherhood is and should be has shifted over time, reflecting anxieties in wider society. Warner calls this the ‘Motherhood Religion’, and shows how it has changed with each passing decade, from a balance between the needs of the relationship between husband and wife versus the children, to the needs of mothers versus children, to the present situation, where every aspect of the relationship between mothers and children is understood in terms of its effect upon the child. These observations are not unique, but Warner powerfully shows how women internalise the ‘Motherhood Religion’.

How is it, for instance, that the current generation of mothers, raised with the expectation that they could achieve more than any previous generation, seem so ready to abandon their ambitions in favour of being mothers first and foremost? What emerges is a story of ever-narrowing horizons. Warner suggests that feminism gave women the notion that they could, as individuals, achieve anything they set their minds to. But the emphasis on individual achievement overlooked the fact that society had not changed all that much. So if women didn’t succeed, it was perceived that they had only themselves to blame. A strange, over-inflated sense of omnipotence coexisted with a feeling of helplessness. In response, the daughters of feminism became a ‘generation of control freaks’.

Warner speculates that eating disorders and obsessions with personal health are manifestations of women’s attempt to assert some control in the one arena where some level of success could be guaranteed – their own bodies. For Warner, this desperate exaggeration of individual influence, combined with anxiety about lack of real control, has become second nature to the women who came of age in the 1980s and 1990s. It informs the way they experience motherhood, with the result that they try to manage every aspect of their children’s lives.

The consequence is the crazy atmosphere in which mothers find themselves today: the illusion of choice and the lengths women go to ‘do the right thing’ in an atmosphere where they are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. It means spending the weekend in the car ferrying the kids from one activity to the next, devoting hours to volunteering at schools, planning parties, doing homework and generally micro-managing children’s lives until the mothers have no energy left for themselves or their partners.

It would be easy to dismiss this ‘Perfect Madness’ as a preoccupation of the middle classes. After all, many women have no choice but to work regardless of the quality or cost of childcare. But no matter what a family’s material means, the fears and insecurities regarding child-rearing today affect all sections of society. And as Warner points out, when you start to look at women’s lives across social classes, it’s the similarities, not the differences, that are most striking. The issue is not whether women have the choice to work or not, but that they do not have the flexibility to arrange things in a way that is right for them and their families.

It is in this spirit that Warmer concludes with a call for changes that would make it possible for families to have real choices about the way they organise their private lives. These include things like affordable, good quality childcare, better maternity benefits and longer maternity leave. Everything she suggests is straightforward, sensible and really would make a difference for women. Unfortunately, however, they would barely tidy the edges of this mess.

It is not the cost of any of the measures that Warner proposes, or their practicality, that is at issue. Indeed, Warner has been invited to testify before Congress about the points she raises in her book. The cost and quality of childcare and education are crucial questions, and how they are
resolved will shape the lives of women and their children. But as important as these things are, they are not new and they are not the source of the problem. At the heart of this mess is a broader cultural uncertainty about motherhood and women’s role in society.

It is true that the burden of maintaining the family and raising the next generation falls disproportionately on women and impacts on every aspect of their lives. But this has been the case for a number of years. What has changed is society’s view of the family itself. Many of the assumptions about the family that our mothers and grandmothers held are no longer considered valid. The notion that the family is basically a good thing, and that parents know what is best for their children, is considered old-fashioned at best or dangerously naive at worst. It has now become conventional wisdom that we unwittingly damage our children in myriad ways simply by being parents.

When the family itself is considered suspect, and the dynamics of our relationships with our kids potentially harmful, it is not surprising that the pressure of being a mother is difficult for many women. Unfortunately, some people have drawn the conclusion from this that motherhood itself is problematic. Motherhood is no longer seen as just another part of life, but as something that happens to us and something that we are victims of.

Everything we experience tends to be seen through the prism of motherhood. Feeling sad is post-natal depression; feeling tired is ‘Maternal Depletion Syndrome’. If we’re distracted on the job, it’s because we’re torn between the demands of home and the workplace; if we’re unfulfilled at home it’s because stay-at-home-moms aren’t afforded enough prestige. Under these circumstances, even if all the practical suggestions made in Warner’s book were acted on, women would still be riddled with self-doubt.

Addressing the practical barriers to women’s full participation in society is incredibly important. Working with others to find better solutions to the problems we all face is a great way to create a new atmosphere of sanity about family life. But first, we need to reject the notion that motherhood is an ordeal. Instead of agonising over what being a mother has done to us, we should concentrate on making the kind of life we want, for ourselves, our partners and our children.

Nancy McDermott writes from the sand pit in Brooklyn, New York, where she looks after her two young sons.

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Topics Politics

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