Mommy Fearest

By Frances Goldscheider / May / June 2005
May 3rd, 2007

Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety by Judith Warner '87 (Riverhead/Penguin).

When Judith Warner became a mother she was living in France, where she was a special correspondent for Newsweek in Paris. She smoothly added parenting to her responsibilities as a wife and a journalist thanks to ample support services and an atmosphere that felt sane to her. Then she and her husband moved back to the United States. She was horrified to find herself in a very different state of affairs - the "perfect madness" of her new book's title.

Swept up in the lifestyle of a suburban stay-at-home mom, she bought an SUV, enrolled her unathletic older daughter in soccer, and worried she'd have to take out a home-equity loan to pay baby-sitters in order to get back to writing. How, she asked, did American mothers get into this mess?

Warner, a political re?porter whose nonfiction in?cludes the biography Hillary Clinton: The Inside Story and You Have the Power, which she coauthored with Howard Dean, tackled the state of American motherhood by interviewing and exchanging e-mails with about 120 upper-middle-class mothers and a few fathers, mostly in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. In addition to these interviews, which she conducted individually and in groups, she read voraciously, from the early statements of such second-wave feminists as Betty Friedan to the social science literature on combining work and family.

Warner found that mothers in the United States are left to sink or swim on their own. Public facilities are so underfunded that a major activity of the mothers she interviewed was fund-raising for local schools. At the same time, because of Americans' individualistic approach to nearly everything, parents - mostly mothers - spend time and energy organizing supplementary lessons and sports practices. Even in so-called good neighborhoods, she found that fear of the outside, of strangers - of who knows what - prevents most children from playing on their own outdoors with other children; instead they are driven around to "play dates" that turn mothers into chauffeurs and restrict their social contact to fellow play-date parents.

Warner directs much of her anger toward the shortage of quality, subsidized child care in the United States and the lack of family-leave programs that are available in much of Europe. But she also takes aim at a dilemma peculiar to women of her generation, who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s. Second-wave feminism seemed well established for these women, and they felt empowered to make whatever choices they wanted. In Warner's view, that freedom makes her peers particularly unable to blame society - whether for sexism or for the lack of social services - when the choices they made became unsatisfying.

Many of the mothers in Warner's book want to give up traditional women's roles - but not entirely. In a chapter on husbands, her interviewees praise their spouses for doing as much as they do around the house - often a lot - but also blame the men for not doing more. At the same time, these women regard men who cut back their work hours to spend time with their children as, well, losers. "None [of the well-off women she interviewed] would have dreamed of having her high-achieving husband cut back on his hours or earning potential," Warner reports.

Resentful of their husbands' inadequate contributions to family life, these women withhold sex. Instead, they focus their emotions on their children, physically attaching themselves to their babies through prolonged breast-feeding and family beds. Once their toddlers are weaned, the mothers expect near-continuous interaction with their children, doing everything for and with them. These same moms are surprised when their children take them for granted and don't respect them.

Warner's book has been widely reviewed, with many critics expressing disdain for these "spoiled" women who have so little, relatively speaking, to complain about. Her interviewees express the same concern. What is missing from her analysis, I think, is a more systematic consideration of the gender and couple issues she raises. The mothers she studied learned not only to aspire to equality with men in the public sphere but also to devalue the tasks of the private sphere of the family. As a result, they resent "having" to do household chores.

Warner's interviewees, however, are clearly not ready to share that sphere with men; it may be their remaining claim to a distinctive feminine identity. Much as men and women took on spurious gender distinctions after World War II, burying Rosie the Riveter as deeply as they could, today's young women seem frightened by genuine equality, clutching at motherhood to be quintessential moms. Men, these women agree, are unsafe parents, either because they're inattentive or because they are naturally vicious (the testosterone problem). Even as these women call their husbands' parenting inadequate, they make sure the men don't try harder. Most of the husbands in turn find their wives' definitions of appropriate parenting ludicrous.

My guess is that if Warner had spent time with families that have fewer choices, she would have found more genuine sharing, more men spending time with their children while their wives work a different shift to save on child-care expenses. She would have found families that have adjusted to the two-job family and found it rewarding. But Americans don't look to the working class for role models; the upper middle class is the opinion leader, and for them, the gender revolution is painfully stalled.

Sociology Professor Frances Goldscheider specializes in gender and the family.

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May / June 2005