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Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of…

Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety

by Judith Warner

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Recommended in All Joy and No Fun and Mistakes I Made at Work.

Part I: The Mommy Mystique
Part II: The Motherhood Religion
Part III: Ourselves, as Mothers


Chapter 1 - Introduction: The Mommy Mystique

If you have been brought up, all your life, being told you have wonderful choices, you tend, when things go wrong, to assume you have made the wrong choices - not to see that the "choices" given you were wrong in the first place. (9)

[The French women] did not have to buttress themselves against the psychological violence it does to someone who has striven for a goal all her adult life to suddenly discover that her contribution is not "valuable" enough to justify its continuation. (15)

...it is true that the "feminine" realm in France is not routinely denigrated, as it is in the United States. (17)

It [is] time...to shift the focus of our political debates away from parochial notions of equality and concentrate more on working to guarantee us all - men, women, and children alike - a decent quality of life. (19)

....the very same women who turned themselves inside out trying to create a perfect world for their children greeted suggestions that society might work to create a better world for all families with sharp hostility. (30)

...if you support mothers materially, you support them emotionally, and this support translates into a much lower level of anxiety, and a much greater level of mental freedom. (31)

...there are things that are sayable and unsayable about motherhood today....You can talk about society's lack of "appreciation" of mothers and the need for more social validation - but not about policy solutions that might actually make life better....We lack the most basic notions now of what a different kind of culture might look or feel like. (31-32)

Chapter 2 - The New Problem That Has No Name

"[Mothers are] permitting the time saved by the mechanical devices to be wiped out by increased standards of performance." (Redbook, 40 years ago, 35)

As young women, we had choices - endless choices. But motherhood made it often impossible to act on our choices. Or gave us choices on the order of: You can continue to pursue your dreams at the cost of abandoning your children to long hours of inadequate child care. These were choices that didn't feel like choices at all. And they came at the cost of our "full human potential." (52)

What kind of life is it when you have to choose between becoming a mother and remaining yourself? (53)

"One of the most surprising things about our current culture of motherhood is that while it inspires widespread complaint, it has not led to any kind of organized movement for change. (53)

The desperate, grasping, and controlling way so many women go about the job of motherhood, turning energy that could be used to demand social change inward into control-freakishness, is our hallmark as a generation. We have taken it upon ourselves as supermothers to be everything to our children that society refuses to be... (54)

There seems to be a society-wide refusal to think about the problems of motherhood in big-issue terms. There is a kind of mental allergy to talking about external causes for our woes. The mind rebels against external threats and fixates instead on controllable private nonsense. (56)

Chapter 3 - The Sacrificial Mother

"We have changed the standards of what constitutes good mothering" -Suzanne Bianchi, University of Maryland, on her finding that mothers today (working or non) spend more time per child than mothers in the 1960s (77)

"If we consider self-assertion, independence, and responsibility to be desirable traits in adults, then children should be reared to facilitate the development of these qualities." -Alice Rossi, 1964 (78)

[Over the course of the 1970s], a consensus emerged that made self-fulfillment a precondition of good motherhood... "When a woman bends her own needs and desires out of shape to accommodate the needs of others, the strain of that sacrifice shows up in the quality of her mothering." (McCall's, 84)

Chapter 4 - Selfish Mothers, Forsaken Children

The total lack of proportion between the severity of our "crimes" (real and imagined) and the mount of guilt they inspired should have set off warning bells. (98)

...I've seen women living motherhood as an exercise in correction, trying to heal the wounds of their childhoods and, prophylactically, to seal their children against future pain. (102)

...having a working (hence, absent) mother is not the thing most mothers today cite as the cause of their mom-related psychological woes. It's having had an unhappy mother. (105)

[Penn State University developmental psychologist Jay Belsky] said publicly that his new research was being misconstrued...he'd intended it to serve not as an indictment of day care per se, but to illustrate our country's need for better day care. (108-109)

Chapter 5 - Millennial Motherhood

The argument that it didn't pay for a mother to work out of the home when her children were small was now accepted wisdom. Whereas, half a generation earlier, a woman's work was believed to be of intrinsic value, now it was balanced against a laundry list of day-to-day expenses... (117)

Virtually no one lived up to the new standards of parenting perfection... [e.g. the American Academy of Pediatrics standards stating that children under 2 shouldn't watch TV] ...I frequently saw mothers who were loath to set limits on their children's behavior suddenly snap into a rage that was way out of proportion to the incident that provoked it. (120)

It all amounted to a great leap backward....Some of the most basic tenets of 1970s feminism...were being undone. (121)

Chapter 6 - The Motherhood Religion

Women worried...What were they to do about the unforeseen and now seemingly unresolvable conflicts in their lives? How could they make sense of the fact that they couldn't live up to the full scope of their ambitions if they wanted to have kids? (140)

Addressing the most glaring problem in American child care - the lack of national standards - was simply considered a hopeless cause. (141)

The stress of raising a family with virtually no social safety net. (141)

All this moralizing we routinely do is a ridiculous waste of time an energy. And it also rests upon assumptions that have no basis in reality. Chief among them: that mothers do what they do most of the time out of choice....People repeat these ideas about our "choices" all the time...And yet, they just aren't true. (145)

What's "unnatural" about motherhood today...is not that mothers work but rather that their "striving for status" and their maternal emotions" have been compartmentalized....women really areforced to choose between providing for and nurturing their children. (Sarah Hrdy, 151)

Imagine how productive it would be if we stopped obsessing on the morality of staying at home versus working and focused instead on the material conditions that stress all mothers...? (153)

...these results pointing to the effects of class and inadequate child care in America were recast to denounce working motherhood. (155)

"Instead of saying, 'I feel terrible. I feel guilty,' maybe [women] can take these results and advocate for [national] family-leave policies that create more options for mothers of babies....Every other industrialized nation has done it. Why can't we?" (Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, 155)

Chapter 7 - A Generation of Control Freaks

We have developed a tendency, as a generation, to privatize our problems. To ferociously work at fixing and perfecting ourselves - instead of focusing on ways we might get society to fix itself. (163)

Young women coming of age in the 1980s and early 1990s faced an identity problem: How did you grow up from an empowered girl into an empowered woman in a culture that wasn't growing up with you? (172-173)

...the devolution in the abortion-rights movement's language from a rhetoric of "rights" to one of "choice" in the wake of Roe v. Wade... (Rickie Salinger, 179)

Roe v. Wade could have set a precedent of making women's bodies essentially off-limits to the government...But it didn't. (181-182)

Chapter 8 - Running Scared

Out-and-out surveillance [of our children] is a normal activity. (194)

The irony of all this is that we are now, arguably, living at the safest time for children that the world has ever known. (195)

We live among so much anxiety today that, often enough, we don't even feel it. We are desensitized to it, as to the violence in action movies. (207)

...policy, economics, and culture are perceived as being things that we have no control over...And so we fixate on those things we feel we can control. (209)

We tend to think that it is normal for families to soldier on, alone and unsupported and stressed, as they do now. That is because in our conscious lifetime it has never been any other way. [Yet things used to be very different...] There were actually government programs in place to strengthen and buttress the middle class...by creating the economic conditions that allowed families to thrive. (212)

We can't achieve our ideals of family life today because of economic policies and political decisions that have brought a miserable level of stress and financial strain to middle-class families. (213)

Chapter 9 - Winner-Take-All Parenting

In the past, if home was meant to be a haven from the workplace, it was because there was an acknowledgment that the values of the workplace were not the ones you wanted in your home. But there is no such awareness now. (221)

Some exposure to dirt may strengthen a child's immune system. Similarly, many experts now say that some exposure to adversity - to unpleasantness, sadness, fear, or failure - may give children the tools they need to make it through life with real strength. (234)

Chapter 10 - Wonderful Husbands

The "fact" that men and women are "just different" has become the rationalization for our society's inability to accommodate the worlds of work and family. (246)

Mothers...still play the role of the "psychological parent" in most families - "the one who is always mindful of, and feels a direct personal responsibility for, the whereabouts and the feelings of each child, who knows what emotional supports they need, what size shoes they wear..." (quoting a 1976 book on working motherhood, 248)

[Women do more housework than men, even when men are unemployed] ...all the different kinds of work that keep a family functioning are not the same. There is a different status attached to [housework] than there is to bringing home a paycheck. (249)

Most fathers, working and nonworking mothers note, know how to take care of themselves. (251)

Chapter 11 - For a Politics of Quality of Life

"Motherhood has been the center of a culture war instead of an economic policy debate." -Ellen Goodman (258)

...You can accommodate the demands of a more average kind of ambition with motherhood. The kind of ambition that most women (and most men) have: which is to work a sufficient number of hours to earn a sufficient amount of money to buy their families a sufficiently good standard of living. Or at least you ought to be able to. Women in other societies (notably in Western Europe) can. But that's because in other countries society intervenes to make it possible. Other countries believe that lessening the burdens that keep average women and their families from achieving balance in their own lives is precisely what society can - and ought - to do. (261)

Way too much verbiage is spent on maintaining the illusion of mothers' "choices," too much energy is spent diverting attention from the fact that without help from the government, mothers have only the most paltry options to choose from. (267)

What [do] families need? Simply put: institutions that can help us take care of our children so that we don't have to do everything on our own. We need institutions made accessible and affordable and of guaranteed high quality by government funding, oversight, and standards. (268)

And which is the better form of parenting: to teach our children the single-minded selfishness they need to thrive in the winner-take-all society - or to change that society so that everyone wins? (274)

[Paraphrasing Betty Friedan] If women are really to be equal, no more, no less, then all the things that still keep them from being equal in our society have to change. (274)

...the structures of our society as they currently exist do not allow mothers to make meaningful choices. (275)

"If you keep banging your head against the wall, you're going to have headaches." (a French doctor to the author, 278) ( )
  JennyArch | Aug 18, 2014 |
According to Warner, mothers in modern (Western) society are more stressed than ever before. Women are expected to have children, work, grocery shop, clean, prepare dinners, and coordinate stellar birthday parties and award-winning science projects. Perfectionism emerges in all the above scenarios. Women should not just have children, they should have smart, athletic, good-looking, well-rounded children. Women should not just work, they should do something meaningful and important with their careers. Women should not just take care of the house, they should prepare homemade, organic baby food and such.
Warner says we've allowed ourselves to be pushed into these roles, and we're bearing the consequences of sleepless nights, corroding marriages, and irritable tempers. She recommends, basically, that the government step in to help.

Unsurprisingly, Warner is from France, where there is a 35 hour work week for both men and women, government-subsidized and regulated daycare is available to all, and laws provide extensive maternity/paternity leave. Women should lead the way in finishing the womens' liberation movement.

Let's just say I have my doubts as to whether government is really the answer here, but Warner gives an interesting chronology of the expectations of motherhood through the 20th century and certainly hits on the fact that mothers these days are expected (by others and themselves) to do a lot, and maybe we should all take a good look at how motherhood, fatherhood, and work environments could be altered to make everyone's lives a little better. ( )
1 vote MorganGMac | Feb 21, 2011 |
all moms should read ( )
  busymombookclub | Jun 9, 2010 |
After reading the "Perfect Madness. Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety" I was honestly wondering why any woman would ever chose to have a child. Maybe Judith Warner just painted a very grim picture, but according to her book it doesn't sound as if there is much to be gained from motherhood. She made it sound like all sacrifice and no play. The ideal of an egalitarian marriage in which all the child rearing and household duties are equally shared seems to be a myth. Apparently mothers still get stuck with the most chores and on top of that mothers of today raised the pressure by striving for insanely perfect standards. What happened to feminism? And why aren't more women really upset about this? ( )
  Lilac_Lily01 | Apr 30, 2009 |
Thanks Judith
  ptzop | Nov 28, 2008 |
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What is wrong with this picture? That's the question Judith Warner asks after taking a good, hard look at the world of modern motherhood--at anxious women at work and at home and in bed with unhappy husbands. When Warner had her first child, she was living in Paris, where parents routinely left their children home with state-subsidized nannies. When she returned to the States, she was stunned by the cultural differences she found toward motherhood. None of the mothers she met seemed happy: Instead, they worried about the possibility of not having the perfect child, panicking as each developmental benchmark approached. Combining close readings of mainstream magazines, TV shows, and pop culture with a thorough command of dominant ideas in recent psychological, social, and economic theory, this book addresses our cultural assumptions, and examines the forces that have shaped them.… (more)

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