Taking Themselves Too Seriously

Jul 28, 2005 |Roberto Rivera y Carlo

Judith Warner's book, "Perfect Madness" is getting a lot of press, as is the broader topic of mommy anxiety. It's high time to expose Warner's whining.

In the Rivera household, July 28 is an unofficial holiday. Here in Washington, it's the day that the average high temperature finally starts going down. (As Yogi Berra is supposed to have said, "you can look it up.") Within a few days it will be August, then Labor Day and after that, the start of a new school year.

As you may have noticed, my life pretty much revolves around my parental duties. They shape my priorities and even my calendar. If there's one thing I learned in 13 years of juggling work and parenthood, it's that life is no longer your own, at least not in the way it was before you had kids.

But as difficult as parenting can sometimes be, it could be worse. A lot worse. I could live about 10 miles, as the proverbial crow flies, to my northeast. That would place me in the upper Northwest Washington neighborhood where many of the women interviewed in Judith Warner’s recent book Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety live. There, for some reason, being a parent isn’t difficult, it’s the source of almost endless misery with little, if anything, to commend the experience.

At the heart of this misery is what Warner calls the “Mommy Mystique.” Just as Betty Friedan’s “Feminine Mystique” held that the unhappiness that 1950s women felt was due to a belief system that located their meaning and identity in being a wife and mother, Warner’s “Mommy Mystique” makes contemporary beliefs about motherhood the source of the anxiety, apprehension and even despair that many mothers feel. Motherhood in early 21st century America is characterized by a “widespread, choking cocktail of guilt and anxiety and resentment and regret ...”

All that baking, costume-making and birthday partying is producing dispirited and desperate women who differ mostly in degree, not kind, from Andrea Yates, the Texas woman who drowned her five kids one after another in the bathtub. (Obviously motherhood can’t be that bad or else the human race would have died out millennia ago.)

Warner’s overwrought rhetoric — one of her interviewees recalled the anxiety she felt at her son’s fourth birthday party: “I didn’t have the perfect ‘mother of the birthday boy’ sweater to throw on over my jeans so that I looked chic yet casual” — makes it unnecessarily easy to discount and even dismiss her larger point: many American women feel that the demands of motherhood are deleterious to their emotional well-being.

The question is “why?” Wherever we find anxiety and apprehension, we’re sure to find expectations nearby. In Warner’s analysis, these expectations are the result of “advice,” “counsel” and other cultural scripts that tell women that today’s women “have the knowledge and know-how to make ‘informed decisions’ that will guarantee the successful course of our children’s lives.”

Of course, this kind of “knowledge” is a two-edged sword: if applying it assures success, failure to do so means that “our children will fall prey to countless dangers — from insecure attachment to drugs to kidnapping to a third-rate college ...” That makes “every decision we make, every detail we control ... incredibly important.” This is the heart of Warner’s “Mommy Mystique.”

But frustrated omni-competence alone isn’t enough to produce the “madness.” Something else is needed. For Warner, it’s that these women are being asked to do too much without the necessary support. The ideal against which Warner compares the experiences of American mothers is her six years in France. That’s when her children were born and it’s where she experienced a culture that didn’t require women “to justify simply being who they were.”

Part of this freedom to be “who they were” included “life-enhancing” social benefits like state-provided childcare, generous maternity leave and extensive pre-school programs. But it was more than government programs — it was the attitude the French took toward their children: no children’s soccer, no Girl Scout cookie sales-meetings or any other children’s activities at night.

For Warner’s French acquaintances, such activities would be evidence of mental imbalance and an insufficient regard for self. Likewise, kids “ate in the kitchens and played in their rooms,” leaving the living and dining rooms for adult entertaining. In other words, the boundaries between the children’s world and the adult world was more intact than it is here in the States.

As I said, Perfect Madness raises some important questions. Unfortunately, not only do you have to compensate for the book’s overwrought rhetoric — Ruth Franklin of the New Republic called the book a “screed” — you also have to see beyond Warner’s and her interviewees’ cultural and political myopia. When Warner writes “all mothers in America,” she’s really writing about upper middle class women like her and her Upper Northwest DC neighbors. Their (as Franklin characterized it) “nasal twang of bourgeois entitlement” permeates Perfect Madness.

That’s bad not only because the “twang” is annoying but because there is a class of women who need the kind of help Warner got in France: women who would be thrilled if their kids one day graduated from a “third-rate college.” For these women, “madness” isn’t the product of some frustrated pursuit of “limitless possibility” and “unbounded self-creation.” Nor does it spring from the desire to control every variable in a child’s life to make sure she attends one of US News & World Report’s top colleges. No, it’s the result of trying to get their kids’ basic material and emotional needs met without working themselves into an early grave.

This distinction is usually the first thing to go in discussions of the balance between work and family. Even Franklin’s excellent review speaks of the need to continue working “for economic, personal or professional reasons” as if the three were interchangeable. It should be possible — no, make that mandatory — to respect these motives while, at the same time, acknowledging that any assistance that we as a society offer working moms should target those who need the help the most. Talking about “work and family” without pointing out the very real class differences at work only ensures that the people who most need help won’t get it.

Speaking of assistance, the most likely source of help for overwhelmed moms -- their husbands -- are of little, if any, help in Warner’s account. Women who thought they were marrying their “best friends” have ended up “sorely disappointed.” They’ve learned the hard way that “co-parenting” was “little more than a pipe dream.” Warner doesn’t blame men; instead she blames the “fact” (her quotation marks) that “men and women are ‘just different.’” She calls this belief a “rationalization for our society’s inability to accommodate the worlds of work and family.”

Without minimizing the stress Warner and her interviewees are feeling, there’s another inability at work in her narrative: the inability to grasp which parts of the worlds of work and family are actually optional. If the price of your daughter belonging to a particular troop is evening Girl Scout cookie sales-meetings and other absurd demands on your time, forget about it. If trying to get your kid into Dartmouth or Wesleyan is stressing you out and causing you to work longer hours than you’d like to pay the tuition, he can go to a state school. (After all, the big difference in lifetime earnings is between those who graduated from college and those who didn’t.) The same is true for music and dance lessons, year-round soccer and Little League, computer camps and every other form of “enrichment” you can think of.

What Franklin says about the motherhood chronicle, that it’s “a genre defined by its solipsism,” is just as true when men like me write about their experiences. My myopia is the product of having been one of five kids raised by a single mother and then the primary caregiver to an autistic child. Both experiences place a premium on figuring out what matters most because neither leaves you with a surfeit of energy to expend on marginally useful pursuits.

With my son, as with all kids, there’s always “something else”: a program, approach, activity, etc. The question is whether the benefits outweigh the costs, by which I mean not the time and energy I might expend — although I’m very cognizant of both — but whether it impedes my ability to simply enjoy my son. (Like some of the moms Warner describes, I read Goodnight Moon to David approximately 9,562 times. I can still see the look of delight on his face.) Raising kids is tiring enough without the kind of over-scheduling that leaves us too tired or resentful to want to be around them. Now that would be mad.

Copyright 2005 Roberto Rivera y Carlo. All rights reserved.

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