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Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety.

Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety By Judith Warner Riverhead Books. 336 pages. $23.95.

If only Judith Warner were funnier. I could imagine her as a Roz Chast cartoon of a harried, type-A mom driving herself crazy reading parenting books and taking them way too seriously. Early in Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety, Warner describes her reaction to the advice that she read, sing, and talk to her baby: "I talked and sang and made up stories and did funny voices and narrated car rides and read at mealtimes until, when my daughter turned four and a half, I realized I had turned into a human television set, so filled with twenty-four-hour children's programming that I felt as though I had no thoughts left of my own."

Warner quickly departs from the personal and launches into an impassioned and rather harsh critique of motherhood in America, filled with italicized declarations about how bad things are. Alas, comic moments in Perfect Madness are few and far between. The book, a sort of report from the front lines of motherhood among well-heeled Washingtonians, is almost unrelentingly grim.

The gist of Perfect Madness is that we (Warner says "we" a lot)--mothers in our thirties and forties--are miserable, nervous wrecks. We've turned motherhood into a ferocious competitive sport. We're destroying our lives. Our marriages suck. We've downsized our career ambitions and are now stewing in anger and resentment. We're going out of our heads overcompensating for our low self-esteem and anxiety by overprotecting and overparenting our kids. Yada, yada, yada. Nary a word in 336 long, anguished pages hinting that having children is a joy, that spending time with them, in addition to being a lot of work, might actually be fun.

While most of the buzz about Warner's book (cover of Newsweek, segment on Nightline, major reviews, interwiews, and publicity courtesy of William Morris) has focused on her endorsement of laudable, and familiar, policy goals--affordable, high-quality preschool and more Family-friendly employment opportunities--the bulk of it is a scathing cultural critique of the way we are raising our kids today. Warner came back from a plum assignment in Paris and found herself bored, restless, and miserable, stuck at home with the kids in Washington, D.C. So she set about cataloging the foibles of a certain genus of uptight, neurotic professional wives in her neighborhood and similar environs. From the sufferings of this elite group she extrapolated to produce a critique of "all that is messed up in America."

Her best anecdote comparing the United States to France is her description of how, in France, they laughed at her "guilt" over sending her child to a part-day preschool. "Do you have a mini arts studio in your home?" a friend asked. "Do you have a playhouse and a variety of tricycles?" She quickly realized that preschool in France was both affordable and great for kids. Then she came back to America. "In Washington, everything was different. The homes around me were equipped like mini arts studios. Many people had backyard equipment that rivaled public parks. And there was a sense that whatever was done at home was best."

Her point--that the privatization of childrearing isolates stay-at-home mothers and working parents alike, leaving them, and their children, with no network of support--is well taken. But then she veers off into taking shots at the parenting practices of a minority of her upper-middle-class peers.

Warner acknowledges that her failure to include working class families among her interview subjects is a limitation. But she justifies herself with a wave at the upper-middle-class values that dominate our culture, saying "The ways of the upper middle class affect everyone--including, to their detriment, the working class and the poor.... Thus to understand the conflicts, and, I would say, the pathologies of upper-middle-class thinking is to understand the often perplexing state of family politics in America."

Not really. The big weakness of Warner's book is that it confuses the tics of a very specialized group of rich women with a broader critique of how we treat children in America. Because of this basic confusion, she gets some things exactly backwards: chiefly, that being too attached, too coddling, too "child-centered" is the American family's big problem. Just the opposite is true.

Warner herself acknowledges that 90 percent of Americans ignore mainstream advice not to spank their kids or let their toddlers watch too much TM. She notes that the day care where so many families are obliged to leave their very young children for many long hours each day is of horrendously low quality. Yet she is tireless in her attack on people who co-sleep, nurse, limit TV watching, and focus too much attention on their kids.

Of her return to America, and her observations of other mothers, she writes, "It all amounted to a great leap backward.... To see them make a fetish of hand-sewn Halloween costumes and homemade baby food. To see them subordinate their life's goals to the furtherance of their husbands' careers."

"No act was too asinine," she writes of moms who quit their jobs to focus on their preschoolers' shoe-tying skills or who poured their energy and ambition into planning the perfect birthday party.

She derides "the self-flagellation, the guilt, and the titter idiocy of so much of The Mess" (her catchall phrase for the whole state of motherhood in America today).

Warner's number one point is that society should offer mothers more support. But her book undermines them.

Unlike Ann Crittenden's excellent book, The Price of Motherhood, which made a case for the tremendous economic, social, and human value of mothering, and included the stories of truly heroic mothers, Warner offers a lot of snide criticism. The women she describes are anything but admirable.

"[Our mothers] see us singing and rolling on the floor in our sweatpants, getting glitter glue and soy milk everywhere, and they think we're crazy," Warner writes.

Better to be in France, where the women look chic and the kids eat in the kitchen and play in their rooms, she suggests. But what if Warner had lived in Sweden, where women breastfeed for a year and have proportional representation in the government? There's a certain arbitrariness to the way she globs together criticism of parenting styles and politics.

Warner winds up her chapter entitled "Millennial Motherhood" by moving from the "asinine" to the tragic. At the end of a chapter devoted mainly to mothers with "a wonderful education, a wonderful husband, a nice big house, two children, and full-time help," who feel empty inside, she arrives at Andrea Yates.

Of the deranged fundamentalist Christian who drowned her five children in the bathtub, Warner writes, "At another time, in another culture, without this eras particular set of pressures, would Andrea Yates have become a supermom gone unhinged? Would she have hilled her children?"

In her urgency, Warner has skipped over a few important distinctions. For example, the difference between being an upper-middle-class striver who wears herself out staging a birthday party, and a fundamentalist whose husband moves the whole family into a bus, where she home-schools her five kids all by herself.

It's not only mothers who are in for a rough ride in Perfect Madness, but women in general. For it turns out there's no one Warner can see as a model of decency, happiness, or good health.

The life story Warner sketches out is a huge bummer. "We" women of Generation X were Reaganites, turned off by politics, neurotic narcissists, plagued by eating disorders, control freaks about food, exercise, work, and sex. We grew up, some of us got married, had children, and, surprise, surprise, we're still a bunch of miserable control freaks. Our divorced, unhappy mothers--the feminists of the 1970s--are no models, she writes. As single women, we were "self-belittling," desperate for dates, and yet "knew enough to hate ourselves for it." We don't like strident feminists. We don't like second-class-status housewives. We don't like our mothers or our grandmothers, or any other women, it seems.

It's not just that I resent the imposition of this rather unflattering life story, though I do. I found that I began to resent reading such a long and relentlessly joyless description of family life to get to Warner's perfectly reasonable and right-on policy suggestions. If only the author hadn't alienated so many would-be allies with her condemning tone. If only she didn't deride as pathological the delicious sensuality of mothering. It struck me as bizarre the way she takes out after attachment parenting--the touchy-feely parenting style generally associated with earthy-crunchy co-op shoppers. But then, I live in Madison, Wisconsin, where hanging out with your kids for fun, not competition, is considered normal. In truth, this book is as much about yuppie life in Washington, D.C., where the playground is just another venue for social climbing, as it is about motherhood.

The pessimism of Perfect Madness is so overwhelming, you are saved only by the fact that the misery she describes is happening mostly to people who are very well off and, you'd think, able to change their situation if they desire.

When she finally gets to her policy recommendations, Warner belatedly takes up the cause of the working poor. She even derides the media's obsessive focus on rich women. But her whole book up to that point is focused on the same group. The most impressive fact in her book leaps out: "Even if America were proportionately to spend as much as France does on subsidized child care and paid leave--increasing our budget outlays by $85 billion a year--it would still cost less than the Bush tax cuts."

But our country isn't likely to change its priorities, she writes. If Warner lacks the energy and optimism to push for her policy goals, all she leaves us with is her critique of parenting. That's too bad, because her insistence that children should play a less central role in Americans' lives actually dovetails nicely with the neglectful nonsystem of child care we currently have. If, as Warner argues, it's ridiculous to worry too much about brain development, secure emotional attachment to a caregiver, and the other bedrock concerns of child-development experts, why make a big push for quality care?

In the end, Warner has written a long book about motherhood that pretty much ignores the needs of children.

Here's how she concludes:

"Two years of talking and writing ... living in the crucible of all that is messed up in America today ... I find myself, when things get really tense (report card time, class mother duties), fantasizing about eventually Opting Out. Running away--back to France--before high school starts, before the anorexia kicks in and the college-application-prep summer camps begin, and the robotic performance of community service begins to eat up weekends."


Warner's heart of darkness is not most of America, where parents are working around the clock and corporate-chain day care centers are proliferating--treating their employees as badly as low-wage workers in any other industry, and their "product" (American children) like cheap goods warehoused at discount prices.

No, Warner's nightmare America, her "crucible," is the Washington where, she writes, "four of my second-grader's girlfriends have told me they are 'on a diet.'" And, "'It's hard to do homework after a 7 p.m. hockey game,' I hear."

It does sound awful. But this sort of life, it must be said, is optional.

I agree with Warner that sexism is alive and well. Too many women are pulling a double shift. Our society undervalues children and their caregivers--both paid and unpaid. But the people I admire most have a different worldview from Warner. These men and women--great parents and grandparents and child development experts and preschool teachers--take a keen interest in children. Their love and patience is a hopeful model, not just for parents, but for everyone, I think.

For there is, in addition to the sleep loss and the compromise of self and the hard physical and emotional work and rest of the mess of parenthood, the extreme joy and delight and satisfaction that it entails. Best of all, having children makes us see the sweetness of life in the moment, and step outside ourselves. In that way it can be a window on a better and happier way of living.

There is probably no more important ingredient in good parenting than keeping your sense of humor. Likewise, out of an appreciation for what's hilarious and beautiful and wonderful about having children, it seems to me, a better society can grow.

Ruth Conniff is Political Editor of The Progressive.
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Author:Conniff, Ruth
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 1, 2005
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