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Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety Hardcover – February 17, 2005
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The old adage is especially true for Perfect Madness: don't judge this eminently readable book by its stern and academic-looking cover. Judith Warner's missive on the "Mommy Mystique" can be read in a weekend, if readers have the time. Of course--according to the book--many would-be readers will have to carve out the hours in between an endless sea of child-enriching activities, a soul-sucking swirl that leads many mothers into a well of despair. Warner's book seeks to answer the question, "Why are today's young mothers so stressed out?" Whether shuttling kids to "enriching" after-school activities or worrying about the quality of available child care, the women of Perfect Madness describe a life far out of balance. Warner spends most of the book explaining how things got to this point, and what can be done to restore some sanity to the parenting process.
Warner draws her research from a group of 20- to 40-year-old, upper-middle-class, college-educated women living in the East Coast corridor. In other words, mirror images of Warner herself. Her limited scope has caused controversy and criticism, as have some of her more sweeping statements. (For example, Warner blames second-wave feminism--rather than corporate culture--for the many limitations women still experience as they try to balance the work-family dynamic.) Other favorite targets include the mainstream media, detached fathers, and controlling, "hyperactive" mothers who create impossible standards for themselves, their children, and the community of other parents around them. Warner begins and ends the book with a compelling argument for the need for more societal support of mothers--quality-of-life government "entitlements" such as those found in France. It's these big-picture issues that will provide the solution, she says, even if most mothers don't want to discuss them because they consider the topic "tacky, strident-sounding, not the point." In these sections on governmental policy, and also when she steps back, encouraging women to be kinder to each other, the author's warmth comes across easily on the page. Pilloried by some readers and supported by others, Warner should at least be applauded for opening up the Pandora's Box of American motherhood for a new generation. And if readers are of two minds about the issues raised Perfect Madness, as Warner sometimes seems to be herself, it's a fitting reaction to a topic with few easy answers. --Jennifer Buckendorff END
From The New Yorker
In this polemic about contemporary motherhood, Warner argues that the gains of feminism are no match for the frenzied perfectionism of American parenting. In the absence of any meaningful health, child-care, or educational provisions, martyrdom appears to be the only feasible model for successful maternity—with destructive consequences for both mothers and children. Comparing this situation with her experiences of child-rearing in France, Warner finds American "hyper-parenting"—pre-school violin and Ritalin on demand—"just plain crazy." The trouble is a culture that, though it places enormous private value on children, neglects them in the arena of public policy. She is concerned less with sexual politics than with the more pervasive effects of the "winner takes all" mentality, and makes an urgent case for more socially integrated parenthood.
Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker
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She wrote in the Foreword to this 2005 book, “[This book] is about how middle-class families---and mothers in particular---are struggling to find their way through all the pressure and strain and stress and worry they must contend with, day in and day out. It’s about what happens to women (and men) when they feel entirely unsupported, about how they flounder and flail and go a little bit nuts when they try to take on a level of responsibility for their families that no person should or could ever be expected to shudder alone. It’s about the way that the mothers’ (and fathers’) behaviors have been perverted by social and economic forces that they feel they cannot control. It’s about how that feeling of being out of control drives them to parent in ways that are contrary to their better instincts, their deepest values, and the best interests of their children.” (Pg. xv)
In the Preface, she adds, “This is a very personal book. It is a snapshot of motherhood---of parenthood, really---as I found it … from the fall of 2000 to the summer of 2004… It’s not a scholarly history… It is, rather, an exploration of a feeling. That caught-by-the-throat feeling so many mothers have today of ALWAYS doing something wrong. And it’s about a conviction I have that this feeling… is poisoning motherhood for American women today… And drowning out thoughts that might lead us, collectively, to formulate solutions. The feeling… doesn’t really have a name. It’s not depression. It’s not oppression. It’s … existential discomfort. A ‘mess,’ as one women I interviewed called it, for lack of a better word.” (Pg. 3-4)
She observes, “the working moms I knew were stressed near the breaking point, looking tired and haggard and old. They shared the same high-level at-home parenting ambitions as the nonworking moms. But they held down out-of-home jobs, to---and if this wasn’t enough, they also had to shoulder the burden of Guilt, a media-fed drone that played in their ears every time they sat in traffic at dinnertime: Had they made the right choices?... Should they be working less, differently, not at all? Were they really good enough mothers?... It seemed to me that although they were to all appearances fully liberated from the ‘Feminine Mystique’ of [Betty] Friedan’s time, they, like the stay-at-home moms, were equally burdened by a new set of life-draining pressures, a new kind of soul-draining perfectionism. I came to think of this as the ‘MOMMY Mystique.’” (Pg. 13)
She continues, “The Mommy Mystique tells us that we are the luckiest women in the world---the freest, with the most choices, the broadest horizons, the best luck, and the most wealth. It says we have the knowledge and know-how to make ‘informed decisions’ that will guarantee the successful course of our children’s lives. It tells us that if we choose badly our children will fall prey to countless dangers---from insecure attachment to drugs to kidnapping to a third-rate college. And if this happens… we have no one but ourselves to blame. Because to point fingers at society… is to shirk ‘personal responsibility.’ To admit that we cannot do everything ourselves… is tantamount to admitting personal failure. Comforted by the Mommy Mystique, we are convinced that every decision we make, every detail we control, is INCREDIBLY IMPORTANT… We are consumed with doing for our children in mind and soul and body---and the result is we are so depleted that we have little of ourselves left for ourselves. And whatever anger we might otherwise feel… is directed, also, just at ourselves. Or at the one permissible target: other mothers.” (Pg. 32-33)
She argues, “American women tend to believe that what we’ve got is, for better or worse, as good as it can get. Whatever doesn’t work is OUR problem, and it’s up to us to find solutions. This, I think, is the key to the Mommy Mystique … It is the basic reason why our generation has turned all the energy that we might be directing outward---to, say, making the world a better place---inward instead, where it has been put to the questionable purpose of our own self-perfection.” (Pg. 54)
She states, “The mess of the Mommy Mystique---the belief that we can and should control every aspect of our children’s lives, that our lives are the sum total of our personal choices, that our limitations stem from choosing poorly and that our problems are chiefly private, rather than public, in nature---is NOT an individual problem that individual women should have to scramble to deal with. It is a social malady---a perverse form of individualism, based on a self-defeating allegiance to a punitive notion of choice; a way of privatizing problems that are social in scope and rendering them, in the absence of real solutions, amenable to one’s private powers of control. It demands a collective coming-into-awareness, at the very least. And, I believe, once that awareness is reached, it cannot be cured without some collective, structural solutions.” (Pg. 56-57)
She says, “When I talk about the Motherhood Religion, what I mean is all the ways that motherhood in America has been unmoored from reality and turned into theology. Or how, time and again, motherhood has been made into an overdetermined thing, invested with quasi-ecclesiastical notions of Good and Evil. And while the definitions of Good and Evil have sometimes changed, one thing has always remained the same: in times of trouble, making a religion of motherhood has provided people with a kind of refuge. It has offered a psychological fix, a collective salve for people weary of a soul-bruising world. The Motherhood Religion soothes anxiety.” (Pg. 134) She suggests, “a new cult of domesticity… helped soothe the stresses of living life in an increasingly rapacious age. There was the stress of raising superchildren to compete in an increasingly competitive world… The new cult of motherhood offered peace. A sense of greater safety. The promise of GETTING OUT.” (Pg. 141)
She notes, “Something about the ideal of motherhood we carry in our heads is so compelling that even though we can’t fulfill it and know that we probably shouldn’t even try, we berate ourselves for falling short of succeeding. It is in service to that ‘something’ that we continue to pursue the goals of total-reality motherhood… For some women, I think, it is a longing for the world of their childhoods, when someone was there to take care of things. For other women, who did not feel sufficiently cared for by their mothers, it’s a desire to give their children the kind of comforting childhood they didn’t have---and to ‘reparent’ themselves in the process. Overall, I think, it’s a longing to GET THINGS UNDER CONTROL.” (Pg. 158)
She explains, “I do not want to play into the religion of mommy-as-the-root-of-all-evil by saying that the way we mother today is destined, necessarily to set our children up for a whole slew of problems down the line. So I have tried to focus on the effects of our parenting style… that are visible right now. Some of our worst cultural tendencies are currently playing themselves out in our parenting practices, to the detriment of our children. They are stressed and anxious and, at the very least, often badly behaved.” (Pg. 238)
She points out, “Our generation of husbands, for the most part, never wanted to play the role of traditional provider. But with our current culture of do-it-all motherhood and the frequent impossibility of reconciling work and family pushing some wives home, many postboomer men find themselves thrust into the traditional provider role. They can’t cut their hours or take paternity leave---not only because such options often don’t exist, but also because even when they do, they’re frowned upon… Many men, forced into provider roles they never hoped for, must end up feeling ripped-off. There isn’t much left of their financial compensation left over once the household expenses are paid. They don’t get much by way of wifely compensation either: their wives are too busy nursing their own resentments to be able to give much in the way of the ‘consoling and commiserating’ …” (Pg. 252-253)
She suggests, “I often wonder if our ‘mommy frumps’---those awful jeans and spit-stained shirts and dreary haircuts we sport like a punitive uniform---aren’t a kind of protective shield. Looking crummy all the time, being ‘just a mom,’ may be a way to beat back the prospective demons of a sexuality we don’t want to deal with, with the sense of possibility it might awaken, reminding us of other times, broader horizons, bigger dreams---and happier marriages. In becoming sexless, we turn off our desires---globally. And we avoid a whole lot of disappointment and frustration. So we remain ‘schlubby,’ safe, untempted, and unchallenged… We don’t want to open up the Pandora’s box of our desires… We wouldn’t have the time or energy to deal with what we found there anyway. Our to-do list is already much too long.” (Pg. 257)
She proposes, “what would families need? Simply put: institutions that 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. We need a new set of profamily ENTITLEMENTS---standing programs that can outlast election-year campaign promises made by politicians … It’s time to admit that the idea that businesses will ‘do the right thing’ for American families is a lost hope. More than a decade into the era of ‘family-friendly policies,’ more than a third of all working parents in America have neither sick leave nor vacation leave… [And] a large number of parents reported not taking advantage of the leave they did have because the culture of their workplace pressured them so strongly against it.” (Pg. 268-269)
She acknowledges, “It could be said that making an argument for a set of middle-class entitlements is obscene when the conditions of working-class and poor families in this country are so dire… But I believe that the kinds of quality-of-life measures I have outlined are potentially helpful for everyone. I also believe, given the ‘compassion fatigue’ that is, in the politest formulation, said to underlie Americans’ hostility toward programs for the poor, you cannot get Americans on board to provide MORE help for the needy until they feel that they are getting help too.” (Pg. 269)
She concludes, “I think that the kinds of ‘choices’ women must now make, the kinds of compromises, adjustments, and adaptations they must accept in the name of ‘balance’ and Good Motherhood, the kinds of disappointments and even heartbreaks they must suck up for the sake of marital harmony, do them a kind of psychological violence… And this is not just a problem of individual women and their privately managed psychological pain. It is a problem of society. Women today mother the way they do in part because they are psychologically conditioned to do so. But they also do it because, to a large extent, THEY HAVE TO. Because they are unsupported, because their children are not taken care of, in any meaningful way, by society at large. Because there is right now no widespread feeling of social responsibility---for children, for families, for ANYONE, really---and so they must take everything onto themselves. And because they CAN’T, humanly taken everything onto themselves, they simply go nuts.” (Pg. 276)
This is an interesting and thought-provoking commentary on the problems that modern mothers---and fathers---face in today’s society. It will probably interest most mothers and fathers concerned with these matters… even if they don’t necessarily accept Warner’s call for governmental solutions to many problems.
From my experiences with parenting groups and my social work career I feel she too often writes about the wealthy small percent of parents and couples. My limited experience with middle class parents is not like the strange twists she summarizes, though limited effects of those twists were experienced by some. For the poorest third of American families perfect madness is compounded by other social and financial pressures. For all parents Warner's suggestions at the end will be a family saver if they are ever implemented.