What Judith Warner got right about motherhood in America

Over the holiday season, I finished reading author Judith Warner’s Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety.  (Just the title alone makes it sound like the perfect book for me, right?)  I had a very positive gut-feel reaction to this book.  Here was someone, published, in words, who was experiencing the culture of American motherhood in much the same way that I am.  Not the specific details of our lives, but the overall aura of how mothers are perceived and expected to behave.  The unsaid expectations and judgement and blame that pile up and make you feel guilty for the most ridiculous of reasons.

Because I have so many tendrils of depression and anxiety running through my brain, I’m used to other people dismissing my perception of reality.  “It’s not that bad,” they say.  Or, “Just ignore it.”  This happens so often that I end up gaslighting myself, trying to convince myself that perhaps the forces I feel are all in my head.  It therefore comes as a profound relief to hear that someone else feels them too.

I found the pressure to breastfeed for at least a year, to endure natural childbirth, and to tolerate the boundary breakdowns of “attachment parenting”—baby-wearing, co-sleeping, long-term breastfeeding and the rest of it—cruelly insensitive to mothers’ needs as adult women.

Perfect Madness, pg. 15

The book came about after Warner moved back to the U.S. a few years after giving birth to her first child in France.  She extols the French approach to parenthood to perhaps an excessive degree, gliding over some of the more sexist elements to focus on the availability of childcare and the expectation that mothers remain adult women with their own lives.  Her shock at the contrast between the two countries’ approach to parenting is the launching point for an extended discussion of American motherhood.

It’s a discussion that’s unabashedly focused on the (white) middle class, that group that kinda-maybe-sorta has enough money and privilege to have real choices in life, but maybe not.  It’s the group that can get just close enough to having it all that when they inevitably fail, they assume that it’s their fault as individuals rather than a failure on the part of society.  It’s the group that buys the wooden (not plastic!) toy blocks and the organic cotton blankets and the Baby Einstein DVDs—or maybe doesn’t buy the Baby Einstein DVDs, so they can brag about protecting their children from the evils of TV for 2, 3, 4 years or more.  It’s the group that organizes Frozen-themed birthday parties for one-year-olds and puts together special sensory boxes for their toddlers.

Maybe our children could have run off and played.  If we’d let them.  But we didn’t.  There was so much pressure to always be doing something with them or for them.  And doing it right.

Perfect Madness, pg. 25

Warner puts this approach in context of the last 50 years of motherhood in the U.S., describing how, as household devices relieved the heavy work that had once dominated a housewife’s life, women began to fill their time with “makework and trivia.”  She talks about how Dr. Spock and other child-rearing experts popularized the notion that children are born as relatively blank slates, to be perfected into successful human beings by the attention of their parents.  She calls modern women “a generation of control freaks,” caught up in the angst of the declining American middle class and trying to prove that we are good enough.  If we do everything just right, we believe, we will be rewarded by perfect children and an easy life.

I see this attitude so often in parenting magazines, advice blogs, and mommy forums.  If you follow every attachment parenting rule in the book, your infant will not cry.  If you practice only the very very gentlest disciplinary measures, your child will not only eventually learn to behave, he or she will go into adult life free of parent-induced neuroses.  If you adhere to an enormous and often conflicting set of strictures about child nutrition, your kid will have a healthy relationship with food and zero allergies.  The corollary, of course, is that if your baby does cry or your child does turn out anything less than perfect, then it must be your fault.

[The] potential to do damage, to cause one’s child unbearable and lifelong pain, became part of the very definition of motherhood. […] and the linking of nightmare experiences of children lost and abandoned to mundane everyday situations of short-term separation became attachment theory’s problematic legacy.

Perfect Madness, pg. 93–94

Perfect Madness is actually a decade years old—Warner’s generation of mothers are closer in age to my mom than to me.  Aside from the occasional reference to growing up in the 80s, though, it doesn’t feel out-of-date.  If anything, it feels even more true now than it was 10 years ago, with the ever-increasing prevalence of “natural” parenting and the recession that knocked the American middle class back even farther.  It makes the vaguely hopeful ending a bit more depressing to know that in 10 years, we haven’t managed to make any kind of structural changes to American society to ease the struggle of motherhood.

Because Warner doesn’t blame this atmosphere on individuals.  She blames it on a culture that values “rugged individualism” above all else, and I tend to agree.  For all the freedom my demographic (that is, middle-class, educated white women) supposedly has, our life choices actually remain rather constrained.  You can work—for the money or the intellectual satisfaction—but that means buying into our workaholic culture and paying the exorbitant cost of unsubsidized daycare to cover the long hours of your job.  Or you can stay home and budget carefully and love being with your kids but maybe wish that wasn’t all you did.  There’s very little space in-between.  And so women who pick one extreme or the other convince themselves that it’s all for the best, and that they have freely chosen the thing that is Most Beneficial for their children.

All the moralizing we routinely do is a ridiculous waste of time and energy.  And it 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.

Perfect Madness, pg. 145

The book wanders a bit in the middle, stepping away from parenting to discuss the other ways that millennial women manifest their control-freakishness: eating disorders, pseudo-allergies, an extremely individualized approach to feminism.  I was also a bit put off by the chapter on marriage and husbands, which had a very “men don’t help at all” attitude and spoke of fathers disappearing for golf and drinks on the weekends.  My family’s experience is nothing like that (although I do know people who are more stereotypical; I suspect it remains unfortunately common).

There’s one other thing I don’t like about this book: whenever the subject of American daycare comes up, Warner bemoans its low quality.  It’s the sort of thing to make a working mom feel immediately defensive, and it feels odd given the book’s focus on the middle class.

Still, Perfect Madness was a fascinating and welcome read.  I’d highly recommend it to anyone who feels caught up in the pressure of parenting, or who has ever felt that way.  If nothing else, take away this message: guilt is not a necessary part of being a good mother.

[Obligatory (not-really-a-)disclaimer: I bought this book myself because I wanted to read it.  I have no connections to anyone involved in its publication and all opinions are my own.]

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3 thoughts on “What Judith Warner got right about motherhood in America

  1. Interesting, I might have to put this on my to-read list. Although I will say coming at this motherhood gig a little older I let the hype of what I should be doing roll off me and just muddle through with that works. But I see that kind of anxious and then guilty parenting in a lot of other mothers.

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  2. I am not a fan Judith Warner’s writing.

    Her columns in the NYTimes always seemed really out-of-touch and a bit hysterical. I think she was a big part of the perpetuation of the very anxieties she decries in her book. Not that she was pushing them, but that she was making them seem like a much bigger deal than they are in most of America. How many people felt anxiety about, say, bringing homemade cupcakes to school functions until the NYTimes told us that was something we were supposed to worry about? (And now that trend seems to have passed.)

    Also there’s a very upper-middle-class coastal element to these anxieties. The bulk of the US really doesn’t care about kale or minimalism or plastic or formula etc. etc. etc. Most people are just trying to get by. But you get enough moderately wealthy people with too much time on their hands together and all of a sudden it’s a thing. And they pass that contagion on.

    So, I guess I’m gaslighting Judith Warner here. But seriously, her NY Times column made such a big deal out of such unimportant stuff. (As well as stuff I really cannot relate to, like the heartbreak of selling their Paris bungalow.)

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    • I have not, to my knowledge, read her NYT columns, although I have read stuff in the NYT in that genre. There was one recently where the mom was berating herself for playing on her phone instead of watching her kid’s soccer practice. Not game, practice. It was total nonsense, but it’s just extrapolating from the general vibe of “give all your attention to your kids all the time” and our general hysteria about too much screen time.

      I can’t say whether you’re gaslighting her, but you are kind of gaslighting me.

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