Last week, I reviewed Stephanie Coontz’ A Strange Stirring, a cultural history of Betty Freidan’s The Feminine Mystiqueand the historical context in which it came to be written and read. Coontz ends her analysis with reflections on the continued relevance of the mid-century feminist critique of gendered expectations, work, and family life. It is this theme that author Judith Warner picks up and runs with in Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety (New York: Penguin, 2005). Perhaps because Warner’s book is a contemporary polemic rather than a work of history, I found myself much more frustrated with Perfect Madnessas a cultural critique than I was with Coontz’s work, or with the arguments of mid-century feminism, no matter how incomplete or faulty they might seem to me. I forgive them their faults as historical texts in a way I find it much more difficult to forgive my contemporaries their blindnesses. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say I have more distance when it comes to historical texts than I do with contemporary works. Regardless, I was equal parts fascinated and appalled by, and furious with, Warner’s analysis of upper-middle-class motherhood in the United States at the turn of the millennium. In this review, I’ll try to summarize her basic arguments (many of which I think are quite sound) and explain some of my frustrations.
Judith Warner’s book, in the tradition of many feminist texts, is both personal and political. She begins by describing her years as a young parent in France, where she and her husband had state-funded support and cultural encouragement to integrate parenting with their work and social lives in ways. Or, at least, Warner wasn’t made to feel bad for not wanting to subsume her entire self beneath the identity of “mother.” From her vantage point across the Atlantic, she heard her friends — other newbie parents — complain about the cost of childcare or the impossibility of balancing work and home life, obsess over childrens’ birthday parties and bitch about their unhappy marriages. Warner wondered what the problem was. Thought they were exaggerating, or had made poor personal choices.
And then she moved back to the States.
Suddenly, living in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area, Warner found herself with no critical distance on a culture that rewarded mothers for being entirely absorbed in, perfectionists at, a very particular type of mothering.
Warner is explicit from the beginning that her focus in Perfect Madness is the lives of upper-middle-class (majority white, hetero) American families. This is not a book about parenting while on welfare, parenting as a single mom (or dad), radical leftist parenting … parenting, well, in any way other than that which Warner discovered in the upper-middle-class suburb of D.C. where she interviewed stay-at-home and working mothers between 2000 and 2004.
What did that parenting look like? It was a parenting philosophy based on a lot of assumptions about gender and child development. First, it was grounded in unexamined notions of sex difference. Regardless of whether the mothers were full-time parents, working part-time, or working full-time, it was the motherswho bore the brunt of childcare and family organization. They might resent their husbands for not pitching in more on the homefront (more on this dynamic below), but there was a fatalism about the fact that parenting was women’s work.
Furthermore, regardless of whether one was working for wages or not, parenting was constructed as women’s primary vocation and primary means of fulfillment. And a premium was placed on perfecting one’s parenting. Childcare and motherhood thus became an all-consuming projectfor these women, the vector through which they found a sense of self-worth and through which they judged all the other mothers. (Reading about these women nearly drove me back to Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions as an antidote). Warner argues that these women are using parenting as a form of control, as a way to manage their anxiety and unhappiness about their lives and relationships. Further, she argues that they are oftentimes trapped in these situations because of economic penalties and cultural expectations that encourage them not to seek fulfillment from anything else other than parenting.
By far the most despair-inducing chapter for me was the chapter on loveless marriages. Perhaps this is because, growing up in a family that practiced parent-child relations that are radically different from mainstream American practices, I’m used to thinking of my starting point being far from the middle ground. But I’m appalled by the level of resignation and anger self-reported by the women that Warner spoke with when it comes to their marital relationships. Warner describes how they start out interviews praising their husbands as fathers and as partners … but scratch below the surface and the women she spoke with report deep unhappiness with the unevenness of parenting responsibility, a loss of sexual desire for their husbands, and a rage about the situation they find almost impossible to verbalize.
The best thing Warner does in Perfect Madnessis point to the economic and political factors that combine to — if not determine, certainly influence — these very personal choices. Over the past five years, there has been a great deal of emphasize on those socioeconomic and cultural factors that curtail women’s (and families) abilities to make choices for themselves and the people they care about. Reading Warner today, her points can sound obvious and a bit old hat … but in 2005, her book was one of the first to renew the call to politicize the personal and document the ways in which public policy and economic resources truly do have an effect on individual decision-making and the range of options available to us.
As a thirty-year-old woman in a lesbian relationship with no immediate plans to parent, I am not the demographic that Warner is writing about or writing for. Even if I were to find myself a parent, the legacies of my own childhood in a fairly radical household and my own values system would preclude parenting the way the women in this book are parenting. Their values are, in many ways, decidedly not my values. And because of that, the experience of reading Perfect Madness felt voyeuristic at times. The study of lives and concerns at far remove from my own.
At the same time, reading Perfect Madness as a feminist and an historian of feminism and gender, a couple of key aspects of her work frustrated me. Warner lays the blame for her sorrows at the feet of “the culture wars” between social conservatives and feminists, whom she believes waste their energies on issues that are not of concern to the majority of Americans. This seems pretty damn simplistic to me, since from where I stand feminist activists have been advocating pretty consistently for more robust social support of women and children — and more real choices for families — since at least the 1960s. It’s fairly naive to claim the “culture wars” have nothing to do with the ideological battle over parenting and the question of work/life balance, since most of the hot-button issues of that “war” have to do with raising children, gender roles, family diversity and human sexuality.
The fact that Warner makes an essentially feminist argument about how ideologies of sex-difference and a gendered division of family life and labor is harmful to everyone … and then blames feminists for not having rescued her and her friends from the lives they found themselves living comes across as bitchy to me. Just because Warner didn’t listen to feminist thinkers and activists growing up doesn’t mean they weren’t there making argument that might have been useful to her.
The second major flaw in Perfect Madness was the way Warner allows herself to make pretty harsh judgments about specific parenting choices. She starts out on a pretty free-wheeling note, suggesting that instead of striving to meet some elusive Gold Standard of parenting (mothering) it’s better to follow one’s instincts and do what’s best for you and yours. “If it wasn’t fun, I figured, what was the point? If my daughter and I were doing some kind of added-value activity together and it wasn’t a pleasure, then why bother?” (25). Individualized parenting is pretty much my own Gold Standard … so I was on board with this portion of her critique.
Fairly quickly, though, Warner begins discussing specific examples of parenting she considers beyond the pale, over the top, outrageously selfish, and controlling. And this is where I started to feel extremely frustrated by her judgmental tone. For a woman who started out saying, “if it wasn’t fun … what was the point?” she comes don’t really hard, for example, on parents who listen to their children’s desires when it comes to attending social events like birthday parties (“a child feels lazy on the morning of her best friend’s birthday party … so we allow her not to attend” … “lazy”? “allow”? wtf??). For a woman who began her book expressing pride in her ability to eschew the social expectation that she rigorously pursue “value-added” opportunities with her daughter, she comes down like a ton of bricks on women who choose home birth (“the know-better-than-the-doctors approach … subjecting themselves to home births” … “subjecting”? and has this woman not read any of the recent criticism of the business of childbirth?). Although Warner is using these as examples of the extreme standards women feel subject to as mothers, I feel like her judgemental attitude toward specific parenting decisions ends up undercutting her argument that what we really need to do is stop looking at parenting as a competition.
Have any of you read Perfect Madness? If so, what was your impression of it? How effective do you feel Warner’s analysis is? Have you had first-hand experience of the type of families she is profiling? Have you (or people you know) successfully side-stepped the “mommy mystique,” and if so how did you do it?