Playing Mozart to fetuses. Waving flashcards at infants. Indulging preschoolers with back-straining, eye-glazing “floor time.” Hauling school kids around to a dizzying whirl of extracurricular lessons and activities. Tossing everything else aside in order to shower children with nonstop attention and encouragement and enrichment and self-esteem enhancement and, and…
Yes, in a way, according to Judith Warner’s buzz-generating new book, “Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety.” Warner warns, on the basis of media reports, sociological studies, historical analysis and her own interviews with 150 women, that middle- and upper-middle-class mothers have gone off the deep end trying to do everything right. Whether they’re working in paid jobs or staying home with their children or some combination of the two, the overwhelming pressure of trying to orchestrate an ideal upbringing exhausts women, messes up marriages, and spoils children, she says. It leaves women feeling “a widespread, choking cocktail of guilt and anxiety and resentment and regret.”
Warner says she recognized the problem after returning to this country after a few years in France, where attitudes toward motherhood were very different. In France, Warner found, mothers are expected to take time for themselves. Their lives are made easier by social supports such as high-quality childcare and generous parental-leave policies. French mothers, in Warner’s view, enjoy a lifestyle that Americans might find almost incredible. “Guilt just wasn’t in the air,” she writes.
“Perfect Madness” landed last week with a burst of publicity — a Newsweek cover story, an excerpt in Elle, a Valentine’s Day Op-Ed in the New York Times by Warner, and the lead review in the New York Times Book Review — and it is sparking debate from kitchen tables to the blogosphere. But Warner, who has written biographies of Hillary Clinton and Newt Gingrich, is hardly the first to decry the trend toward hyper-intensive mothering and the stress it places on women. Like some of her predecessors, she blames such factors as the popularity of the “attachment parenting” philosophy (which holds that even brief separations from a mother can scar young children), a therapy culture that traces adults’ insecurities to their parents’ mistakes, and a shortage of social supports like decent childcare and family-friendly workplace policies.
In contrast to previous observers, however — notably Susan J. Douglas and Meredith W. Michaels, authors of “The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood and How It Has Undermined Women,” last year’s high-profile book on the topic — Warner downplays the impact of parenting magazines, child-rearing gurus and other media influences, contending that women enter motherhood already receptive to zealous messages. She points to some unexpected culprits: a diet consciousness that trains women to address external problems through intense self-control, and conservative government policies that, by shifting wealth to the rich, have left middle-class families frantic to improve their children’s long-term economic prospects any way they can, even if it means signing them up for swimming lessons when they’re 4 months old.
Salon spoke to Warner by phone from her home in Washington.
You spent your first few years as a mother in France, where attitudes toward motherhood are more relaxed. Then you moved back to States and you were immediately sucked in to the mommy madness in America. Why?
It takes a lot of inner strength to fend off the pressures that are all around you. It’s very, very easy to get sucked in.
Washington is the most competitive place I’ve ever been in my life, in terms of the kinds of ambitions parents have and the kinds of ambitions they have for their children. I find it even more competitive and ambition driven than New York City, where I’m from. It’s a real pressure cooker. And I think it was easy for me to get sucked in to that because I am from Manhattan. I’m from that kind of environment. It’s what comes naturally to me. I found myself, as a mother, kind of flipping back into the person I was in high school, of just wanting to do everything perfectly and always having that worry of falling behind and not getting the best possible grade on a test.
How did you become aware of it and manage to extricate yourself?
The awareness was immediate, because the culture shock hit me right away. And because of that, I had the gift of having something of a more anthropological perspective than I would have had if I’d never left the country, where this would have just been normal life and I would have been sucked in to it without thinking.
And I would say that working on the book, in a way, helped me from being completely sucked under. Once I was thinking about these issues and making them a conscious thing rather than something I should just live through, then life became material. And when life becomes material, it’s a lot more controllable and the pressures become less toxic, because you have this distance toward everything at the same time that you’re going through it.
But I’m still not outside of these pressures. I listen to the stories women tell and I totally identify with them. There are new pressures that come up all the time, and it is incredibly difficult to stay centered as a parent.
What kinds of pressures?
As my kids get older, there are social pressures that kick in. How many sleepovers are the right number of sleepovers? How many activities should my daughter be doing in a given week? I live in a well-off community, so people can afford to do lots of stuff, and they invite my daughter to do them. Fortunately, in a sense, I can say, “No, sorry, we can’t afford to have you do ice skating, horseback riding, swimming lessons, violin and whatever else simultaneously. So you’ve got to make choices.”
The higher up you go on the socioeconomic spectrum, the more ridiculous it gets, because there’s more money and time to be spent on things.
Other women who have written about these issues — for example, Naomi Wolf in her book “Misconceptions: Truth, Lies and the Unexpected on the Journey to Motherhood” — have been criticized for focusing on problems experienced primarily by middle- and upper-middle-class women. But you decided very deliberately to do so: You interviewed women in that demographic, and your analysis focuses on issues affecting that demographic. Why?
I think of myself as a middle-class person. I live in a middle- to upper-middle-class area. My book sprang from personal observation of the world around me. I also became very interested in comparing the lives of women today with those described in [Betty Friedan's 1963 classic] “The Feminine Mystique.” I became interested in looking back in time, not just of the conditions women were living in but also at their inner world. It became clear to me that it was consistent to keep that focus on the middle class, because that was where the focus has been always, in the mainstream women’s magazines and women’s writing, and in the question of motherhood from the 1960s onward.
I also realize that one book can’t do everything. I would have liked in the book to write more about working-class women and poor women, but there was only so much I could do in this particular book.
The image of the hyper-intensive mother still contradicts a widespread stereotype of contemporary motherhood. People assume that since so many mothers are working at paid jobs, they’re doing far less for their children than they used to.
There are a couple of studies that show that mothers today actually spend about the same amount of one-on-one-time with their kids as mothers did in the past, because they’ve upped the intensity of their mothering so much. One generation back, our mothers didn’t put the same pressures on themselves to be sitting on the floor, building with Legos. They were ironing or gardening or cooking dinner or talking on the phone, and not feeling guilty about doing that.
Yet, we don’t have a sense of being abused by mothers who didn’t do enough “floor time.”
No. Absolutely not. The bad memories that women seem to have, interestingly enough, is of overinvolved mothers who were frustrated and unhappy with their lives and who were overinvested in their children as a result.
There were also a certain number of women I talked to who grew up under more modest circumstances, whose mothers worked at a time when a minority of mothers worked. It became a real ambition for them to be stay-at-home moms because they remembered coming home in the afternoon after school to an empty house, and they remembered a mother — often a single mother — who was scrambling, never having enough money, getting fired from jobs when she tried to be with her kids or go to doctor’s appointments and things like that. And they reacted to that and said they did not want that kind of life for their kids.
The predicament of modern mothers is sometimes referred to “the unfinished business of feminism.” Did feminists drop the ball on this?
It isn’t fair to say that they dropped the ball entirely. I think there has always been a kind of tension on this issue, because at the outset there was this desire to get away from seeing women in their traditional roles and certainly not to have them defined — legally and professionally — by their biology. This was the thing to accomplish. So in pursuit of that goal, you didn’t want to have too much emphasis on women’s roles as mothers, because those roles were limiting them, in the popular imagination, in what they could do with their lives.
Over the years, there were always calls for better childcare, for a greater valorization of the roles of mothers, that kind of thing. But I think what happened is that the abortion issue became so big, it became the major battlefield, and I think that everything else got kind of crammed to the side.
But it’s unfair to the people who were working in women’s movement throughout the ’70s and ’80s and ’90s to say that they dropped the ball on motherhood.
Many people point to parenting experts, to magazines and manuals, that have encouraged this intensive mothering style. But you argue that their advice wouldn’t have much effect if mothers weren’t already primed to accept it.
I’m resistant to arguments that there’s this sort of top-down pressure from the media. That doesn’t make sense. These things exist in our marketplace. If they didn’t resonate with people, people wouldn’t buy the books and the magazines. They wouldn’t take in these messages and run with them the way they do. Frequently what we do with the stuff we read is we push it even further in the way we apply it. The media isn’t shoving some conspiracy down our throats. We’re not passive consumers.
What do you mean?
Let me give you an example. My older daughter was born in 1997, just at the moment when brain research in children was getting a lot the coverage. There was all this talk about what you could do to optimally stimulate your child and help your child’s development. And wherever you looked, the message was that you needed to talk to your child as much as possible, read to your child as much as possible, sing, play games. So I did this during my child’s every waking moment. Until years went by and I was really, really depleted. I felt like I was losing an inner life. I also realized that my child was dependent on me for stimulation, kind of like the way kids can get dependent on television, and that I needed to wean her off it. And that’s been a difficult process, frankly, with both my kids ever since.
Both my kids were born at about that same time, and there was this sense that if you stopped the stimulation for even a few minutes, then the synapses would start withering away.
The funny thing is that when, in the course of writing this book, I went back to the same articles that I had read then, I realized that they weren’t so very over the top. There were little sentences embedded along with all the rest: “Don’t overdo it.” “You don’t have to do this 24 hours a day.” But that’s not what most of us, I think, took away. We took away the same message that people always take away [in the United States] when it’s a question of diet or anything else: that if a little bit is good, a lot has got to be better.
There is, obviously, a certain amount of sacrifice that parents do have to make on behalf of their children, financially and in terms of time and labor. Yet it seems like mothers are taking on most of the burden, as opposed to sharing it with fathers. A lot of women wonder, how can they get fathers to do their share?
I don’t know. I think at this point it’s largely a lost cause for our generation. It’s too late.
It just plain hasn’t happened. The statistics overall will tell you that there’s a grotesque inequality of who does what. When you have families where the mother is at home full time, she does almost everything.
So men figure, as long as she’s home, why can’t she just toss in a load of laundry?
This isn’t necessarily a Stepford wives situation where the men are fantasizing about turning their wives into these perfect housewives so they can rule over them. You see a lot of wives caught up in this desire to be this perfect mother and this perfectly functioning creature, and the husbands are kind of shunted off to the side and often made to feel like impediments to the smoothly functioning household. I don’t think they’re necessarily getting a whole lot out of this, easy though it is to get enraged with them.
In terms of what’s going to happen long term and what can we do, I don’t know. An earlier generation would have said go on strike, get divorced — right? But we’re a generation that was deeply scarred by divorce. It’s a little bit hard to imagine someone cavalierly deciding that she’s going to get divorced because her husband doesn’t help out enough around the house.
But resentment and conflicts over this issue put huge pressure on marriages.
The pressure is huge. The divorce rate is down, but the percentage of couples saying that they’re living in less-than-happy marriages is up. I think that there’s a lot of long-simmering resentment and a lot of unhappiness in marriages. And I think it’s quite toxic and very sad and I wonder what will happen 10 years from now, in terms of the divorce rate, if things go on like this. What’s going to happen when the kids are older?
You suggest that getting too much parental attention harms children, leaving them “stressed and anxious and, at the very least, often badly behaved.” That sounds a lot like what experts very recently were saying would happen to children who didn’t get enough attention, who were put in daycare or whatever. It seems that no matter how faithfully mothers try to follow experts’ advice, they get blamed for wrecking their children. Is there any real evidence that kids’ problems are the result of mistakes by well-intentioned mothers?
I think that parents have to take some responsibility for their children’s behavior. In the past, I know, mothers were blamed for absolutely everything, and this was ridiculous and hateful. I am very clear to say in the book that I don’t want to play into that same history of mother blaming.
However, I think that we have gone too far now in the direction of avoiding parent blaming — and this is an issue of parental behavior, not just of mothers’. It is now politically incorrect to even talk about the family environment as playing a role in children’s “issues” — behavioral or emotional. Everything now is brain chemistry and genetics, and, frankly, while that is up to a point true, it also lets parents and society, which is the larger point of the book, entirely off the hook.
While I in no way want to add to mothers’ guilt, I think it does our children a great disservice to not even open our minds and hearts to the possibility that some of the things we do — and by “we” I mean mothers and fathers and educators and society; I can’t make this point strongly enough — have deleterious effects.
Specifically, what do you think parents do wrong, and what effect does it have on kids?
I think we can make our children self-centered by giving them too much attention and making them feel like they’re the center of the universe. I think there are a lot of discipline problems in schools now, a lack of respect for adults, an inability to listen and make eye contact when somebody’s speaking to you. A general lack of empathy. Children are lacking empathy for others because they’re being raised in a way that makes them too self-centered.
I also have heard psychologists make the link between the pressures we put on children and the rise of anxiety and depression among children and people in their 20s.
You ultimately hold our conservative government responsible for a lot of what’s ailing mothers because they’re the ones who have created policies that force middle-class families to work ever harder just to keep up.
I think there’s much greater harm done to women and families by the fiscal- conservative part of right-wing ideology … let me rephrase that — “fiscal conservative” is too mild — that’s been done by the stripping away of social supports, the redirecting of the nation’s wealth from the middle class to the wealthy, the tax policies, the benefit cuts, etc. All of that has contributed to the enormous wealth gap between the rich and poor in America and has made the middle class feel the squeeze and become worried about having their families fall off the map, fall onto the side of the losers. Because to be a loser in our society is such a terrible thing — or rather, not to be a winner in our society is, at this point, such a bad thing.
Things that, in the past, could be counted on to be staples of the middle-class existence — access to good public schools, access to decent healthcare, the ability to buy a house in a nice neighborhood — these are now luxuries. So you’ve really got to be in there, making money, and making sure that your kids have the ability to make money, just to have a middle-class existence. All of that is, at least in large part, a direct result of social policies that stem from right-wing political beliefs. And that, I think, is much more toxic than whatever kinds of so-called traditionalist, family-values rhetoric might come from the right wing.
But if these pressures are mainly affecting middle-class people, how do you explain the frenzy getting more intense as you go up the socioeconomic ladder?
In my mind all this exists on a continuum. It seems to get more absurd the higher up you go because there’s more time and money to spend. It’s always been a bit of a mystery to me why it is that wealthy people can’t sit back and relax a bit, but they don’t seem capable of it.
What advice do you have for women who read your book and see themselves reflected in it? How do mothers get to a place where they are more relaxed? What are your public prescriptions for change?
In terms of what society can do, we need to think creatively to find more support for families. We need to lessen the financial burden on middle-class families, change our tax policies so that the middle-class isn’t underwriting the wealthy as it is now. We need to have public education that people can believe in. We need better support for parents such as part-time daycare for part-time working and at-home mothers. We need universal government standards for daycare and preschool.
On a personal level, stressed-out mothers should talk to other women. Discover that you’re not alone. Think about if there’s anything you can do in your own life to make things less crazy.