Readers debate Judith Warner's book "Perfect Madness" and take issue with her characterization of fathers. Also: Attachment parents defend their philosophy.

By Salon Staff
Published February 28, 2005 10:05PM (EST)

Read "Mommy Madness," by Katy Read.]

When I think of my grandmother, who raised nine children on a fireman's salary -- in the days before disposable diapers! -- I find it impossible to take the whining of the readers of "Perfect Madness" seriously.

I am the mother of a 4-month-old boy, and while we have not signed him up for lessons in jiujitsu, conversational French or advanced beekeeping, we are having an absolutely wonderful time. It can be done!

-- Colleen Quinn

I give my child attention and love. I show her compassion. I carried her in a sling and breastfed until she was 3. But aside from that, all we've done is live life. A normal, often boring, life. The biggest problem with these anxious mothers and our anxious society is the pressure to always be achieving something. But doing nothing achieves just as much. Knowing how to function when your brain isn't being fueled by electronics, by song and dance and activities galore, fosters the kind of creativity our society desperately needs.

I'm a single mother, middle-class, 27 years old. My daughter is now 5. She daydreams, dillydallies, colors, sings, dances, talks, ties her own shoes, goes to daycare 25 hours a week. All on her own accord. People thrive, as much as children, when shown respect and reverence for just being themselves. My daughter is the center of my universe. She's the coolest person I know. That doesn't mean she's indulged her every whim -- it means she knows how to express herself and sees the results of her actions, both good and bad.

It isn't just the mothers ... it's society. We need more naps! More color! More swings! Less TV! Less stuff! Let's just be and watch our kids enjoy life and grow up to be adults who really know how to solve problems, show compassion and resiliency, and, mostly, raise the next generation of conscientious and caring children!

-- Bethany Mayhew

Contrary to Katy Read's dismissive remark, "attachment parenting" does not hold that even brief separations from the mother "scar" young children. Mothers can work outside the home and take time for themselves and still be attachment parents. The point of attachment parenting is to give babies and children a secure base from which to explore the world.

It's about responding sensitively to your child, not making your child the center of the universe. It's about positive discipline, not the absence of discipline. It's about giving children basic human contact, not bombarding them with gadgets and flash cards and classes that are supposed to increase their intelligence. It's about reconnecting with your child after a separation.

The attachment-parented children I have known are anything but the "spoiled" and "self-centered" monsters allegedly created by doting mothers. They are generally more people-oriented than children who are left to entertain themselves with battery-operated toys and television, but is that really a bad thing?

-- Laura Belin

Bravo for Judith Warner. Being the working-class mother of a child in an upper-middle income school, I see all too regularly the effects that hyperactive parenting have on these kids. They are bratty, self-absorbed children with no boundaries and little empathy. For fear of harming a child's self-esteem the parents rarely reprimand their kids for atrocious behavior, and the kids have no idea how to entertain themselves without constant encouragement.

I always thought that the goal in raising a child was to help form a good person, but while this style of mothering may create a good résumé, the people it creates lack a sense of consequence. The difference between the children in my son's class (almost entirely white children of doctors and lawyers and professional baseball players) and those at his after-school program (other children of working-class families who are mostly minorities) is as different as the color of their skin. It is a great relief to me that I don't have the finances to keep up with the Dr. Joneses, and my son will be a better man for it.

-- Elizabeth Stillson

As someone who has practiced attachment parenting I would like to explain to Ms. Read that her characterization of it is desperately misguided. As I understand it, the main philosophy of attachment parenting is that children need to feel secure and loved. And whenever possible, they should be nurtured and cared for by those who love them, not by paid professionals. This does not mean that children will be scarred for life if they are left with a babysitter or at a daycare center, but it does mean that the primary duty of those who bring children into this world is to instill in those children a feeling that they are loved and wanted. There are, of course, many ways to show a child that they are truly valued and loved, but I sincerely doubt that one of those ways is to leave them crying in the arms of a paid professional while both parents rush off to earn two incomes so they can give that child the best school, proper annual vacations, nicer cars and HDTV.

The key issue here, and one that Judith Warner's book and most of the reviewers seem to ignore, has little or nothing to do with feminism or conservative politics or government-supported childcare. The main problem -- especially for the socioeconomic group Ms. Warner writes about -- is covetousness. We just want too darned much stuff! How many families think they need two incomes so they can afford to upgrade their PC and put digital cable in every room, a cellphone in every pocket, and a second or third car in every driveway?

For our family, attachment parenting wasn't about the fear that "even brief separations from a mother can scar young children," it was about simplifying our life and finding that if we focused on doing without some of these extras, and spent more time just holding and loving and playing with our children, we were all a lot happier. I think the key to attachment parenting is that it isn't about just the kids. It's about the whole family.

Choosing to spend more time with your kids and less on acquiring money does mean that occasionally you have to make choices: For instance, if my wife and I want to go out for a date, we may have to choose between paying for a babysitter and paying for a restaurant. If we choose to pay a babysitter, then we go for a walk or find a really cheap place to share a cup of coffee and just sit and talk. And through these choices, through these shared cheap dates, we also have become attached.

-- Herman Sutter

As a psychotherapist and published mothering expert ("Motherhood Without Guilt: Being the Best Mother You Can Be and Feeling Great About It," published by Sourcebooks), I applaud the sharing of real feelings about the challenges that mothers face these days. However, Ms. Warner's book has certainly gotten many moms irritated, as her suggestions, though desirable, do not ease the struggles that women today face.

Taking advantage of government-offered tax incentives and excellent, affordable childcare would be lovely, and more flexible and part-time work options would be beneficial to many, but mothers who are perfectionists and overwhelmed by their choices have other, more immediate solutions available to them that Ms. Warner doesn't begin to acknowledge.

The recent improvement in women's status affords us more choices than any preceding generation. But the stresses we feel are often the result, not of having opportunities, but of being unwilling to make choices or to accept ourselves for the choices we make.

We should instead cheer each other on for whatever life decisions we make, and be tolerant of others who choose differently than we do. If the work-life combination you've chosen for yourself isn't working for you, make a change! Motherhood need not be a competitive sport, and when we know and accept our own strengths and decisions, we can learn to appreciate the choices we make. Motherhood can be enjoyable!

-- Debra Gilbert Rosenberg

Judith Warner appears to undermine the anti-attachment parenting thesis attributed (I haven't yet read it) to her new book. Re-reading articles about child-centered parenting, Warner realized that "they weren't so very over the top." She acknowledges that she was mistaken to think "that if a little bit is good, a lot has got to be better."

Regardless, the author completed her attack on the philosophy that she never understood correctly. Of course, pop sociology is not a real science, but books like Warner's will continue the backlash against attachment parenting seen in things like "The Baby Whisperer." Author Alice Miller ("The Drama of the Gifted Child," "For Your Own Good") makes a persuasive case that European pedagogy has always been about parental convenience over the happiness of the child. In this context, Warner's attacks are essentially reactionary and regressive.

It's true that parents need adult time for their own pleasures, and that children can suffer from smothering overinvolvement. So let us have an argument for balance. Or we could just mock people who play Legos with their kids.

-- Ron Yamauchi

Katy Read's introduction to her interview with Judith Warner included a great deal of hyperbole, especially her characterization of attachment parenting, which she claims "holds that even brief separations from a mother can scar young children." That's not even close. Children need their parents. A child can be just as attached to his father as to his mother. Attachment parenting strives to promote healthy families, and sometimes a healthy family includes a mother who gets out of the house without the kids from time to time. I am very much an attachment parent, but I also have a life beyond my children, and I know that when I leave them with their father, they are getting just as much caring and love as they do with me. And when we go out together, I know they are safe and secure with their aunts and uncles. Attachment parenting isn't about scaring parents that they'll "scar" their children; it's about helping parents listen to their children's -- and their own -- needs.

-- Jan Heirtzler

Judith Warner reveals a number of startlingly wrongheaded assumptions in her interview, and Katy Read or her editor were lazy to allow them to slip past unchallenged. Here are just a few:

1) Attachment parenting cannot be boiled down to the idea that separation scars children. It can, however, be said to include the idea that closer bonding at a younger age will provide greater confidence later, when separation does occur. The goal is confidence and education, not constant, neurotic connection. Simplistic as it may seem, this model works well in the animal world (e.g., with kangaroos and primates), and it can be easily and usefully tailored to human needs.

2) Warner cannot see that her keep-up-with-the-Joneses Manhattan presuppositions are part of the problem. Those of us otherwise middle-class folks who are successfully surviving in a post-tech-crash, laid-off world have learned to live with less: no cable, no cellphones, one car, fewer entertainment expenses, thrift-store wardrobes, etc. Warner talks of scaling down lessons but does not address the primary problem: Affluence creates stupid, or at least mindless, consumers.

3) As a toddler's dad who works full time, helps dinner happen on a nightly basis, and washed six loads of laundry this past weekend, I deeply resent the blanket assumption that husbands just aren't helping. If Warner and Read believe this is true based on their own lives, then I can recommend a few good relationship books in the same self-help section as Warner's latest.

-- David Bradford

Katy Read writes that "attachment parenting ... holds that even brief separations from a mother can scar young children."

This is materially false. The actual position of API, which can be read from the link provided in the article, is that "frequent and prolonged separations from your baby" should be avoided. I'm a bit astonished that Read posted the link without, apparently, ever reading it. I hope the rest of the article was more professionally researched.

-- Brian Craft

"Perfect Madness" is maddening -- helpful, yes, and kudos to Judith Warner for connecting parenting with policy. But how many more times will we only hear about affluent mothers? There's a women's group in Montana that has organized welfare and other poor mothers to make concrete steps toward change, and we never hear about efforts like that.

Poor moms and affluent moms -- similar issues face us all. I'm glad books like this keep reminding us of the frustrations we mothers face. But we already know the frustrations. We want and need to hear more about the feminist efforts at changing conditions for mothers.

-- Miriam Peskowitz

I was a little perplexed by the rather dismissive handling given to fathers by the author of the above-mentioned book and the interviewer. The question by Ms. Read is premised on the supposition that fathers are not taking on the appropriate level of the burden in modern households. The answer is that this "generation" (what generation?) is a lost cause in that regard. It's followed up with the statement "that there is a grotesque inequity between who does what. When you have families where the mother is at home full time, she does almost everything." Clarification of what statistics were being cited would be helpful, as would further clarification of whether this reference is to households "where the mother is at home full time" or simply all households with children.

My wife and I have two children, ages 3 1/2 and 18 months. We are both attorneys; she works for a private firm and I work in the public sector. While my schedule is less flexible in terms of when I am where, it is more regular and allows for more generous sick time, family or otherwise. As a result I do the majority of the daycare drop-off pick-up and sick time with sick children, and care at home is very much a joint effort. I would argue that the same is true of my immediate peers. I would be interested to see the statistic that shows that this generation of "lost cause" fathers devotes the same or lesser efforts to their children's well-being than those in the past.

While there is no question that across the board the situation could not be defined as equal, I would hazard a guess that significant progress has been made in terms of fathers' active involvement in meeting their children's day-to-day needs. Characterizing this entire "generation" of fathers as a "lost cause" is as insulting as healthcare professionals who assume I do not know my children's medical history, daycare providers who refuse to address issues to me and instead wait to see my wife, whom they see far less frequently, or individuals who practically give me a gold star for correctly stating my children's birthdays.

Clearly mothers remain the primary caregivers for children across the population, but how about tossing a bone to the growing number of fathers who are taking on that role.

-- Randy Sheets

I've read a number of reviews about this book, and continue to be shocked by how quickly the author lets fathers/husbands off the hook! In this interview, when asked directly about dads, the author says, "This whole generation is lost." So we're on our own? Why are we even having kids with these guys if they're not going to do anything to help?

More importantly, why would (predominantly male) legislators take it upon themselves to change legislation to make life easier for working moms? If men aren't helping with their own children, why should we expect them to introduce public policy that does so? While I absolutely agree that we need social structures that better support families and we're getting screwed on this front by the current administration, I don't understand why she lets the men with direct influence in our families (our husbands) off the hook with a "boys will be boys" attitude.

By simply dismissing the father's role in the life of the family, she sends an equally damaging message to mothers: Your husband is useless, and you're on your own. At the very end of the interview, the author recommends that moms talk to other women for support! Shouldn't they be talking to the fathers of their kids? The specter of turning to my friends for the support I'm not getting from my partner is truly frightening. I'm sorry so many people are just going to read this book and think that this is an acceptable arrangement for parenting.

-- Kate Zimmerman

While Ms. Read's interview with Ms. Warner is enlightening and discusses a very real and important phenomenon, I feel it has overlooked the main point.

I admit that I have not read Ms. Warner's book, but her interview seems to focus mainly on the conflicts of modern feminism and the American culture of fear mongering. These are, again, important and real issues. But the fact remains that these mommies, though teetering on the brink of insanity, are probably smarter than anyone -- including the mommies themselves -- realizes.

All statistical evidence shows that the middle class in America is rapidly vanishing, and the phenomenon of middle-class competitive mothering simply adds a great pile of anecdotal evidence to it. American mothers are using their inborn intuition toward protecting their young quite appropriately, adeptly and energetically, yet sadly blaming themselves, feminism and a host of pop-psychology influences for their increasingly worn-out and miserable lives.

To further the tragedy, as such mothers become more and more swamped by the demands of hanging on to the middle-class by their fingernails, they have less time to become politically informed and even less time to become politically active.

It seems there is no way to talk about such an issue without feminism rearing its battered head. However, the Republican Party is never more pleased than when Americans are quibbling over some lame, divisive, identity-politics bullshit. I say fuck feminism. Middle-class mothers are only one more category of people who have been damaged by our government's insistence that we pay for handouts to billionaires while formerly comfortable citizens scrounge for any scrap of gristle that might provide their children a decent life.

-- Tim Ferguson

Salon Staff

MORE FROM Salon Staff

Related Topics ------------------------------------------