JUDITH WARNER: Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety. New York: Riverhead (Penguin Group, U.S.A.), 2005, 304 pp., $23.95. ISBN 1-57322-304-2
Judith Warner is a non-fiction writer whose usual focus has been on women's issues and politics. She is, most notably, the author of the biography, Hillary Clinton: The Inside Story. This time she has turned her attention to the politics of motherhood in her compelling and well-researched new book, Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety.
Warner came upon her topic initially from her own experience. She is the mother of two young daughters and, as she says in her preface, she is writing a very personal book. Having lived in France as a new mother, she came to realize differences between French and American parenting styles, and she became curious about the politics of motherhood in the United States. After she returned here, she interviewed almost 150 women of the first post-baby boom generation, namely those born from the late 1950s to the early 1970s. Using an equal sample of working moms and stay-at-home moms, she asked them about their experiences of motherhood in middle and upper-middle class America.
What she discovered is that many mothers today always have the feeling they are doing something wrong or not doing enough. Warner describes how these mothers develop a choking cocktail of guilt and anxiety and resentment and regret. She likens these feelings to what Betty Friedan had described over forty years ago in The Feminine Mystique when most women made their entire focus housekeeping and child care.
Warner believes mothers today often are involved in a kind of parenting pressure cooker where good mothering means being on duty constantly and every decision made concerning their children becomes extraordinarily important. These mothers not only have become a generation of control freaks, but they become so totally involved with their children they lose all sense of themselves and their own boundaries.
For example, these mothers never turn off the Mommy-as-Entertainment mode whereby they spend countless hours helping their children explore their environments, to their own detriment. Warner herself realized she had become a human television set in her attempt to stimulate and educate and entertain her own children. When that was not enough, there were always Baby Mozart and Baby Einstein tapes. Warner notes that many children today experience a nonstop amniotic bath of praise and stimulation from their mothers. As a result, children learn to overvalue themselves. Warner wonders if we are creating a generation of totally self-centered children.
Even under the best of circumstances, having children transforms the relationship between spouses and places considerable strain on a marriage.1 Marriages for those women whose chief focus is their children are even more vulnerable to stress. …