MY FRIENDS and I pride ourselves on not being status-conscious suburban moms. We don't try to replicate Martha Stewart's cupcake icings, .we don't throw themed birthday parties with paid entertainers, and we don't worry about whether our three-year-olds' preschools are sufficiently rigorous to prepare them for Yale. In other words, we're not the perfection-obsessed control freaks that Judith Warner portrays in Perfect Madness.
We do, of course, have our own obsessions. We feel guilty when our kids watch TV, and we worry over how to get them through Valentine's Day red-dye free. We feel just as righteous when we live up to our own maternal standards of perfection, just as guilt-ridden when we don't.
Anxiety, fear, exhaustion, guilt, self-doubt, anger these--are the hallmarks of modern motherhood in America, according to Warner and other recent authors. It's been called the mommy mystique, the new momism, intensive mothering, total-reality motherhood or simply, as Warner puts it, "the Mess." Whatever it is, Warner and her colleagues claim that this obsession with perfection is sapping women of energy and resources that could be channeled into activism for family issues like health-care benefits, maternity leaves and child care.
The real story of contemporary American motherhood isn't the media-hyped catfight between stay-at-home moms and working mothers that, as Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels write in The Mommy Myth, allows "the politicians who've failed to give us decent day care or maternity leave" to "go off and sip their sherry while mothers point fingers at each other." The mommy wars are mostly a fiction. Women move back and forth between employment and home, and women who consider themselves stay-at-home mothers may work the same number of part-time hours as women who identify themselves as working moms. No, the real story is that motherhood has become a stress-laden and guilt-ridden project due to the societal veneration of stay-at-home morns, the workplace requirement that women be overachievers just to stay even with their male colleagues, economic anxiety about class standing and, above all, government and corporate refusal to devise family-friendly policies.
At least this is the story in the United States. Warner sets up her first chapter as a comparison between mothering in the United States and mothering in France, where she lived for several years. There she found high-quality, affordable preschools, complete with government subsidies and sliding-scale fees. There she encountered mothers with four months of paid maternity leave, the right to cease employment for up to three years and have their jobs held for them, and cash grants from the government during the time they stayed at home. There she found a culture in which "the needs of the mother were considered every bit as central to family happiness as the needs of the child."
What she found in the United States was much bleaker. Here she met women obsessed with trivialities, driven by perfectionism and guilt and, most of all, filled with a diffuse dissatisfaction. Unable to find adequate and affordable child care for her own daughter, Warner sensed that her dream of maintaining a professional life while having time for her family was crumbling, and she soon found herself developing the same "quiet panic" as the mothers she was meeting at the playground.
Douglas and Michaels paint their own picture of a mother's utopia, set not in France but in an earlier era of U.S. history. They tell us that during World War II, when 6 million U.S. women entered the workforce, government-supported child-care centers offered on-site immunizations, care for kids whose parents worked the late shift and even take-home dinners. Then the war ended, and so did the political will to fund day care. Too communist, said some. Too expensive, said others (an argument that politicians still use, apparently forgetting that we've managed to scrape together at least $150 billion to invade and occupy Iraq). …