Getting perfectly mad about ‘Perfect Madness’

Book adds to the literature that says it’s all mom’s fault


Cindy Richards


Bookshelf  - March 2005 Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety, by Judith Warner, Riverhead Publishers, 2005, $23.95.

I argued against using an entire page of Chicago Parent to review Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety. This book, the latest tome on what’s wrong with moms and motherhood, simply doesn’t deserve so much ink.

But sometimes we have to bow to the demands of popular culture. And this book, thanks to a cover story in Newsweek, a whirlwind book tour for its author, Judith Warner, and a perch atop the New York Times best-seller list, is one of those bits of popular culture we can’t possibly, as a self-respecting parenting publication, avoid.

So here goes: This book, which bills itself as a look at “The Mess” we modern, upper-middle-class mothers find ourselves in, is actually more of a recap of motherhood history in America and a review of the literature about the failings of motherhood.

And the recurring theme is all too familiar to us: It’s all our fault.

There was the period when mothers were told they shouldn’t become too attached to their children lest they grow up unable to be independent. That morphed into the period when mothers were told they shouldn’t be so detached from their children lest they grow up unable to love. Mothers shouldn’t breastfeed so much. They shouldn’t breastfeed so little.

And it continues today.

Kids are too busy and overscheduled? Our fault. Life too competitive? Our fault. Too little government support? That’s right, our fault again. (In Warner’s view, we feminists spent too much time agitating for the right to choose whether to carry a pregnancy to term. We didn’t notice that, once we chose to have the kid, we would have so few other choices.)

France does it better

Warner, a former Newsweek reporter in Paris, started her career as a mom in the bosom of France’s family-friendliness. There, she says, life was good. She had a luxurious, five-day postpartum hospital stay, access to cheap, high-quality preschool care for her daughter and basked in a culture that said if mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.

Imagine her culture shock at coming home to the United States as a mother. Gone were the affordable daycare centers, supportive public policies and enlightened cultural attitudes. In their place, she found herself breaking out in hives as she wandered among a bevy of exhausted moms who spent their days in the minivan and their nights worrying about whether Junior would get into the right preschool—and not having sex with their detached and uninvolved husbands.

Where are the answers?

From that experience was born this book. And it would have been great if the book somehow offered a solution to our exhaustion. Or found a way to bridge the gulf between the full-time stay-at-home moms, the full-time working moms and the moms who try to do both jobs full time while wondering all the while if they are doing either half well.

But Warner doesn’t do any of that. Instead, she reiterates the statistics, rehashes the stories and reinvents the reasons why society (once in a while she even uses the “g”-word, government) hasn’t stepped up to the plate. Even her meager four-page conclusion notes that moving back to France wouldn’t end her perfect madness. Women there, she notes, pay a price for the family-friendly parental leave—women of childbearing age have more trouble getting hired or find themselves fired after taking advantage of government-mandated rights, Warner says. And American culture, complete with its overcompetitiveness and overscheduling, is seeping into French parenting strategies.

In short, this is a book I found depressing when, as a mother, what I need is to be uplifted.

There is one section of the book I find myself turning back to. It says: “I found that when women were able to act in line with their natural inclinations and ambitions—whether to work or stay at home—they were generally happy, and generally felt that their children were happy, too.” And, she goes on to say that happiness “began when a mother’s sense of personal necessity was satisfied.”

I wish that is where she had focused this book. With such an intense public spotlight on Warner and her message, I wish she were using her 15 minutes of fame to say to mothers of all types:

“You’re doing just fine. Don’t feel like you have to make excuses for being at work until 8 p.m., or at home all day, as long as that is a choice that makes you happy. Don’t pay attention to all the naysayers, don’t bow to the peer pressure you feel from other parents, from society or even from your kids. If you believe that you are a good enough mother, then you are. Your children will grow up to be fine, productive human beings. Even if they didn’t make the traveling soccer team or get into the right preschool.

“The point is to remember that raising kids should be a joyful experience, not another source of stress.” 


Cindy Richards is senior editor and travel editor for Chicago Parent and the not-so-perfect mom of two kids.


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