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Perfect Madness? Motherhood in a Postmodern Age

Judith Warner calls the problem, “this mess.” Author of Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety, Werner has issued a manifesto for postmodern motherhood. As she sees it, motherhood has been transformed into a trap for young women, who find themselves torn between impossible expectations and a lack of self-fulfillment. Her new book, along with a major cover story in the February 21, 2005 edition of Newsweek, represents a battle cry for a new feminist generation.

Warner, a biographer of Hillary Rodham Clinton and co-author of a book with Howard Dean, interviewed 150 women over a four year period in order to take the pulse of motherhood today. Her book, featuring a title that implies desperation, depicts modern motherhood as an impossibility. To make her case, she first rejects what she characterizes as two erroneous understandings of motherhood. The first is that offered by traditionalists, who argue that a mother’s first responsibility is to her home and to the nurture of children. Warner quickly dismisses this picture as a relic of a bygone past.

At the same time, Warner dismisses the early feminists–including figures such as Betty Friedan–as neglecting the possibility of a woman’s choice to find fulfillment in motherhood.

Actually, Warner has not moved as far from the early feminists as she thinks. Her portrait of motherhood is deeply rooted in the ideological foundations of modern feminism. She may refer to the present as a “postfeminist era,” but her basic assumptions about a woman’s place in society and the nature of male oppression reflect decidedly feminist sentiments.

The “mess” Warner portrays consists of mothers who are deeply unfulfilled and conflicted. Speaking of these women, Warner summarized her concern: “By any objective measure, they had easy lives–kids in good schools, houses in good neighborhoods, dependable husbands whose incomes allowed them to mostly choose what they wanted to do with their time. Most had chosen to pursue Mommy Track jobs–part-time work, a big cut in ambition and salary. But they didn’t mind that; they knew that that was a privilege. Still, there was something that bugged them. It ate away at them. It cast a pall on all the rest. What they couldn’t make peace with was the feeling that somehow, more globally, they were living Mommy Track lives.”

These “Mommy Track lives” are “filled with kneepads and bake sales and dentists’ appointments and car seats.” Warner’s sense of crisis is directed at the sense that these mothers live less fulfilling lives than their husbands. The feminist dream promised more than this.

Judith Warner recognizes that her concerns are characteristic of her own generation. But, this is a generation largely shaped by a therapeutic concept of the self and a vision of life as a continuing experiment in self-expression and fulfillment. For many of these women, motherhood has become a trap, a prison of confinement that locks them out of a world others inhabit.

“I think of ‘us’ as the first post-baby boom generation, girls born between 1958 and the early 1970s, who came of age politically in the Carter, Reagan and Bush I years. We are, in many ways, a blessed group. Most of the major battles of the women’s movement were fought–and won–in our early childhood. Unlike the baby boomers before us, who protested and marched and shouted their way from college into adulthood, we were a strikingly apolitical group, way more caught up in our own self-perfection as we came of age, than in working to create a more perfect world.”

Choice stands at the center of this younger feminist worldview. “Most of us in this generation grew up believing that we had fantastic, unlimited, freedom of choice,” Warner argues. Nevertheless, she laments the fact that many of the women in her generation face choices far more limited than they had imagined. “You can continue to pursue your professional dreams at the cost of abandoning your children to long hours of inadequate childcare. Or: You can stay at home with your baby and live in a state of virtual, crazy-making isolation because you can’t afford a nanny, because there is no such thing as part-time day care, and because your husband doesn’t come home until 8:30 at night.”

Clearly, Warner and her friends really did think they could have it all. As she acknowledges, they envisioned motherhood and professional life as a matter of “balancing” responsibilities and fulfillments. It didn’t work. Warner presents motherhood as a pathology of stresses and frustrations. “I read that 70 percent of American moms say they find motherhood today ‘incredibly stressful’,” Warner reports. “Thirty percent of mothers of young children reportedly suffer from depression. Nine hundred and nine women in Texas recently told researchers they find taking care of their kids about as much fun as cleaning their house, slightly less pleasurable than cooking, and a whole lot less enjoyable than watching TV.”

By any measure, this is a very sad and disturbing vision of motherhood. When Newsweek puts this article on its cover, it is sending a significant signal to the culture at large.

Warner does have some legitimate concerns. She writes about the stresses of motherhood in an age of frantic activity and constant entertainments for children. She laments the exhaustion that comes from ferrying children from one soccer practice to another and the sense of responsibility, felt by many women of her generation, to be the “perfect mom” of the post-feminist fairy tale.

Then again, the fairy tale was a fantasy from the start. Parenthood is not a matter of perfection, and the nurture of children is one of the most time-consuming, demanding, and unrelenting responsibilities that can fall upon any human being.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Warner’s article is the fact that it is so decidedly focused upon the mother rather than the children. The mother stands at the center of her narrative, and the mother’s needs–perceived and real–frame the “reality” around which her proposals are formed.

In an Op/Ed column in The New York Times published on Valentine’s Day, Warner cited a report by the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University to say that “children are a ‘growing impediment’ to a happy marriage.” Just in case anyone missed her point, she suggested the following question: “Is our national romance with our children sucking the emotional life out of our marriages?”

No doubt, Judith Warner must love her children. Nevertheless, she writes as if her children are an imposition in her otherwise untroubled life. She blames “the motherhood religion” for this sense of oppression, arguing that “motherhood in America has been unmoored from reality and turned into a theology.”

She roots this “religion” in the Victorian cult of motherhood and argues that America’s social institutions failed to adjust this myth in the wake of the feminist revolution.

Whether she recognizes this factor or not, Warner’s concerns are almost entirely limited to relatively well-off mothers with substantial education and professional opportunities. Her concerns do not easily translate to the single mother who must work in order to keep food on the table.

Furthermore, her economic concerns are transparent. She complains that “middle class life is now so