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Too Perfect

Judith Warner's Word of Advice to Moms Who Overdo: Don't

By Hanna Rosin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 7, 2005; Page C01

The carpet by the Sheridan School's door is showing the day's wear. But for the moment the mothers can stave off panic. Patty Martin grabs the vacuum handle: "I don't vacuum in my own house," she says. "But here I go," and gamely hoovers away, the Bakelite charms on her necklace jangling as she glides back and forth.

Two hours until the evening's special event begins and Martin declares the scene at this Northwest Washington private school a "total disaster." The gym floor is dusty, the punch bowls need washing, the tulips are still crammed in a tin bucket, awaiting an artful arranging.

Judith Warner signs copies of her book at Washington's private Sheridan School. Many of the women she interviewed live in Washington's upscale neighborhoods. (Photos Michael Robinson-chavez -- The Washington Post)

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Martin's first idea was to do a little coffee chat in the library -- just a dozen or so Sheridan moms celebrating one of their own, Judith Warner, for the success of her new book: "Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety."

But things exploded. Late last month an excerpt from Warner's book ran on the cover of Newsweek. Warner was on the "Today" show, and Katie Couric loved her so much she put her on again the next morning. Now "Nightline" wants to film Warner's talk in the Sheridan gym.

If this keeps up, Warner will be the Gloria Steinem of her generation, a voice of reason warning today's mothers that they are poisoning themselves with a "choking cocktail of guilt and anxiety and resentment and regret." That they are driving themselves crazy with "soul-draining perfectionism," obsessing about finding the right art camp and the right piano teacher and the right coach, shuttling from soccer matches to bake sales to school auctions, attending Girl Scout cookie meetings, at 8 o'clock at night.

"Girl Scout cookie meetings? At eight o clock at night?" Warner writes. "Only an unbalanced person would be doing something like that. A woman insufficiently mindful of herself. A woman who was, perhaps fearful of adulthood."

"This has to change," she writes. And then: "It really needs to change."

But from the look of this frenzied lead-up to Warner's speech, the revolution will be a long time coming.

At 5 o'clock no men have showed up at school to lug the fold-out tables around and set out the baskets of napkins and line up neat rows of cookies, arranged by type. One mother, Laura Miller, is buzzing around with her cell phone headset like a security guard sweeping the joint. Martin, meanwhile, seems determined to cram a lifetime of housework into a couple of hours, jumping from vacuum to broom to scrub brush to one of those oversize janitor mops with the swiveling head.

"Did we decide how we're cleaning the floor in here?" she asks.

These are a group of PTA or school board mothers who've left careers, or work very part time, and who find themselves painfully mirrored in Warner's book. All her life Julie Banzhaf Stone was taught to "achieve, achieve, achieve" and then she has children and poof! "What does it matter that I graduated summa cum laude, that I had a Fulbright and directed programs for an international fund?"

Now when she goes to a party with her husband and introduces herself as a "domestic goddess," no one gets the joke; the other guests just look over her head for someone important to talk to. So she overcompensates, channeling all her "drive and energy and competence" into being a great mom and a "super-volunteer." And still, everyone thinks she sits at home and "eats bonbons and watches soaps."

"I'm invisible," she says. "I'm becoming the incredible invisible woman."

"HI!" she yells. "I'M STILL HERE."

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