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Parenting

The Mommy Mystique

Reviewed by Stephanie Wilkinson
Sunday, February 20, 2005; Page BW08

PERFECT MADNESS

Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety

By Judith Warner. Riverhead. 327 pp. $23.95

When Judith Warner returned to Washington after several years of living in France, she felt she was a pretty good mother to her two young daughters.

A few months back in the States cured her of that. Suddenly, she was caught up in the modern American mommy rat race and wondering why on Earth what had been so easy in France was so hard back at home.

Friends and acquaintances all seemed fellow sufferers, despite outward appearances. "They had comfortable homes, two or three children, smiling, productive husbands, and a society around them saying they'd made the best possible choices for their lives," she writes, "yet many of them seemed miserable." Like hers, their unhappiness was "a choking cocktail of guilt and anxiety and resentment and regret," a mixture that is "poisoning motherhood for American women today."

Taking a page from Betty Friedan, Warner calls this situation "the Mommy Mystique." (Many of the 150 women Warner interviewed for this book call it merely "this mess.") It's a "culture of total motherhood," she writes, that demands the suppression of mothers' ambitions -- unless those ambitions were directed toward getting Jackson into the best preschool in town or helping Maya score a better grade on her social studies test. Stay-at-home mothers are made to feel inadequate if they want too much time away from their kids. Working mothers are giving up on careers, either because the cost of child care proves prohibitive or because they can't tune out the guilt. Many end up living a souped-up version of a June Cleaver lifestyle, complete with breadwinner dad and PTA-obsessed mother, all the while reassuring themselves that this was their choice. Their toned-down expectations and low-level resentment manifest themselves in sexless marriages and increased rates of depression.

How did this happen?

Warner believes the causes are many. Our culture's expectation of mothers has always seesawed between warning them to back off from their children (lest they foster wimps) and exhorting them to regard raising children as their life's work. We're currently in the clutches of the latter ideology, she says, thanks in large part to the prevalence of "attachment parenting" philosophies that lead mothers to believe they must respond instantly to a baby's every need or else doom him to suffer "abandonment issues" for the rest of his life. We've also bought too much into the therapy culture, Warner says, by intensely parenting our children as a way of curing ourselves of our own childhood wounds.

But the biggest culprit in the total-immersion mothering trap, Warner says, isn't the media or our own neuroses. It's the rise of a winner-take-all society that inordinately rewards the wealthy while throwing scraps to the rest of us. Today's middle-class parents live anxious lives, worried about job security, the affordability of health care and housing in good school districts, the prospect of paying for their kids' college educations and their own retirement. With families under such financial stress and little help from the government, it's no wonder mothers are over-focused on their children's success. After all, in a winner-take-all society, there's no place for the average kid who will become the average grown-up.

In other words, the mania for privatization that drove the Reagan '80s and continues today has finally trickled down to motherhood. Now, all problems you may have balancing work and family are yours alone. (Unless, of course, you're a single mother on welfare, Warner points out. Then the government is happy to meddle in your life.) If you choose to work, it's up to you to find quality day care. If you choose to forgo the second income and stay home, it's up to you to find a way to afford preschool or a morning out for yourself.

We've come to believe that this way of life is "necessary and natural," Warner writes. But it wasn't always thus: "Things used to be different in America," she says. "There used to be structures in place that gave families a certain base level of comfort and security. Things like dependable public education. Affordable housing. Job security. Reliable retirement benefits." In addition: tax codes that provided healthy exemptions to couples with children, low-interest educational loans -- even government-run and -subsidized day care for children whose mothers worked during World War II.

The only way out, Warner says, is for mothers to rejoin the political scene and to call for a new "politics of quality of life" that would create institutions to help us care for our children so that we don't have to do it all on our own. It wouldn't be cheap; Warner estimates that mimicking the French plan for child care and paid leave would increase government spending by $85 billion per year. (Though not so costly when you consider that Bush's recent tax cuts are costing more than $200 billion per year, she points out.)

Modern motherhood is exacting costs, too. Ann Crittenden's The Price of Motherhood showed how mothers become poor in old age. With Perfect Madness, Warner convincingly shows the psychological damages. What more do we need to learn before things change? •

Stephanie Wilkinson is co-editor and co-founder of Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers.


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