Monday, February 21, 2005

The Moms Aren't Alright--Review of "Perfect Madness" by Judith Warner

The Moms Aren't Alright: Review of Perfect Madness by Judith Warner

Review by Amy Tiemann, Ph. D., author of the upcoming book "Mojo Mom: Nurturing Your Self While Raising a Family" and creator of MojoMom.com

There is a Zeitgeist about motherhood in the air. When I began writing "Mojo Mom" in late 2002, I could not have imagined the perfect storm of media events that would come to a head just as I prepared to release my book in the spring of 2005. The effect of this storm remains to be seen, as I throw my project on the mercy of this cultural whirlwind.

Soapy TV satire, scathing sociological commmentay, and optimistic parenting guide: three very different works have emerged this year in response to the pressures that the current generation of high-achieving women have faced in their new roles as mothers. My impulse to write "Mojo Mom" (the optimistic parenting guide) was a reaction to my own experience navigating the transition of career woman to new Mom, in combination with validation that other women were experiencing similar struggles.

The challenge of integrating our core identities and motherhood, and the difficulty of talking about it, caught my attention in the media with two episodes of "The Oprah Winfrey Show." Naomi Wolf moderated a discussion between mothers who admitted that they were struggling and a group of confrontational women who were critical about the fact that anyone would dare to say that mothering was hard (9/17/02 and 10/8/02). I learned recently that these Oprah episodes also inspired writer Marc Cherry to create the hit show "Desperate Housewives." Just as I was marveling that two works as different as "Desperate Housewives" and "Mojo Mom" could be insipired by the same kernel of truth, along came "Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety" the new sociological analysis of 21st century motherhood by Judith Warner.

On many core issues, "Perfect Madness" and "Mojo Mom" are in complete alignment. Warner and I both acknowledge that today's mothers are incredibly overwhelmed, and that women who grew up in the era of 1970's feminism are shocked to see how quickly the constraints of traditional gender roles re-emerge once we have kids. Both Judith Warner and I share a common goal of ending the so-called "Mommy Wars" that keep stay-at-home-Moms and employed Moms bickering with one another instead of working toward mutually beneficial social and political reforms.

After reading the Newsweek cover story on this issue, featuring an excerpt of "Perfect Madness," I thought I'd really connect with the book. But in expanding her argument from a half-dozen pages into an intensive, needlessly repetitive analysis, I found that Warner and I differ significantly on our underlying emphasis, levels of optimism, and thoughts about what women can do to develop positive next steps.

Several major issues separate us:

1. Warner has been consumed by the "learned helplessness" that she sees in other women. In her view, the situation mothers find themselves in today is so awful, hopeless, and socially enforced that there is little that any one woman can do to improve her life, and it is just settling or rationalizing if we think we can improve things on our own. I believe that it is possible to step back and accept "The Mess" (as she calls it) that we are in as a starting point. This is not surrendering to or condoning the current situation. The acceptance I am proposing allows us to take an honest look at where were are now, which is necessary to do so that we can then roll up our sleeves and get to work to make it better. Even though she covers the recent history of motherhood that shows us that every generation of women has faced similar struggles in one form or another, Warner makes it seem like our generation suffers from a unique and insurmountable challenge. I believe that it's our turn to take up the challenge, using our the gifts of our education and talents, to claim our place on the public stage.


2. Throughout "Perfect Madness," Warner continuously switches back and forth between discussions of serious economic and social pressures that affect women and their families, and the narcissistic, 24/7 "Total-reality Motherhood" that many of us well-off women have bought into, bringing untold stress into our lives. She intermingles stories of rich Moms stressing out about throwing the "perfect" birthday party with the justifiable panic of women who find that their earning power is not enough to pay for quality day-care, putting them in an economic double-bind. I reject the connection Warner attempts to make between these two phenomena. Rich women are not going to fall into poverty because they refuse to throw an elaborate birthday party, and it is insulting to poor women to conflate these two "lacks of choice."

This is an important distinction to me, because in "Mojo Mom" my goal is to persuade women to choose to give up the notion of a crazed, overscheduled life filled with unproductive guilt, worry, and anxiety. I believe we do have the choice to say no to this kind of lifestyle. At the same time, I realize that doing so will not miraculously solve the real social and economic problems that familes face. I do hope it will free up the energy to allow more women to start looking beyond their own lives to work together to create a better society. Unlike "Perfect Madnes," which is frustratingly long on theory and short on practice, in "Mojo Mom" I focused on sharing as many strategies as possible to help women deal with motherhood in the tricky intersection of feminism and reality.

3. "Perfect Madness" leaves out all that is fun about motherhood. In my experience, motherhood has been a challenge in many of the ways that Warner describes, but I have also experienced tons of joy and a positive sense of self-reinvention, which are utterly missing from "Perfect Madness." A childless woman reading Warner's book would wonder why anyone would ever choose to ruin her life by having kids. Warner makes it all sound so depressing--passionless, resentful relationship with your husband, no prospects of creating a satisfying career, and kids who are smothered until they don't even want you around.

On the very last pages of the book, Warner does profess that "I still believe in that dream of American womanhood: the sense of limitless possibility, that unique potential for unbounded self-creation." This glimmer of optimism is cold comfort after reading the extremely pessimistic 281 pages that precede it. I can see why the core concept of "Perfect Madness" has resonated with women and propelled the book to the top of the bestseller list, but I predict that when they sit down to read it, most busy Moms will lose patience with Warner's dim view of motherhood long before they reach her faint declaration of hope.

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