Perfect Madness

I’ve been reading Judith Warner’s Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety and it’s making me think. She writes about moving from France to America with her two young daughters, and being bowled over by how much more stressful parenting in America is. In her idealized portrait of France, it wasn’t just that there were more of the expected support programs like maternal leave and state-subsidized childcare. France, in her experience, also had doctors who answer your phone-calls and neighbors who pitched in, so no single mother felt all alone. It had neighborhoods with a place to walk with kids, parks worth going to, but most of all it had a cultural expectation that parents would take time for themselves.

Returning to America, Judith Warner was shocked by parents stressing out over kids’ schools and friends and sports and activities and all the extensive competitiveness and what she calls trivialities of parenting. She smartly calls for more basic social supports (decent quality childcare that is a tax write-off would be a beginning) and less isolation, but mostly she calls for a change in attitude, changing from control-freaks paniced at life spinning out of control, changing from the guilt of constantly feeling like a not-good-enough-mom.

Here’s an excerpt: In France,

I’d once expressed guilt about sending my toddler daughter off to six hours a week of preschool. ‘Do you have a mini arts studio in your home?’ [a friend] asked. ‘Do you have a playhouse and a variety of tricycles? Can you provide new sources of fun and stimulation every day?’ The answers were, obviously, no on all counts. The mere idea of having all that equipment at home had seemed absurd. In fact, when she put things that way, it began to seem absurd to keep a child at home when so many wonderful opportunities existed on the outside.

But in Washington, everything was different. The homes around me were equipped like mini arts studios. Many people had backyard equipment that rivaled public parks…. I tried to do it all myself: be mommy and camp counselor and art teacher and prereading specialist (and somehow, in my off-hours, to do my own work). I tried my absolute best. And like so many of the moms around me, I started to go a little crazy.

This rings true for me. We actually went to a playdate a few weeks ago at a suburban house that held six playground slides in the backyard. I counted. Okay, one was in the living-room: and that points to another problem that Warner highlights. Not only do American parents face excessive privatization, they also assume they need to center their lives around their kids. 

Warner inspired me to move Sophie’s plastic toys out of the living room, back to her bedroom. The beautiful stuff is still in the living room, the carved-wooden blocks and dollhouse that I like looking at — but the rest is in her space, and it’s also because Warner inspired me to follow my own sense of fun. Parenting should be about fun, she argues, not guilt.

Warner actually compares the situation of early 21st-century motherhood to the 1950s wives that Betty Friedan interviewed so classicly: each struggling alone, each breaking down in tears once every month or so, each convinced that she’d made her own free choices and was living a life of luxury and so shouldn’t be so desperately unhappy, all unable to live up to the feminine mystique of the 1950s or the mommyhood mystique of the 2000s.

She points out that Americans have long put ridiculously high stakes on motherhood, in the Calvinist idea that mothers alone steer children between heaven and hell, just as current parenting advice books believe that breastfeeding alone (or baby sign-language alone, mozart alone, properly attached stimulation, and all the rest of it) steers children up an i.q. category or to emotional fulfillment or whatever our current only-seemingly-nonreligious view is of heaven and hell. She points out that parenting advice manuals generalize from studies of severely deprived children (like the starving, tied-down, attention-deprived orphans in Ceasescu’s Rumania) to make upper-middle-class Americans feel that they risk exposing their children to similar deprivation if they take even twenty minutes to themselves. She points out that most moms work part-time, yet share the same ridiculously high level of parenting standards with stay-at-home moms. (She also acknowledges that she’s only talking about elite urban moms here, although I do get annoyed at her undifferentiated “we”). 

She traces swings in parenting trends, from the 1940s folks who worried that mothering would turn into smothering (“A Generation of Vipers,” in Philip Wylie’s unforgettable misogynistic phrase), to 1950s Donna-Reed-models, to 1970s feminists taking time for their own personal fulfillment, to current mothers rebounding back to smothering mothering, in an unconscious reaction to their own mothers, so that we now engage in collective overparenting in a vain effort to heal our own childhood abandonment issues. Of course I don’t think it’s this simple, or that any generation ever fully follows the advice books, but I recognize an interesting germ of truth in the idea that we parent out of our own unacknowledged childhood issues. And I think it provides an interesting perspective to remember when folks worried about mothering smothering.

There’s lots more in Warner’s book: pointing out that too many of us veer between only two emotional states: overly-focussed on our children or feeling guilty for not being focussed enough. There’s also lots that doesn’t ring true for me, and there’s a recent New York times column in which Warner admits that as her children age, she too has become emotionally involved in the minutiae of their lives, despite her whole book advocating mother’s independence.

But here’s a concluding thought:

We have taken it upon ourselves as supermothers to be everything to our children that society refuses to be: not just loving nurturers but educators, entertainers, guardians of environmental purity, protectors of a stable and prosperous future. This ultimately impotent control-freakishness is the form of learned helplessness acquired by a generation of women confronted by a world in which finding real solutions to improve family life seems impossible. And it really needs to change.

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One response to “Perfect Madness

  1. tamarchansky

    I think that one factor in this overparenting may be seen as an overcompensation for a lack we felt, but I think that the greater force is the collective anxiety that has been gaining on us for the past two decades. Rates of anxiety are up in kids and adults. Kids nowadays have the same baseline level of stress as kids in psychiatric care did in the 1950s. The stress comes from this focus on needing to be sure about the future, economic security, success etc. While there is obviously nothing wrong with wanting those things, they are not what happiness and life satisfaction are about. So while want the guarantees, it has left us nervous wrecks which we address by trying to micromanage.

    It just doesn’t work!

    In my work as a psychologist I write about the idea of creating true resilience by job-sharing with our kids– teaching how to be responsible for themselves so they will have a competent view of themselves (and an accurate one) and not need the overparenting…

    If you’re interested in checking out my new book: Freeing Your Child from Negative Thinking: Powerful, Practical Strategies to Build a Lifetime of Resilience, Flexibility and Happiness, you can go to: http://www.freeingyourchild.com.

    Tamar Chansky

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