February 21, 2005
The latest mommy book was all over the news last week. Judith Warner's "Perfect Madness: Motherhood in an Age of Anxiety" is about how women of my generation drive ourselves nuts trying keep up with impossible cultural expectations. Though I didn't like her Valentine's Day op-ed in The New York Times (previous blog), the Newsweek cover story (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/6959880/site/newsweek/), an excerpt of Warner's book, was more congenial--especially paired with the always warm-and-fuzzy pro-woman, pro-family Anna Quindlen.
My favorite part was Warner's theme that women's problems are political, not personal.
Like Susan Faludi's "Backlash", like Ann Crittenden's "The Price of Motherhood," like Naomi Wolf's "Misconceptions", like Susan Douglas's "Mommy Myth", and like, of course, the mother of all such tracts, Betty Friedan's "The Feminine Mystique," Warner's "Perfect Madness" points out that we women are not just falling short as individuals. Rather, we beat ourselves up for failing to meet maddening pressure to conform to impossible and often contradictory demands.
As she puts it in the Newsweek excerpt, describing the crazy race to be both uber-professional and uber-mom, "Some of us may feel empowered by the challenge of taking it all on . . . but really, this perfectionism is not empowerment. It's more like what some psychologists call 'learned helplessness.' . . . A lack of faith that changes can come to the outside world. A lack of belief in our political culture or our institutions." Or, as Susan Faludi said more than a decade ago, during times of cultural backlash against women, we tend to focus inward, and retreat from any collective, feminist goals. We blame ourselves, and we try to maintain peace with our mates, our colleagues and bosses, and leave the bigger fight for another day. But, Warner asks, where does that leave our daughters?
There has been a series of these mommy books lately, demanding a change in social circumstances that leave women feeling we have to do everything, working around the clock and pretending to love it.
Here's Warner's list of ideas, which more or less overlaps with similar lists at the end of all the books I mentioned except Friedan's:
* tax breaks for family friendly corporations
* government quality-control of child care
* affordable, part-time day care
* tax credits for child care and health insurance to help part-time workers
This modest set of goals won't go far toward fixing the "madness" Warner deplores.
Government child-care "quality control" won't bring about the high-quality care that is almost nonexistent today, any more than frequent testing will create excellent schools. (As Head Start founder Edward Zigler once said to me, "I don't think if you take somebody's temperature a lot that will make them well.")
Tax breaks only go so far, and only for people who earn enough to pay a lot in taxes.
But the sentiment is good.
Enough women have been calling for a movement to improve conditions for mothers and their families that it seems a political awakening might be afoot.
Instead of making home-baked pastries for the school fundraiser at 3 a.m., maybe some of the sleep-deprived, teary, stressed-out mothers Warner describes can band together and start pushing for a set of political goals.
How about high-quality preschools in the public schools?
Expanded, paid family leave?
There is plenty of room in the Republican Party's hollow family-values rhetoric to include some real initiatives for family policy. Why not a left-right coalition on some of these items?
Forget fainthearted proposals for tax breaks. A few years ago I heard James Q. Wilson give a keynote address at a banquet for the conservative American Enterprise Institute, in which he proposed a massive government program he called a "G.I. bill for moms." It sounded downright socialist.
Is it also hopelessly sexist? Maybe.
But so are the generous pro-family policies Warner loved in France. There, thanks to all the social support for children, "women wouldn't dream of giving up their careers" just because they have kids.
The politics of the mom movement have yet to be pounded out.
The cultural stuff is fun to talk about and will probably go on for a long time. Is breastfeeding and babywearing really a symptom of upper-middle-class neurosis, or is it a natural and even countercultural way to take care of our babies?
(Personally, I like attachment parenting guru Dr. Sears, www.askdrsears.com , whose philosophy Warner blames for making women guilty and nuts.)
Are the strivers who work all day and make cupcakes all night the real victims of our generation, or are the modern-day Betty Friedans who are so lonely living in the suburbs just as badly off?
Is part-time work the answer, as Warner suggests, or will it push women backwards onto a mommy track--even if they aren't mommies--because employers will see us as slackers and deadbeats?
And where, you might well ask, are all the men in this?
Why don't dads go part-time? Why don't they stay up late doing dishes? Why don't they at least share the sense of intense pressure to see to their families' needs?
I like to think my daughters will not be so isolated and anxious as the women Warner describes. And I agree with her that, for their sake, women of my generation need to get these problems sorted out. Not just at home, but in public policy as well.