Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety
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Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety

3.7 10
by Judith Warner
     
 

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A lively and provocative look at the modern culture of motherhood and at the social, economic, and political forces that shaped current ideas about parenting

What is wrong with this picture? That's the question Judith Warner asks in this national bestseller after taking a good, hard look at the world of modern parenting—at anxious women at

Overview

A lively and provocative look at the modern culture of motherhood and at the social, economic, and political forces that shaped current ideas about parenting

What is wrong with this picture? That's the question Judith Warner asks in this national bestseller after taking a good, hard look at the world of modern parenting—at anxious women at work and at home and in bed with unhappy husbands.

When Warner had her first child, she was living in Paris, where parents routinely left their children home, with state-subsidized nannies, to join friends in the evening for dinner or to go on dates with their husbands. When she returned to the States, she was stunned by the cultural differences she found toward how people think about effective parenting—in particular, assumptions about motherhood. None of the mothers she met seemed happy; instead, they worried about the possibility of not having the perfect child, panicking as each developmental benchmark approached.

Combining close readings of mainstream magazines, TV shows, and pop culture with a thorough command of dominant ideas in recent psychological, social, and economic theory, Perfect Madness addresses our cultural assumptions, and examines the forces that have shaped them.

Working in the tradition of classics like Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique and Christopher Lasch's The Culture of Narcissism, and with an awareness of a readership that turned recent hits like The Bitch in the House and Allison Pearson's I Don't Know How She Does It into bestsellers, Warner offers a context in which to understand parenting culture and the way we live, as well as ways of imagining alternatives—actual concrete changes—that might better our lives.

Editorial Reviews

As a Newsweek reporter stationed in Paris, Judith Warner had ample opportunity to observe the stereotypical gender roles of French culture, and her pieces reflected an American feminist's sense of superiority. When she returned to the United States, Warner, now a mother of two, received a rude awakening. She found that the working moms she had idealized from abroad were in reality tired, harassed, and at loose ends, most of them convinced that they had failed as both mothers and wives. These stressed-out overachievers longed for the quiet times that French mothers, thanks to state-subsidized nannies, took for granted. Her book is a wake-up call for every woman who once wished that she had it all and now laments that she does.
Judith Shulevitz
Manifestoes blast their way into the popular consciousness on two kinds of fuel: recognition (we see ourselves in them) and rage (we can no longer tolerate the injustice they describe). Judith Warner's Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety brims with both. She clearly means for her denunciation of American-style mothering to do for overstressed 21st-century upper-middle-class American women what Betty Friedan's Feminine Mystique did for underemployed 20th-century ones.
— The New York Times
Stephanie Wilkinson
odern 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?
— The Washington Post
From the Publisher
"Manifestoes blast their way into the popular consciousness on two kinds of fuel: recognition (we see ourselves in them) and rage (we can no longer tolerate the injustice they describe). Judith Warner's 'Perfect Madness' brims with both." —The New York Times Book Review

"How did we become a nation of worry-wart, control-freak mothers? Warner does a superb job of succinctly tracing the societal evolution and parenting theories from the postwar, Dr. Spock '50s and '60s through the past three decades since the dawn of feminism...[Perfect Madness] is sure to stir controversy and emotions." —San Francisco Chronicle

"Perfect Madness has struck a chord among middle-class moms guilt-tripped into being time-martyrs and trying to micromanage their children’s lives." —People

"[Perfect Madness] has struck a chord with moms across the country, who believe they're going crazy." —Dallas Morning News

"In the end [Warner] arrives at the controversial conclusion that mothers are not victims of outside forces but rather their own worst enemies. The bigger issue, Ms. Warner argues, is that whether working or not, moms are consumed by what she sees as a new 'soul-draining' perfectionism that's turned parenting—from the first ultrasound to the last college application—into a competitive sport. Ms. Warner's observations inject new life into what has become a long, tired debate." —New York Observer

"In this polemic about contemporary motherhood, Warner argues that the gains of feminism are no match for the frenzied perfectionism of American parenting. In the absence of any meaningful health, child-care, or educational provisions, martyrdom appears to be the only feasible model for successful maternity—with destructive consequences for both mothers and children. Comparing this situation with her experiences of child-rearing in France, Warner finds American 'hyper-parenting'—pre-school violin and Ritalin on demand—'just plain crazy.' The trouble is a culture that, though it places enormous private value on children, neglects them in the arenas of public policy. She is concerned less with sexual politics than with the more persuasive effects of the 'winner take all' mentality, and makes an urgent case for more socially integrated parenthood." —New Yorker

"Modern motherhood is exacting costs . . . With Perfect Madness, Warner convincingly shows the psychological damages." —Washington Post Book World

"[Perfect Madness] has struck a chord among middle-class moms guilt-tripped into being time-martyrs and trying to micromanage their children's lives." —People 

"A sharply observed study of motherhood in today's culture." —Atlanta Journal-Constitution

"Warner argues for a saner society, where everyone would have access to a decent living and enough family time for themselves and their children." —Publishers Weekly

"[Judith Warner's] words have struck a nerve with modern mothers." —Richmond Times Dispatch

"Warner has…inspired the beginnings of debate about where neurotic motherhood leads." —London Observer

"Perfect Madness is the utter madness of life in a frenzy around the children. But it also hints at the madness that is inherent in women's attempts to be 'perfect mothers' and have 'perfect' children. As a result they give up everything that distinguished them as individual women—with a variety of wishes, desires, and interests—before they became mothers." —Ha'Aretz

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781573223041
Publisher:
Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
02/28/2005
Pages:
336
Product dimensions:
16.20(w) x 23.00(h) x 3.00(d)
Age Range:
14 Years

Read an Excerpt

Perfect Madness

Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety
By Judith Warner

Riverhead Books

ISBN: 1-573-22304-2


Preface

"This Mess"

This is a very personal book. It is a snapshot of motherhood - of parenthood, really - as I found it in Washington, D.C., and its suburbs from the fall of 2000 to the summer of 2004. And although in writing it I made every effort to take my research further-away from the big cities of the East Coast, back in time to the colonial roots of America's cultural history, then forward again to our day-I know that what I have written here is not an encyclopedic overview of Motherhood, Now and Forever. It's not a scholarly history. Neither is it a book of self-help. It's not a book about the work-family conflict. Nor is it about "balance," or the problems of working mothers, or the virtues of stay-at- home motherhood. It does not contain much by way of policy. It will not tell you how to raise your children. It is, rather, an exploration of a feeling. That caught-by-the-throat feeling so many mothers have today of always doing something wrong. And it's about a conviction I have that this feeling-this widespread, choking cocktail of guilt and anxiety and resentment and regret-is poisioning motherhood for American women today. Lowering our horizons and limiting our minds. Sapping energy that we should have for ourselves and our children. And drowning out thoughts that might lead us, collectively, to formulate solutions. The feeling has many faces but it doesn't really have a name. It's not depression. It's not oppression. It's a mix of things, a kind of too-muchness. An existential discomfort. A "mess," as one woman I interviewed called it, for lack of a better word. She wasn't a woman who normally lacked for words. She was a newspaper editor. A headline writer. A professional wordsmith. And yet, as she sat with me one night, half-buried in a sofa in a circle of moms, she struggled, and stumbled, as she tried to express what it was that made her life feel like it was always about to come apart. None of it made much sense, really, she said. She was a person lucky enough to have many choices. In the hope of finding "balance" she'd chosen to scale down her career-working part-time and at night, in order to spend as much time as possible with her nine-year-old daughter. This is the kind of arrangement that mothers are supposed to dream of. This mom knew she ought to feel blessed. But somehow, nothing had worked out as planned. Working nights meant that she was tired all the time, and cranky, and stressed. And forever annoyed with her husband. And now-her daughter was after her to get a day job. It seemed she was finding that having Mom around most of the time wasn't all it was cracked up to be, particularly if Mom was forever on the edge. So what was she to do? The woman waved her hands in circles, helplessly. "What I'm trying to figure out-" She paused. "What I'm trying to remember ... is how I ended up raising this princess ... how I got into ... how to get out of ... this, this, this ... this mess." This mess. The words crackled like lightning in the suburban living room where we'd been sitting since sunset. It was a Tuesday evening in the winter of 2002, the bath-into-bed-time hour was past, and the moms, out for a night without kids, were exhausted. The conversation had been moving laboriously, the big issue, Motherhood, lurching heavily across the coffee table like a big medicine ball full of angst. Like the newspaper editor, the other moms didn't feel entitled to complain. By any objective measure, they had easy lives-kids in good schools, houses in good neighborhoods, dependable husbands whose incomes allowed them to mostly choose what they wanted to do with their time. Most had chosen to pursue Mommy Track jobs-part-time work, a big cut in ambition and salary. But they didn't mind that; they knew that that was a privilege. Still, there was something that bugged them. It ate away at them. It cast a pall on all the rest. What they couldn't make peace with was the feeling that somehow, more globally, they were living Mommy Track lives. Lives filled with knee pads and bake sales and dentist's appointments and car seats. Lives somehow lesser than those of their full-time working husbands-men who managed, when the kids ran wild in the morning, spilling their Cheerios, and losing their shoes, to lose themselves in the newspaper, fading "into black and white" at the breakfast table, as one mom put it to me, "just like Father Knows Best." The moms' lives were punctuated by boxer shorts on the floor and quilt-making at school, carpooling and play dates and mother-daughter book clubs, and getting in to see the right dentist and worrying about whether they had the wrong pediatrician, and, and, and, layer after layer of trivia and absurdity that sometimes made them feel like they were going out of their heads. Sometimes, a rage seized them that was hard to control. Sometimes, everything just seemed out of control. "Living in past, present, and future all at one time," one mom said, "I get overwhelmed. I get worried about things falling apart." Every three months, they would blow. Every now and then, their husbands and children knew, they had to leave Mommy alone. It was a standard part of their family lives. The "Zen of the boxer shorts," as one mother called it, could only last for so long. And the real problem was-the worst of it all was-it wasn't altogether clear that what they were doing with their lives was actually worthwhile. The choices and the compromises-when all was said and done, they didn't seem to add up to all that much. Not to a great sense of achievement. Not to a great sense of pride. There was no gratitude from their families, certainly. Their husbands had started taking a tone. It sounded like: "This is what I want you to do ..." Their children simply wondered what they did with their time. Their children had almost all of them, and they just wanted more, more, more. And after years of always trying to give more, give their all, they were coming to realize that more wasn't necessarily right. But what to do, then? "The children are the center of the household and everything goes around them," said a woman who'd left a prestigious government job working on child-care policy because it allowed her no time with her kids. "You want to do everything and be everything for them because this is your job now. You take all the energy and enthusiasm you had in your career and you feel the need to be as successful raising your children as you were in the workplace. And you can make your kids totally crazy in the process." "And," another stay-at-home mom put in, "the reality is: at the end of the day, you could put your heart in it and it could be all cocked up. For nothing wrong that you did. Your kids could wind up a mess, and there's your life's work." There was a problem floating in the room, a problem so big and so strange that the women couldn't quite name it. It wasn't exactly guilt. It wasn't exactly stress. It wasn't exactly anger. It was all of that and more. "... This mess." Those two simple words were like a code-breaker. Everything became clear then, and suddenly, the sentences flew.

"It's like they keep a tally of the did-nots." "I am absolutely and scarily consumed by rage." "I want my kids to think of me not just as doing for them but also as fun." "I think we're making ourselves crazy." "Your kids can end up completely messed up." "Are we neurotic, insecure? What got us to here?" I couldn't answer those questions back then. I didn't even try. The fact is: I was put off that night by those smartest-of-the-smart, well-off, and powerful women, with their Washington insider lives. All women should have problems like yours, I found myself thinking. We all should be so lucky. It was only later, when I stepped back, transcribed the conversation, and read-and read and read-more transcripts and articles and e-mails and books and policy papers, when I stepped back and listened to the cultural conversation on motherhood going on in my home and in theirs and, I believe, in all of ours, that I came to see that, indeed, most women did. Have problems like theirs. In varying forms. And in varying degress, depending on how much money and how much luck and how many real choices they had. I came to believe that all mothers in America, in differing ways and to different degrees, were caught up in The Mess. And that's because the climate in which we now mother is, in many ways, just plain crazy. It's not the "fault" of the media. Or the Christian Right. Or George W. Bush. Or Phyllis Schlafly. Or Dr. Laura Schlessinger. Or Mrs. Doubtfire. It's us-this generation of mothers. And it's the way our culture has groomed and greeted us. Mixing promise with politics, feminism with "family values," science and sound bites and religion and, above all, fear into a combustible combination that is nothing less than perfect madness

(Continues...)



Excerpted from Perfect Madness by Judith Warner Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
"Manifestoes blast their way into the popular consciousness on two kinds of fuel: recognition (we see ourselves in them) and rage (we can no longer tolerate the injustice they describe). Judith Warner's 'Perfect Madness' brims with both." —The New York Times Book Review

"How did we become a nation of worry-wart, control-freak mothers? Warner does a superb job of succinctly tracing the societal evolution and parenting theories from the postwar, Dr. Spock '50s and '60s through the past three decades since the dawn of feminism...[Perfect Madness] is sure to stir controversy and emotions." —San Francisco Chronicle

"Perfect Madness has struck a chord among middle-class moms guilt-tripped into being time-martyrs and trying to micromanage their children’s lives." —People

"[Perfect Madness] has struck a chord with moms across the country, who believe they're going crazy." —Dallas Morning News

"In the end [Warner] arrives at the controversial conclusion that mothers are not victims of outside forces but rather their own worst enemies. The bigger issue, Ms. Warner argues, is that whether working or not, moms are consumed by what she sees as a new 'soul-draining' perfectionism that's turned parenting—from the first ultrasound to the last college application—into a competitive sport. Ms. Warner's observations inject new life into what has become a long, tired debate." —New York Observer

"In this polemic about contemporary motherhood, Warner argues that the gains of feminism are no match for the frenzied perfectionism of American parenting. In the absence of any meaningful health, child-care, or educational provisions, martyrdom appears to be the only feasible model for successful maternity—with destructive consequences for both mothers and children. Comparing this situation with her experiences of child-rearing in France, Warner finds American 'hyper-parenting'—pre-school violin and Ritalin on demand—'just plain crazy.' The trouble is a culture that, though it places enormous private value on children, neglects them in the arenas of public policy. She is concerned less with sexual politics than with the more persuasive effects of the 'winner take all' mentality, and makes an urgent case for more socially integrated parenthood." —New Yorker

"Modern motherhood is exacting costs . . . With Perfect Madness, Warner convincingly shows the psychological damages." —Washington Post Book World

"[Perfect Madness] has struck a chord among middle-class moms guilt-tripped into being time-martyrs and trying to micromanage their children's lives." —People

"A sharply observed study of motherhood in today's culture." —Atlanta Journal-Constitution

"Warner argues for a saner society, where everyone would have access to a decent living and enough family time for themselves and their children." —Publishers Weekly

"[Judith Warner's] words have struck a nerve with modern mothers." —Richmond Times Dispatch

"Warner has…inspired the beginnings of debate about where neurotic motherhood leads." —London Observer

"Perfect Madness is the utter madness of life in a frenzy around the children. But it also hints at the madness that is inherent in women's attempts to be 'perfect mothers' and have 'perfect' children. As a result they give up everything that distinguished them as individual women—with a variety of wishes, desires, and interests—before they became mothers." —Ha'Aretz

Meet the Author

Judith Warner is the author of the New York Times bestselling Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety and Hillary Clinton: The Inside Story, as well as several other books. She writes the Domestic Disturbances column for the New York Times website and is a former special correspondent for Newsweek in Paris. She lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband and their children.

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Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 10 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
When I went to the Barnes and Noble website to find the note from the publisher I read the reviews as well. Some of the reviews made me angry, because the reviewers kind of missed the whole point of the book I thought, which was to explain how and why motherhood has changed throughout the years, and how another culture can live perfectly without this anxiety over their shoulders all the time. It doesn't mean that we are bad mothers, dislike our kids, or hate our role as a mother. Its a fact that motherhood is a difficult job. Any job that holds you acountable for another human beings life, is definetly an important role. Looking at the big picture of life with everything that could go along with it is a difficult job. It is nice to hear that someone else recognizes this anxiety that so many mothers don't want to admit they have (if some times, or all the time.) because they need to keep their stereo type of a mother that society makes them need to live up to,(it is the era of Martha Stewart) and through history what could have caused us to mother the way we do. I feel like we could be better mothers if we could parent the way we want from what ever methods prefered, without a culture sculpting the way we should FEEL about the way we do it. Like the subject that all mothers bring up sometime in 'mommy conversations' about punishing your child in public.... what will someone else think as they watch me do the punishing, am I doing it right, am I abusing the child, does the child need a good spanking, if I don't punish because I'm afraid of what someone might think is my kid now a little brat? maybe the kid didn't do anything wrong, so now Im just a stressed out mother that takes it out on her kids, and how do I explain to the older lady that spanking is not the answere? This book could help you realize a lot of cultural differences in how we mother, and open your eye to make you realize that your anxiety is not because you are a bad mother it's only a guilt that is caused by our society and culture. I recommend this book. It wont stay on my book shelf either, because it will be passed to one friend, then on to another.
Guest More than 1 year ago
While I commend Judith Warner for continuing the discussion of motherhood and it's challenges, I can't help but feel that this is half the story--where is mention of mothers who are, for the most part, enjoying their lives? It seems to me that Warner recorded each mom's lowest thought at her lowest moment, but never asked about the high points, or the things we do get right. Why no names with the quotes? Would the women have changed their words if they thought there would be attribution, or are the quotes meant to represent a composite of what Warner found to be true? In the end, there is much thought devoted to the problems some modern mothers face, but very little talk about how to help each other, or steps to take to change the situation. I'd have enjoyed the book much more if it devoted time to discussing answers to the many questions it raises.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed reading this book because it reinforced how crazy we, as mothers, have gotten. And it's nice to see that we're all pretty much in the same boat, albeit a sinking boat. What I didn't like about the book was that it didn't give any solutions to our problems. The book went on and on about how through history we GOT to where we are (anxiety- & guilt-ridden, frazzled parents) but it doesn't give many suggestions on what we can do about it! I'd like to know how to stop this madness!!?!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Judith Warner successfully exposed a strong view being held by some groups of professional women about motherhood in the new millennium. It is all about securing career growth while being a mother, a path that demands less presence by the mother in the life of her child(ren), while at the same time is fraught with the pressure to be the ideal mum that children always dream about, the mother who is always there when needed. It is a rising conflict in motherhood in the rapidly professional America where the specter of single parent families is growing everyday. However I think this book should have toned down its strong feminist perspective.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I somewhat enjoyed this book - it's relieving to read others have these same problems. The only thing that derailed me was the comparison between French & American parents. Europe has smaller families - if any, and the French are having major problems with their youths - mainly because they aren't allowed to work until after the age 18 (so as not to take away jobs from elders)- so the kids are problems - just ask any French parent with kids these ages. Yeah, it's easy to sit in a cafe & drink wine. Maybe I should try that.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I live in the DC area, and I have never lived in an area that is so concentrated with highly-educated, yet insecure and neurotic mothers. It's as if they had all the confidence in the world when they ran businesses, made laws, and generally ran the world. Yet, motherhood has them completely baffled. There is no 'right' or 'wrong' way to mother; I never got ushered back and forth to multiple language, creative enrichment, or ballet classes throughout my childhood in a Land Rover. I'm sure the vast majority of women in this world didn't, and we all turned out okay. The media, combined with our culture of consumption, has painted a picture of modern motherhood that is bleak and impossible to achieve, at best. This book, and The Mommy Myth, go a long way to describe the hell some women seemed trapped inside. However, what this book fails to point out is that the solution lies within the mother. If you don't like your life and feel trapped, then why don't you go get a job, or fill your day with doing things to fulfill your personal goals instead of living through a four year old. That type of motherhood will smother your children and raise a whole generation of neurotic, co-dependent children.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I definitely related to parts, but wished the focus groups would have been broader. The outcome after reading was that I was somewhat depressed to partially have my situation recognized, addressed, and come to the same conclusion as myself that there needs to be a change. NO ONE knows what the answer is; just how are we to remedy the situation is the problem.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This author wages an all out attack on attachment parenting (ie: breastfeeding) and believes that a woman that decides to be a stay at home mom is throwing it all away by 'depriving herself and, therefore, depriving her children.' Her view seems to be that a woman doesn't get any satisfaction from raising her children and that it's actually a chore. I'm sorry, but if you feel this way, then perhaps you really should rethink whether or not to have children. I'm returning this book to the store; it doesn't have a place on my bookshelves.