Perfect Madness by Judith Warner
Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety
reviewed by Joan Frawley Desmond
As a mother who once purchased an electronic phonics gadget for her toddler, this writer knows the depths to which maternal anxiety can sink. Perhaps most American women will admit to similar acts of irrational spending, scheduling, and worrying on behalf of their offspring. Can public acknowledgment of this kind of hysteria provoke a new wave of social and political reform in America?
Judith Warner, author of Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety thinks so. The co-author of Howard Dean’s campaign book, You Have the Power: How to Take Back Our Country and Restore Democracy in America, and Hillary Clinton: The Inside Story, Warner writes as if her solutions for upper-middle-class control freaks might even rescue the feminist revolution from the dustbins of suburbia.
No one subjected to endless parental venting over a child’s SAT scores can dispute the need for calm. But Perfect Madness is unlikely to spark a revolution. Warner describes the symptoms of a generational disorder without confronting the underlying malignancy. Her argument possesses a technical flaw as well: Perfect Madness conflates the existential preoccupations of upper-class mothers with the financial woes of less privileged moms. Then Warner prescribes the same medicine for all her patients.
But if the author has overreached, she still offers cautionary insights for mothers who have morphed into their children’s frazzled chauffeurs, tutors, and secretaries. Indeed, the problem of overscheduled children parallels the “latchkey” phenomenon described in books like Mary Eberstadt’s Home Alone America. Both trends reflect a diminished appreciation for maternal love and its transformative impact within the home and on the culture.
Maternal anxiety, in Warner’s view, is partly the result of unmet expectations generated by the women’s liberation movement. Warner targets the destructive impact of the feminists’ drumbeat of “choice” and “control”—each theme a tactical weapon in the defense of abortion rights. The rhetoric of choice creates unrealistic expectations.
The rhetoric of control leads mothers to shoulder most of the burden for raising children. Guilt-ridden, resentful, and insular, Betty Friedan’s progeny find little respite in their homes, where their husbands—now the primary or sole breadwinner—hold the upper hand.
Only the children’s accomplishments in school, on the playing field, and in the recital hall redeem this grim existence. But the polishing of children’s resumes soon takes on a life of its own, crowding out marital intimacy and obliterating the dinner hour. Many fathers encourage this hyperactivity, Warner contends, because our “winner take all” economy makes both parents fret when junior doesn’t reach his developmental milestones.
Warner extols the static-free empathy and excellent subsidized social services she received during her time as a working mother in Paris. She celebrates the balanced lives of French families who would ridicule the notion of disrupting weekends with multiple soccer games. Further, she approves of French efforts to establish boundaries between the world of adults and that of children, while Americans seem to orbit around their offspring’s pursuits and demands.
Warner doesn’t acknowledge the hidden agenda that fuels some of the frenzy here: American parents believe that organized sports and civic activities will discourage sexual promiscuity and substance abuse. Maybe it’s time to scrutinize our prophylactic tonics for teenage rebellion, but Warner provides no real context for her comparative snapshot of family practices here and abroad. Further, the French families that Warner celebrates are shrinking fast, and clearly possess their own set of problems.
The author might turn to Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America for wise observations that apply to our present difficulties. The French social theorist celebrated our devotion to voluntary organizations as a sign of civic vitality—he’d applaud the advent of recreational soccer leagues, no doubt.
He presented a more measured response to our practice of raising skeptics, however. He noted that French children embraced received tradition, while their US counterparts questioned communal values. Thus, Tocqueville exposed the inherent fragility of the American experiment: Our individualistic culture prizes autonomy and questions authority, making us uniquely vulnerable to social fragmentation—and thus more dependent on religion and the virtues it fosters.
Today, the culture wars underscore the truth of Tocqueville’s insights. Secularism foments disunity within the body politic. The decline in faith itself breeds anxiety, and the breakdown in common values complicates our efforts to reach out to others. Hyperactivity fills the void, as Warner herself observes. But the joyful serenity is missing, and the elimination of recreational soccer won’t change that.
Warner also believes the culture wars inflict psychic harm on her peers. Her solution: Feminists and traditionalists should agree to disagree. Both groups should dial down the ideological static and let working mothers determine their individual needs. But Warner doesn’t really explain why we Americans debate issues that leave Europeans unmoved, and she also ignores the steep rise in social pathologies many associate with maternal absence.
These two subjects are related and deserve some attention. If we take Tocqueville’s remarks seriously, the culture wars emerge in a new light: They demonstrate our political vibrancy. They also signal a healthy, if unconscious, awareness of our cultural vulnerabilities—and our desire to repair the breach before further damage is inflicted.
Trusted to Love
Like many women of her generation, Warner’s search for answers reflects her ignorance of religious teachings that offer a rich appreciation for motherhood as a state of life. She places all her faith in good intentions, and in legislative reforms that will move us toward the European social welfare model. The spiritual realm doesn’t appear on her radar.
Indeed, the contradictions embedded in Perfect Madness—a critique of feminist buzzwords followed by a defense of Roe v. Wade—suggest deep resistance to a consistent ethic of life. Maybe that’s why a book about maternal anxiety ignores the corrosive impact of divorce, premarital sex, serial monogamy, contraception, and abortion.
Anxiety pervades the souls of women who no longer trust themselves or others to love fully. Warner’s subjects doubt the intrinsic value of loving actions, and churn out a cost-benefit analysis of the blood, sweat, and tears expended on behalf of their offspring. In a gripping way, the author shows how the upbringing of one’s child is reduced to a case study in product development.
Others have gone over this ground before. Pope Benedict XVI, for one, has suggested that such calculations reflect inherently “masculine” tendencies. Women adopt them at great cost to themselves and the culture. Instead, we must recover and revitalize our traditional concern with the care and feeding of human dignity.
These insights apply to all American mothers, who must navigate an increasingly utilitarian culture (which preaches the rule: change it if it doesn’t work), whether they go to work or remain at home. The Christian vocation to love calls us to offer a self-sacrificial gift that never counts the cost, a gift that images the communion of the Trinitarian God.
“Love never ends,” St. Paul reminds us. Everything else will “pass away.” In our bottom-line culture, belief in the lasting, often hidden power of love remains an act of faith. Although hard to recollect when our teenager flunks an exam, St. Paul’s words bequeath us the occasional night of restful sleep.
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