Judith Warner, Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety (2005)

I don’t feel quite comfortable reviewing non-fiction, because it reminds me of grad school papers where I always got bad grades. I don’t feel I’ll do a good job writing a resume of Warner thesis and discuss it at length (there are many websites doing this a lot better than I ever will be able to, because Warner’s book has been widely publicized when it got out), but the good part of book blogs is that I’m free to write a personal comment on it without risking a bad grade!

Warner’s book is a pamphlet, a manifesto. If you’re looking for a cool-headed, academic description of motherhood in today’s America, that’s really not the book to read. Warner is full of anger and frustration; her book is full of personal confessions of mothers she met or of her own situation, so it’s mostly about the American white, upper-middle class. She quotes facts and figures as if self-evident, without giving many backing references and the few reference texts she gives are more often out of Redbook magazine than from other, more “validated” sources. I was particularly annoyed that she describes the situation as a “mess” and nothing more defined. So you see that her book is very easy to pick on and dismiss.

But on the factual level, I think her angry tone is her way to get to grips with a terrible situation (which seems very real, but once again, I’m not an American mother, so I can’t tell) and to express her frustration and despair at being a mother in the United States, where motherhood has risen to the level of a religion, so that women are never good enough to fit its perfect model, no matter how dedicated, selfless they act. Due to an excessive interpretation of the attachment theories, and heightened by guilt, there’s no space or time left for the woman or the couple (marriage becoming a sexless, unfeeling partnership). Work is seen as detrimental to the child’s development and women get isolated, trapped in this endless quest, lose more and more of their identity and develop obsessive-compulsive disorders.

Her reference is Betty Friedan’s “Feminine Mystique” (which I didn’t read), so she creates the parallel expression “Mommy Mystique”, which “rests on an almost religious adherence to ideas about child-rearing, about marriage and sex roles and society that supports the status quo even as mothers denounce it, even as children complain about it, even as ‘the experts’ warn that our way of doing things is stressing our children to the core.”

Warner praises the French model a lot (she used to live here and started to raise her children here before returning to the US), where most women work and children are taken care of in public nurseries from an early age… I guess she kept pink, nostalgic lenses on when judging the French situation. That’s true that most women work and that we have quite a generous maternity leave (6 weeks before the birth, 10 weeks after), but many women even in upper-middle class just can’t afford to stop working or even take a baby pause for a few years, because jobs are hard to come by and salaries aren’t high. Moreover, it’s quite hard to go back to work when the baby will be barely 2,5 months old, and finding an affordable care for Baby Smithereens is a huge challenge, as being accepted in a public nursery is simply impossible (nurseries aren’t enough, in big cities and countryside alike). So much for the French model, but I understand her looking for another model where child-rearing would be more of a society act and not so much pressure would be put on each family (therefore on the mother) as in the US.

On a lighter note, I read this book in French where the cover and title are quite different from those in the US edition. In the French version, can you see the peppy pink color and funny drawing of a busy mom? The title translates as “Mothers on the Verge of a Breakdown: Motherhood in the Age of Perfection”, while the US cover is black and red, in a stern and almost tragic tone. It’s always difficult to translate a title (Perfect Madness doesn’t work in a literal way in French…), but here I think it slightly changes the message, which is understandable as French mothers won’t read the book in the same, personal way as American mothers.


2 thoughts on “Judith Warner, Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety (2005)

  1. Interesting – and yes, fundamentally I do agree with you. It’s a kind of controlled rant, but I sympathise because we in the UK are no strangers to the perfectionist drive. Then again, we just feel guilty about not reaching the standards, it’s not like we seriously entertain them. I don’t think any society has managed a good work/childcare balance yet, although my relatives living in Brussels say that the childcare is very good over there and justifies the high taxes…..

  2. Pingback: Rachel Cusk, A Life’s Work: on becoming a mother (2001) | Smithereens

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