Control Freaks

The past few years have seen an outpouring of books that deconstruct, describe, and frequently denounce contemporary maternity. Recent celebrated titles reveal much of the genre’s slant: Faulkner Fox’s Dispatches from a Not-So-Perfect Life: Or How I Learned to Love the House, the Man, the Child and the ever-quotable The Bitch in The House: 26 Women Tell the Truth About Sex, Solitude, Work, Motherhood, and Marriage. These books involve serious self-scrutiny; each author agonizes over minutia and pounds her fists against Ideals, asking how (and why) she fell down this rabbit hole in the first place. Lighter versions include Confessions of a Slacker Mom by Muffy Mead-Ferro and the cottage industry of “hip mama” books by Ariel Gore. No agonizing here. Motherhood rocks, with an “I’m so cool I barely notice I’m breastfeeding” edge. These books offer lots of witty repartee (even between toddlers!) and thoughtful indifference to expectations that other memoirists deconstruct.

“Momoirs,” as they’re called, are not the only hot motherhood books. There’s also a plethora of more analytical tomes with quite shocking subtitles, like The Price of Motherhood: Why the Most Important Job in the World Is Still the Least Valued, by Ann Crittenden, or The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood and How It Has Undermined Women, by Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels. These take on issues of public policy and trace trends for clues about how contemporary “mothering” has come to be. The most recent book in this subgenre, Judith Warner’s Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety, may be the most controversial.

The author sets herself up for some brouhaha by likening her work to Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique; there’s no better way to defend the canonical than to fault the contender. Yet, despite all the buzz (the well-connected Warner got her book onto the covers of Newsweek and the New York Times Book Review; she’s been on Today, Nightline, and Fresh Air), the book’s main points are straightforward and, on the surface, not so startling.

Perfect Madness is fueled by the assumption that mothers are discontent; dissatisfaction and anxiety underlie our lives. Juxtaposing American mothers to our more contented French counterparts, Warner argues that we’re unhappy because of a gendered impetus for control and an American emphasis on individualism. The control axis of her argument hinges on interviews with the middle- to upper-middle-class women who inhabit Warner’s suburban Washington, D.C., milieu. Actually, the author admits, “it is very hard to write about the middle class in America without excessively focusing on the upper middle class.”

For this privileged, post-baby boom “generation of control freaks” that Warner describes, identity as a mother supersedes all else. These women learn sign language to communicate with the preverbal. They schedule “quality time” and family meetings; start children late in school so they have a leg up on the first-grade competition; and offer them a thoughtful mix of private lessons in sports, chess, and second languages. The testimonials Warner uses to build her argument about control—such as the series of expensive private tests and weeks of maternal despair resulting from a toddler’s delayed speech (eighteen months and mumbling!), or the woman who falls down an escalator in a frenzy to buy her kid Yu-Gi-Oh! cards—have been blood in the ocean for her critics.
On Slate, Ann Hulbert shook her finger: “just how representative a constituency is it, anyway?” In the Washington Post, Hanna Rosin was dismissive: “Over the past century the type—the privileged suburban mother, looking perfect but feeling hollow—has emerged every generation or so asking for understanding, for what she’s lost, for all the work she does.” Faulkner Fox fumes against Warner’s claim that “the ways of the upper middle class affect everybody.” They all cry: class bias!

They’re right. Warner’s pretty, rich prose is about pretty, rich, white women. Even her sighing apology that writing about working-class women was “beyond the scope” of her capabilities rings hollow. But this point is easy to seize upon, and it’s unfortunate the sharks have stopped there, sated.
An astute reader gives weight to Warner’s intent: to unpack a set of white, upper-middle-class ideals and anxieties that have become normative. Let’s pull out a historical example. Pre-Civil War Southern white women, with their tiny waists and alabaster skin, were the gold standard for femininity; these girls knew how to flutter and faint. From academic treatises to the trashy romance novel, we now know that this frail femininity was not only emulated by the poor (and dark), but also deemed a moral goal. Warner is not interested in Everywoman; she is intrigued by the Ideal.

And today’s gold standard doesn’t store the offspring at KinderCare, toil in a factory, or lunch at Mickey D’s—no, she’s the yoga-trim professional who can bring home the organic bacon with baby on hip and parenting tome in hand. When Warner is deconstructing these standard-bearers of control and perfection (and consumption), she is at her best. She compellingly links contemporary mothering to the sociopolitical dynamics of the 1980s, contending that the tightly controlled sexual/worker-bee body of the eighties has morphed into the tightly wound maternal body of the twenty-first century. She nails her argument.

Yet Warner’s ambitious theories haven’t registered with the kind of impact they warrant. Why? Mothering books are successful precisely because they portend to speak to Everywoman, and (surprise) the authors populating this genre have been the first to jump up and squeal about Warner’s elitism and narrow constituencies. Nervous, girls? Second, exposing the psychological economies of what is normal or pathological—while we’re living out these traits ourselves—is notoriously difficult. Unfortunately, Warner isn’t quite up to the task. Her theoretical voice is too muted, and so the testimonials of the privileged are allowed to sound like one big, inadequately framed whine.

But remember the other ace in the author’s hand, the American emphasis on individualism? Mothers on this continent are in a funk not just because we’re compelled to control the tiniest domestic detail (wheat or oat in Baby’s granola?), but because we’re oh, so utterly alone. Mom’s on her own at home: Dad may do diapering duty but (as throughout history) primary child-rearing responsibilities are women’s work. Mom’s also alone in the world: institutions (public and private) not only fail to support her, but work against her needs.

Warner does an admirable job of winding through politics and policy to show us how high the deck is stacked against mothers. Universal day care, accessible contraceptives, support for poor mothers, medical leaves, and other parachutes? Uh, sure, and sign me up for that luxury time-share on Jupiter, too. As long as we insist that Everywoman pull herself up by her bootstraps, especially if she doesn’t have boots, mothers will not be the beneficiaries of “institutions that can help us take care of our children so that we don’t have to do everything on our own.” With no help in sight, today’s mother can’t release her tight grip. There’s no net. Our impetus for control has sound sociological, as well as symbolic and psychological, grounding.

Warner tosses up her hands over this issue; it’s too late for this generation, she concedes. She doesn’t offer concrete recommendations for the future, either—just paints her picture of civic gloom. Privatization is being bandied about as the next great idea. If we reel in public programs, the upper class will simply pull those reins tighter and purchase what might have been, or used to be, the civic entitlement of all: education, health care, and access to art, athletics, music, and more. Just as we ne
ed greater systemic support for mothers, the institutions in place are being drained or dismantled.

In the end, Perfect Madness trips on its ambition. Warner takes on the task of deconstructing amorphous cultural concepts, and also treads the more pedestrian path of public policy. She doesn’t stretch far enough in either direction. Her greater successes can be found in her first concern, in her critique of today’s rigid maternal body. Warner may be less a daughter of Friedan than a sister of philosopher Susan Bordo, who tackled the normative female body in 1995 with Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture and the Body. Bordo’s concern with Western values of “self-mastery and self-transcendence” place female anxieties within a larger philosophical context of embodiment in general. Or: what does it mean to be human? After all, critics haven’t complained about Warner’s central assumption, that mothers are yearning for meaning and a better life. Isn’t that part and parcel of being alive, regardless of reproductive proclivities?

Ultimately, the significant contribution of Perfect Madness is that we close the book with a sense of civic urgency. If we need another book on mothering, let’s expand the second half of Warner’s analysis and put together a great big volume on public policy. If all goes well, the next spate of mothering books should have shocking subtitles like How Hedge Funds Finance Universal Day Care or A Blueprint For Vesting Mothers in Social Security. There we’d have some page-turners!