Perfect Madness? Motherhood in a Postmodern Age
- Tuesday, March 29, 2005
Judith Warner calls the problem, "this mess." Author of Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety, Warner has issued a manifesto for postmodern motherhood. As she sees it, motherhood has been transformed into a trap for young women, who find themselves torn between impossible expectations and a lack of self-fulfillment. Her new book, along with a major cover story in the February 21, 2005 edition of Newsweek, represents a battle cry for a new feminist generation.
Warner, a biographer of Hillary Rodham Clinton and co-author of a book with Howard Dean, interviewed 150 women over a four year period in order to take the pulse of motherhood today. Her book, featuring a title that implies desperation, depicts modern motherhood as an impossibility. To make her case, she first rejects what she characterizes as two erroneous understandings of motherhood. The first is that offered by traditionalists, who argue that a mother's first responsibility is to her home and to the nurture of children. Warner quickly dismisses this picture as a relic of a bygone past.
At the same time, Warner dismisses the early feminists--including figures such as Betty Friedan--as neglecting the possibility of a woman's choice to find fulfillment in motherhood.
Actually, Warner has not moved as far from the early feminists as she thinks. Her portrait of motherhood is deeply rooted in the ideological foundations of modern feminism. She may refer to the present as a "postfeminist era," but her basic assumptions about a woman's place in society and the nature of male oppression reflect decidedly feminist sentiments.
The "mess" Warner portrays consists of mothers who are deeply unfulfilled and conflicted. Speaking of these women, Warner summarized her concern: "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."
These "Mommy Track lives" are "filled with kneepads and bake sales and dentists' appointments and car seats." Warner's sense of crisis is directed at the sense that these mothers live less fulfilling lives than their husbands. The feminist dream promised more than this.
Judith Warner recognizes that her concerns are characteristic of her own generation. But, this is a generation largely shaped by a therapeutic concept of the self and a vision of life as a continuing experiment in self-expression and fulfillment. For many of these women, motherhood has become a trap, a prison of confinement that locks them out of a world others inhabit.
"I think of 'us' as the first post-baby boom generation, girls born between 1958 and the early 1970s, who came of age politically in the Carter, Reagan and Bush I years. We are, in many ways, a blessed group. Most of the major battles of the women's movement were fought--and won--in our early childhood. Unlike the baby boomers before us, who protested and marched and shouted their way from college into adulthood, we were a strikingly apolitical group, way more caught up in our own self-perfection as we came of age, than in working to create a more perfect world."
Choice stands at the center of this younger feminist worldview. "Most of us in this generation grew up believing that we had fantastic, unlimited, freedom of choice," Warner argues. Nevertheless, she laments the fact that many of the women in her generation face choices far more limited than they had imagined. "You can continue to pursue your professional dreams at the cost of abandoning your children to long hours of inadequate childcare. Or: You can stay at home with your baby and live in a state of virtual, crazy-making isolation because you can't afford a nanny, because there is no such thing as part-time day care, and because your husband doesn't come home until 8:30 at night."
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