Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety by Judith Warner
I really enjoyed Perfect Madness, in the way you enjoy any nonfiction book that holds a mirror up to your life and shows you the big-picture root causes of your most stressing problems. As when I read Jessica Valenti’s Why Have Kids?, I felt validated and reassured to read about someone a bit older and wiser than me encountering the problems of motherhood and analyzing them.
The book’s biggest flaw is that it is somewhat dated. Warner wrote it between 2000 and 2004, and it was published in 2005, while I was in college. She and her audience are at least 15-20 years older than me and my generation of young mothers, but they’re not quite old enough to be considered part of my parents’ generation. Because of this time gap between the writing and the reading, and the generation gap between author and reader, I sometimes had to think twice about exactly which women Warner meant by “our mothers” and “us.” However, I don’t believe the culture of motherhood in this country has changed much in the past decade, so Warner’s critiques are still entirely relevant. If anything, the situation for mothers has worsened through the impact of the recession on families’ economic positions, and that of social media on mommy culture. It makes me wonder what Warner thinks of Pinterest’s gallery of child crafts, decorated nurseries, and precious newborn photos, and blogs like Scary Mommy and STFU Parents.
Warner has written one of the best cease-fire pleas for the mommy wars that I’ve ever read. She truly is utterly nuetral about whether it is ‘better’ for women to stay home with children or to work, and points out that either way, it is rarely truly a “choice,” but something that women feel they must do from a sense of personal necessity. She describes primate research that observed female apes striving for status through the work of gathering food and defending territory, at the same time as they care for their young. Work didn’t take anything away from the young primates, and in fact was done for their benefit. These two parts of mothering, work and nurturing, were inseparable and natural for our ancestors. The problem is that our current inflexible workplace culture forces women to separate these two instinctive impulses.
The book’s focus on anxiety as the dominant emotion of America’s culture of motherhood made it really resonate with me. I’ve struggled with anxiety in the past, and I fear how overwhelming that feeling might become when I’m feeling it on behalf of my child instead of just myself. Warner traces the anxiety mothers feel to our winner-take-all economy, and concludes advocating for policies that would help all families, not just elite ones or poor ones.