“If this keeps up, Warner will be the Gloria Steinem of her generation….”
—The Washington Post
As an American working in Paris, Judith Warner spent her first few years of motherhood in a country that was, in hindsight, a parent’s “paradise.” It offered an astounding array of government-backed benefits for families, good quality affordable child care, and, perhaps most liberating, a parent-centered attitude toward child rearing. Cradled by a French culture devoid of “mommy guilt,” Warner was a relaxed, happy mother who balanced work and family life with relative ease.
That all changed when Warner and her family resettled in the U.S. Almost immediately, Warner was stunned by the state of motherhood in this country. Nearly all the young mothers she met suffered from “a choking cocktail of guilt and anxiety and resentment and regret.” Well-educated women living in lovely homes with loving husbands and healthy children—why were they so miserable? Within months, Warner began to experience the same kind of soul-draining perfectionism that plagued other mothers. She probes this phenomenon inPERFECT MADNESS: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety, a provocative look at how culture shapes our lives and the lives of our children.
PERFECT MADNESS promises to be for this generation of women what Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique was for women of the pre-feminist ‘60s. In that defining book, Friedan interviewed middle-class housewives to uncover the causes for their malaise. In a book that sent shock waves through society, she revealed a sweeping lack of self-fulfillment due to limited options for women and called for more self-sufficiency and more freedom to live life fully. Friedan proved to be a rallying voice for women who knew there had to be a more satisfying way to live.
In that same spirit, Judith Warner explores what’s gnawing at women today—specifically mothers. For PERFECT MADNESS she conducted hundreds of hours of interviews with mothers who seemed to have achieved all they ever dreamed of—only to find it painfully lacking. What went wrong? Why do mothers today feel what the author calls “an existential discomfort”? Why do mothers—and fathers, too—obsess about every detail of their children’s development and their own abilities as parents? How did we lose the notion of adult time and space? Warner offers answers and a fresh, clear-eyed perspective while issuing a clarion call to stop the madness.
Tracing the evolution of motherhood in this country, PERFECT MADNESS reveals how the role has changed dramatically and what effect that has had on American families. Citing intimate conversations with beleaguered women and meticulous research, it shows how, in a desperate attempt to create the perfect home and raise perfect children, women have lost themselves. Their hyper-competitive kind of “winner-take-all parenting” has contributed to a form of spiritual bankruptcy within families, and the ultimate losers are our children, who are now experiencing unprecedented rates of depression and anxiety.
Warner’s book is much more than a sociological profile of parenting, however. Ultimately, it is a wake-up call for a society bent on being the first and the best. It cites the need for our country to modernize its family politics and its philosophy of motherhood. It encourages us to acknowledge and reject the absurdity of high-pressure parenting. It also urges us to admit that the idea that American business will “do the right thing” for families is a lost hope, and to demand better family support policies from national and local leaders. In short, PERFECT MADNESS urges us to reorder our national priorities and reclaim the joy of parenting.