Q & A

Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety

1.  You were living in France when your children were born, and have said that you were surprised, when you moved back to the U.S. a couple years later, to find parenting so different here.  In fact, you soon found yourself living in a quiet state of panic.  Have you been able to turn down the anxiety level? How?
I have adapted to the anxiety so that it is no longer apparent to me. It has become a part of my life and is fully woven into my way of doing things. In that, I have become like everyone else.

2. What do you think we can learn from the French system and apply here?
I think we can learn that families need, in a very concrete way, to be supported – not through nice phrases about “family values” or “valuing motherhood,” but through measures that make life more affordable and less scary. We mothers need to feel that we are not essentially on our own in dealing with and caring for our children. We need institutions we can trust – from pediatric care practices on up through good day care and public schools. We need political leadership to develop incentives to make companies more responsive to families’ scheduling needs. We need, as a nation, to put our money where our mouth is on family values.

3. You note that most of our notions about contemporary motherhood come from images of upper middle class life – the reference point for what the American good life is supposed to look like and contain. How has that affected how we raise our children?
It means that our notion of what’s necessary and what’s desirable have become conflated. It means our notion of what’s desirable has been ratcheted up and up – so that we aspire to the lifestyle and the things that before were considered the spoils of real wealth. It means we often feel that we are failing, because we simply can’t have all those things, and in our collective psyche that failure to have things translates into a general sense of unworthiness.

There is another problem as well, and it stems from the fact that the media tend, when they report on motherhood, to focus almost exclusively on upper middle class women. You see this whenever they handle yet-another rehash of the Mommy Wars or explore – yet again – the phenomenon of highly accomplished women choosing to become stay-at-home mothers.  The phenomenon of high-achieving mothers leaving the workforce is one that exists only within a relatively tiny and well-off subset of the American population. Yet the choices, conflicts and concessions made by this small group of women are constantly being presented to us as universal dilemmas faced by mothers, in general. All mothers suffer by comparison to these icons, and our cultural understandings of motherhood have been terribly skewed by the inflated role they play in the popular imagination. The needs and concerns of the vast majority of mothers have been lost along the way.  I really hope with this book to help shift the focus of discussion to what most mothers want and need.

4. In Perfect Madness, you point out that today’s generation of mothers came of age under the Reagan Administration’s social policies – in an era that romanticized the idea of rugged individualism. How has that affected their parenting style?
I think it has affected their parenting style in two ways. For one, since the age of Reagan, women (indeed, all Americans) have seen our  country increasingly divided between the worlds of winners and losers. Winners in America have good health care, good schools, and generally pretty good lives, while “losers” must perpetually scramble to stay afloat. Mothers sense this and they fear “loserdom” for their kids, even if (especially if, it sometimes seems) they themselves are affluent. So they try to build their kids up into being “winners” at the earliest possible age – as though, through Baby Einstein and black and white crib toys, they could inoculate them against the risk of future failure.

The other way in which our generation of mothers still bears the marks of having come of age in the Reagan era is that we’ve internalized the notion of rugged individualism so deeply that we believe we are solely responsible for our children’s health and well-being. And we believe that this belief, instead of being a sign of hubris or of despair, is an entirely normal and natural thing. This leads us to place terrible pressure upon ourselves – and gets our society almost entirely off the hook as far as responsibility for children and families goes.

5. The mothers you interviewed for the book expressed a feeling of powerlessness and hopelessness, despite the fact that they appear to “have it all” – nice homes, intact families, safe neighborhoods and good schools. What would you say to critics who dismiss their complaints as unfounded or trivial?
The malaise or “New Problem that Has No Name” (as I call it in the book) that I heard echo in the way middle and upper middle class mothers talk about their lives is symptomatic of larger problems in our society – problems which play themselves out  sometimes as life and death issues for poor women and their families. The very same cult of individualism, the very same lack of a sense of collective responsibility, the same fear of “loserdom” that turn well-off women into anxious control freaks condemn poor women – and, very often, working class women – to lives of real fear and deprivation. The problems are not trivial, even if, for women with relatively easy lives, they can take a maddeningly trivialized form. In fact, they often take the form of a maddening obsession with trivia.

6. This generation has an overwhelming desire to control all aspects of life. What does that come from and what, if anything, can mothers do to overcome it?
The desire to control all aspects of life – and the belief that we can – also, I think, dates back to our coming of age in the Reagan years. Control – of ourselves, and of our bodies in particular, was the boiled-down message of feminism that we imbibed then through our popular culture and the media. Self-control – that is to say, a form of power that was private and limited in scope, was also, really the only kind of power that we could, or wanted to, think about for ourselves in those years, when public activism was so out of favor. As young women, we turned inwards and began to police ourselves when we saw that the outside world didn’t meet the expectations we’d formed of it as children and teenagers in the Girls-Can-Do-Anything 1970s. We do the same thing now as mothers.

We need to realize that we can’t control our children’s fates with our minds and our color-coded activity charts. We shouldn’t even try. Instead, we should put our prodigious mental energies towards changing our society for the better.

7. In the early  1960s, Betty Friedan wrote in The Feminine Mystique about how women were frustrated and dissatisfied with their roles and tended to blame themselves for their problems.   Here you refer to today’s soul-draining perfectionism as the “Mommy Mystique.” What parallels do you draw between these two generations?
The middle and upper middle class women Betty Friedan interviewed for The Feminine Mystique were, as a general rule, better educated than any generation of women before. Many of them entered marriage expecting to have egalitarian relationships – at least in comparison to their parents’ marriages, which were anything but. Wife-and- motherhood in the Mystique years, however, put who they were supposed to be in terrible conflict with who, thanks to their education and early work experiences,  they felt they were And “modern” marriage didn’t turn out to be all it was cracked up to be for them, either.

Our “post-feminist” generation grew up believing we could do and be anything – and as young women it’s fair to say that we pretty much could. But all this ran aground once we had children. For many women it became very difficult to reconcile not just “work” and “family,” but our pre-motherhood and post-motherhood selves. The equal partnership marriages so many of us believed we’d entered into (so naturally that we didn’t even articulate it to ourselves at the time) changed once we became parents. Many women found themselves sweeping up Cheerios, picking up boxer shorts, and contemplating their husbands at the breakfast table through the protective screen  of “his” newspaper. Many began to nurse a simmering rage. Many more – like the women of Friedan’s generation – blamed themselves and turned themselves inside out wondering where they’d gone wrong.

What they didn’t realize (as Friedan’s generation came eventually to do) was that their problems didn’t, at base, reside within them.  They’re the problems of our society.

8. You point out that two generations of feminism have brought rights and privileges along with opportunities and, for some, riches. Why haven’t we achieved a decent quality of life for mothers – one that includes time for ourselves and some sense of satisfaction?
We haven’t achieved this goal in part because we haven’t collectively sought to achieve it. Happiness, satisfaction, quality of life defined as time for family and friends and for just living – they’ve never really been considered valid women’s issues. Or valid political issues, generally. Our conception of quality of life in America remains anchored around things – big houses, big cars, home entertainment centers – but the truth is, the pursuit of these ever-bigger and better things is in and of itself inimical to real and meaningful life betterment.

We haven’t, as a society, made allowing people to have a real and decent quality of life a priority. It hasn’t, in the past, been articulated as a priority for women. Maybe that now can change.