IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Motherhood in the age of anxiety

Author Judith Warner’s latest book dives into the culture of modern parenting — particularly the quest to be über-mom. Read an excerpt
/ Source: TODAY

When Judith Warner returned from France, none of the other moms she met seemed happy. “Perfect Madness” is an attempt to understand the phenomenon of the “anxious woman” and the forces that shape our current parenting ideals. Drawing on her experiences living and raising young children abroad, Warner explores the worries, guilt and panic plaguing so many American moms. Judith Warner was invited on the “Today” show to talk about her new book, "Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety." Read an excerpt.

If you have been brought up, all your life, being told you have wonderful choices, you tend, when things go wrong, to assume you made the wrong choices — not to see that the “choices” given you were wrong in the first place.

Similarly, when, for the full course of your motherhood, you live and breathe the overheated smog of The Mess, you tend not to even notice it around you.

It came as a shock to me because, for my first three and a half blessed years of motherhood, I knew something very different.

I didn’t realize it then, but I was in paradise.

I was living in France, a country that has an astounding array of benefits for families — and for mothers in particular. When my children were born, I stayed in the hospital for five comfortable days. I found a nanny through a free, community-based referral service, then employed her, legally and full-time, for a cost to me of about $10,500 a year, after tax breaks. My elder daughter, from the time she was eighteen months of age, attended excellent part-time preschools where she painted and played with modeling clay and ate cookies and napped, for about $150 per month — the top end of the fee scale. She could have started public school at age three, and could have opted to stay until 5 p.m. daily. My friends who were covered by the French social security system (which I did not pay into) had even greater benefits: at least four months of paid maternity leave, the right to stop working for up to three years and have jobs held for them, cash grants, after their second children were born, starting at about $105 per month.

And that was just the beginning. There was more: a culture. An atmosphere. A set of deeply held attitudes toward motherhood — toward adult womanhood — that had the effect of allowing me to have two children, work in an office, work out in a gym, and go out to dinner at night and away for a short vacation with my husband without ever hearing, without ever thinking, the word “guilt.”

Guilt just wasn’t in the air. It wasn’t considered a natural consequence of working motherhood. Neither was the word “selfish” considered the necessary accoutrement of a woman with children who wanted to take time for herself. On the contrary, work was considered a normal part, even a desirable part, of a modern mother’s life. It was considered something that broadened her horizons and enhanced her self-esteem — healthy and good things for herself and her children. Taking time for herself was equally considered to be a mother’s right — indeed, a mother’s responsibility — as was taking time for romance and a social life. The general French conviction that a person should live a “balanced” life was considered especially true for mothers — particularly, I would say, for stay-at-home mothers, who were otherwise considered at risk of falling into excessive child-centeredness. And that, the French believed, was wrong. Obsessive. Inappropriate. Just plain weird.

I’ll always remember the conversation I had with my pediatrician at my elder daughter’s five-month checkup. It was time for me to return to work in an office, and I was terrified. I had images in my mind of my baby spending days strapped into her Maxi-Cosi rocking seat, her eyes fixed blankly ahead of her as she sank into a mommy-less emotional void. I told the doctor I was going to start working outside of home and started to cry. “Listen,” he said. “You don’t just have this child for a couple of months. You’ll have her for the rest of your life. You have to have a life of your own. Because if you’re happy, she’ll be happy. If you’re fine, she’ll be fine.”

I didn’t realize what a unique gift these words were until I found myself repeating them, over and over, to friends in America. But back then, I didn’t realize how good I had it in France overall. I had no real basis for comparison. True, when I spoke to my friends who’d become mothers back home in the States, I was struck by how grim and strange their lives sounded. One friend warned, as my first pregnancy advanced, “You’d better stop trying to have a career.” Another was spending her entire after-tax salary on child care. And another, after eight grueling years of medical school and internships, was feeling guilty about leaving her baby with a part-time sitter to pursue her career as a psychiatrist. All this sounded crazy to me. I figured my friends had to be bringing their problems upon themselves. The one who wouldn’t fire an obviously inadequate nanny? Well, she’d always suffered from liberal guilt. The one who drove herself to a state of nervous exhaustion after a year of sleepless nights in the “family bed”?

Well, she had a problem with separation anxiety. This all seemed very foreign. I just couldn’t relate.

And then I moved back to America.

I came to Washington, D.C., when my elder daughter was three and a half and my younger daughter was six months old. With “child-care issues” (read: no sitter) keeping me from work, I started spending a lot of time hanging out on the playground and, for the first time, discovered the world of stay-at-home moms. It was an eye-opening experience.

The women around me, for the most part, lived in affluent suburban Washington communities. They had comfortable homes, two or three children, smiling, productive husbands, and a society around them saying they’d made the best possible choices for their lives, yet many of them seemed just miserable. One woman told me she’d lost all interest in sex with her husband. She was just too bored. Another one said that her husband had lost all interest in sex with her. He was just too tired — up at dawn, at work all day, at client dinners in the evenings, and then semiconscious in front of the TV for the hour at night when she saw him. She had become obsessed with organizing a school fund-raiser. Another mom complained of spending her weekends in her car, shuttling between soccer and swim meets and birthday parties. And another had taken up the politics of play dates as an issue in therapy.

The women gathered in groups to let off steam and have a good time. They staged Happy Hours together. They assigned themselves dirty books to read in their book clubs. They had a sense that something was missing from their lives, but that something was elusive — not so easy to name as their semiabsent husbands; not so easy to point to as their lack of work (how, where, why should they work now? they wondered). It wasn’t really community that these women lacked; they did, after all, have one another. It was something more. A sense that life should have led up to more than this. A nagging sort of disaffection.

It all reminded me a lot of Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique.” The sense of waste. The diffuse dissatisfaction. The angst, hidden behind all the obsession with trivia, and the push to be perfect. And the tendency — every bit as pronounced among the mothers I met as it had been for the women Friedan interviewed — to blame themselves for their problems.

And yet Friedan had been writing in the prefeminist 1960s. The women she’d interviewed — middle-class housewives, many of whom were college graduates — had real, objective causes for their malaise. Society didn’t offer them many choices for self-fulfillment beyond perfect wife-and-motherhood. Their employment options were limited; even more so were their chances for having fulfilling careers. The solution Friedan dreamed of — that they could build their lives as they chose, become self-sufficient, and be fully self-realized human beings — had ostensibly come true for the women of my generation. Yet I saw, looking around, that the form of self-sufficiency we’d come into wasn’t really a solution.

For the working moms I knew were stressed near the breaking point, looking tired and haggard and old. They shared the same high-level at-home parenting ambitions as the nonworking moms. But they held down out-of-home jobs, too — and if this wasn’t enough, they also had to shoulder the burden of Guilt, a media-fed drone that played in their ears every time they sat in traffic at dinnertime: Had they made the right choices? Were their children well taken care of? Should they be working less, differently, not at all? Were they really good enough mothers? Did they really want to be? It seemed to me that although they were to all appearances fully liberated from the “Feminine Mystique” of Friedan’s time, they, like the stay-at-home moms, were equally burdened by a new set of life-draining pressures, a new kind of soul-draining perfectionism. I came to think of this as the Mommy Mystique.

It was on the airwaves. In the parenting magazines. In the culture all around. It was in the local press, where I was surprised to see laudatory stories of “dedicated” mothers who spent their evenings and weekends driving to and from soccer, attending Girl Scout cookie meetings, über-momming, generally, twenty-four hours a day. I had never once, in almost six years, met a woman in France living her life at this level of stress. Not even my obstetrician — a woman in her forties with four children, who delivered babies at all hours of the day and night — came close.

I had friends in France who were full-time stay-at-home moms with three or four children, but I had never once encountered a woman whose life was overrun by her children’s activities.

I had never met a mother, working or otherwise, who didn’t have the “time” to read a book, or have lunch with a friend, or go out to dinner once in a while. Nor had I ever met a mother who spent what little extra time she had on children’s soccer or attending Girl Scout cookie meetings at eight o’clock at night. Girl Scout cookie meetings? At eight o’clock at night? The idea would have been absurd. No woman with a family life, the thinking would have run (once the laughter subsided), no woman who wanted to preserve her family life (which, after all, was anchored around her husband) would be out doing children’s activities at night. Only an unbalanced person would be doing something like that. A woman insufficiently mindful of herself. A woman who was, perhaps, fearful of adulthood.

I was amazed at the breakdown of boundaries between children and adults and the erosion, for many families, of any notion of adult time and space. In Paris, children ate in the kitchen and played in their rooms. Living rooms and dining rooms were places where grown-ups entertained. In Washington and its suburbs, many houses were being built or had been renovated to eliminate formal living and dining rooms altogether. Instead, the focal point of most houses was the “family room,” where a TV and a computer occupied center stage. I saw living rooms reconfigured as alcoves, almost afterthoughts, overrun with plastics or with no furniture at all. And very often, when children came to visit my house (which was too small to have a designated “family” entertainment complex), they jumped on the sofas and threw balls at the lamps.

I was angered by the continued onslaught of press reports about the pernicious effects of day care, and the continual beating-up on working mothers. I found the pressure to breastfeed for at least a year, to endure natural childbirth, and to tolerate the boundary breakdowns of “attachment parenting” — baby-wearing, co-sleeping, long-term breastfeeding and the rest of it — cruelly insensitive to mothers’ needs as adult women. And I was amazed by the fact that the women around me didn’t seem to find their lives strange. It appeared normal to them that motherhood should be fraught with anxiety and guilt and exhaustion. It didn’t seem to dawn on anyone that there could be another way. I was shocked by the degree to which everyone — feminist or not — seemed willing to accept the “choices” given them, even to accept the idea that the narrow paths they’d been forced into living were choices.

The French women I knew did not have to live with the psychological burden of such “choices.” They also did not have to do the mathematical calculations practiced by so many American mothers in evaluating whether or not to continue working: Who would come out ahead at the end of the month, mom or babysitter, and by how much? They did not have to buttress themselves against the psychological violence it does to someone who has striven for a goal all her adult life to suddenly discover that her contribution is not “valuable” enough to justify its continuation. They did not have to justify simply being who they were.

Back home in America, I began to think that the problems I’d once attributed to my friends’ individual personalities weren’t individual, or personal, problems at all. They were, it seemed to me now, symptoms of something much larger. And that something didn’t just have to do with the fact that mothers in America didn’t have the kind of life-enhancing social benefits I’d enjoyed in France. It had to do with something cultural, not just political, something so all-encompassing that it was all but invisible to the women who’d never had the opportunity to experience motherhood differently.


I listened to my friends, listened to talk radio, to the mothers on the playground, and to my daughter’s nursery school teachers, and I found it all — the general culture of motherhood in America — oppressive. The pressure to perform, to attain levels of perfect selflessness was insane. And it was, I thought, as I listened to one more anguished friend wringing her hands over the work-family “balance,” and another expressing her guilt at not having “succeeded” at breastfeeding, driving American mothers crazy.

Myself along with them.

It took very little time on the ground in America before I found myself becoming unrecognizable. I bought an SUV. I signed my unathletic elder daughter up for soccer. Other three-year-olds in her class were taking gymnastics, too, and art, and swimming and music. I signed her up for ballet. I bought a small library of pre-K skill books. I went around in a state of quiet panic.

Excerpted from "Perfect Madness: Motherhood in an Age of Anxiety," by Judith Warner. Copyright © 2005 by Judith Warner. Excerpted by permission of . All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.