Sunday, February 20, 2005

Madness, All Madness

There has been much blogging about "Mommy Madness." While I started out enjoying all the hullabaloo, it's Sunday afternoon now and I'm ready to think about other stuff. I worry, suspiciously, that whatever valid points Warner has made about the burdens and costs of motherhood cannot be made to bear the weight of her policy proposals. I notice that I have nitpicked the particulars of Warner's argument, at the expense of the big questions, both in my own post on the article and my follow-up on the issues. As a new week begins, I am returning to the question of personal responsibility and personal choice again--precisely the trap that Warner advised us to fight against. But there will be, I think, one good result of my immersion in Warner-ease: I haven't mentally composed a single "first blog paragraph" in the last week that didn't immediately seem connected to Warner's concerns.

Here, not for your pleasure but for your ease of navigation, are summaries of some of the blogs I happened upon. I'm sure that there are plenty of other excellent posts out there, but I didn't find them before my interest began to burn away. (A final aside: I wonder whether my rapid burnout is another sign of that learned helplessness that Warner targets in her book.)
  1. Getupgrrl at Chez Miscarriage offers an excellent and succinct set of historical comparisons debunking the possibility that Warner says anything new. The point I most which I had made: "Interestingly enough, the cure for maternal overparenting has also remained the same throughout history: more sex!" Grrl points out that the cylical nature of mother bashing reflects "large-scale social and economic patterns." I think you could also talk about generational conflict, but regardless of that digression, I'm inspired to begin drafting a blog-worthy history of recent American motherhood.

  2. Elizabeth at Half-Changed Life analyzes the independent forces that drive SAHM and WOHM moms to ramp up their "parenting," and what happens when the groups collide. My personal "ouch" moment: "Some at-home parents feel the need to justify their decision by giving their kids every bit of attention and stimulation possible. This is how they prove that they're not wasting their expensive educations." Yes, yes, guilty as charged. Half-Changed Life also picks up on and praises an Elle piece by Warner that puts American superparenting into an international context, where it looks decidedly unique and weird.

  3. Over at Birch and Maple, a pointed question for all of us who worry about doing the right thing by our kids: "Doesn't striving for perfection really just mean you can't deal if you're not in control?" I confess, sometimes I think my entire experience of parenthood, including infertility, circles around questions of control. The author, Orodemniades, compares the subjects of Warner's article (or, more precisely I think, the subjects of Quindlan's column) to an infamous category in the infertile world: Pottery Barn People. Because I've never quite gotten that metaphor, I appreciated Oro's summary: "They have it all, yet they still whine." Hmmm, I think I'm a PBP.

  4. The Mental Multivitam declares Warner's subject to be, not mommy madness but mommy stupidity -- she targets the hand-painted paper plates -- and later adds that "reading, thinking, writing, learning, laughing, living are more worthwhile pursuits than whining." The author approvingly quotes a friend's declaration that "Loving others, especially our husbands and children, is really so much more inspiring." Of course, Warner might be exploring precisely how today's mothers should best love their children (and the husbands, too).

  5. Barbara Curtis also takes up the question of women whining, labelling Warner's topic one appealing primarily to "every narcissistic, infantile and elitist woman whiner." Among her other criticisms of Warner's subjects, Curtis makes a telling point about Warner's proposal of part-time childcare for stay-at-home moms. She asks: does Warner "assume there's some subclass of women who are too stupid to do much other than care for the kids of the more "gifted" working and stay-at-home mothers?"

  6. Curtis's take-no-prisoners approach sparked a debate, inspiring her to follow up with an essay in praise of stay-at-home motherhood -- boredom, loneliness, exhaustion and all:
    "this is a brief season in your life. When your kids are leaving, you will hardly believe how fast it all went. ... As I sacrificed to give everything I could to my kids ... my own life was being stretched and enriched. ... So even though it looked on the outside like my life was consumed by motherhood -- and it was -- inside there was a well of creativity being formed. When it came bubbling to the surface, I began to write. And because of the discipline of 12 years of putting others before myself, I actually had something to say."
    Curtis's final zinger: "the impact [of] all these whiney, negative stories on motherhood must have an impact on [children's] tender spirits, must make them feel like burdens rather than blessings."
  7. Jennifer Lynn Arnold of 4 Boys and a Mom joins Curtis in pronouncing that the years of intensive motherhood are "but a season." She believes that Warner's subjects are correct to feel depressed and overwhelmed, because their attempts to do all things by halves have led them to neglect their most important charge, their children. Arnold echoes many evangelical Christian bloggers when she writes:
    "God designed us to be maternal and to be the helper. We are driven to not fail as a mother as instinctively as we are built to breathe in, breathe out, blink! ... There is not [a] rule that says a woman has to become a mother, but by God if you are going to than you better have your priorities straight. Let me clue you, that means putting your child's well being before your, pride, ambition, goals and self indulgent pleasures. It is when we fight against that and do not have our priorities straight that we feel bad and stressed out."
    I was surprised, though, that Arnold thought Warner's catalog of mommy depression was a condemnation of SAHMs who are happy with their lives. I think this defensiveness arises from Arnold's belief that the modern women's movement is responsible for transforming women from "helpers" into "competitors." One offshoot of this transformation? The types of intensive parenting behaviors Warner catalogued, which Arnold asserted were intended not to improve children's lives but to compete with other moms.

  8. Geeky Mom also targets a culture of mommy peer pressure, and believes that maternal competition makes it very hard to step off the perfect parenting race track. She doesn't think Warner is writing about elitist problems: "I live in a very middle-class neighborhood. No one drives fancy cars or sends their kids to private school, but there's still enough pressure to make some of us (me) feel like they're not doing enough." Geeky Mom refocuses on Warner's claim that working women are responsible for too much of the burden, not just of childcare but of community care. She thinks Warner's proposals are a good place to start.

  9. More on the question of peer group and peer pressure at City Mama. In an upbeat manner, Mama attributes her laid-back mothering style to laziness and a healthy ability to forego judgementalism. She also connects Warner's topic to the rising use of SSRIs, something I would hope Warner herself addresses in her book. City Mama closes with a rousing invokation of sisterhood: "No more living in fear of what others will think. No more judging. No more competing. We are hurting each other by doing that. We are making our sisters feel terrible about themselves and their parenting choices. ... And ultimately it's our children that will suffer." Of course, it's precisely the question of why we do this, why we can't just let it go, that inspired Warner to write her book.
  10. Over at The Bleat, a stay-at-home dad named James Lileks eviscerates Warner. He flat-out rejects any suggestion that society is to blame for mothers' anxieties, and targets instead "the latest set of internally contradictory expectations thrown at women’s heads like a big frozen watermelon." It's a good if infuriating piece, worthwhile if only for the 'I'm outside this debate because I'm a man' attitude, and ends with a slacker dad manifesto: "When it comes to expectations about gender and roles and accomplishments and the latest theories about childrearing, I have a secret mantra: I don’t care." Then again, one of Warner's topics? Why exactly so many women are unable to be the slackers here extolled.

  11. Childbearing hipster also extols an "I'm lazy and it's wonderful" approach. Hipster's excellent advice? "Find yourself a good solid core of people who love you and your kid, get together, mix up a pitcher of margaritas and let the rugrats go wild. Good. Happy. Take it as it comes. Do what works for your family, and if it isn't working, find out what does. Don't beat yourself up, and don't let anyone else beat you." Hipster lives among an enviable community of supportive and happy families, precisely the environment Warner loved so much while she lived in France. Warner's point, of course, was that while Hipster's community might be attributable to individual effort and luck, in France, the expectation of community support for mothers and family life is treated as a socially mandated right.

  12. Back on the Daddy track, Jim McQuiggen of Patriside complains about Warner's exclusion of Dads, especially SAHDs. McQuiggen writes, "Many of the issues that Ms. Warner identified rang true to me: lack of decent childcare in this country, corporate apathy to the plight of parents, economic stressors, and yep, the thud you hear is my head pounding the wall." Ultimately, though, he labels Warner's subjects "congenital whiners" whose elitist lives are no where near as difficult as his own: he doubts Warner's theses will gain traction in the Heartland. McQuiggen implicitly raises a key methodological question: is Warner correct when she asserts that we are an aspirational people who allow the values and behaviors of the upper middle class to shape our behavior regardless of our own social and economic level?

  13. Middle-Aged Divorced Woman chimes in to report how different her own mothering was, twenty years ago. Reporting on a lost culture of laid-back mothering, MAD Woman explains that "When I was raising kids ..., we kind of all hung out together. We played with Lego's a lot, watched Sesame Street some, but mostly what we did when we got bored was go on a walk. Sunny days, snowy days, cloudy days. Doesn't matter. They've got all kinds of sports and Accelerated learning for kids, but I think going on walks provides the best education there is." Like Warner, MAD Woman encourages today's moms to relax their standards and re-think their goals. Also like Warner, she understands that personal behavior changed as society did: family walks are more difficult when "Developers do their best to bulldoze every last bit of woods and fields so they can build acres of gigantous, humongous, dreary, ugly "luxury Executive Homes." ... Do they leave anything un-built, spontaneous, free, un-controlled? No. Not even a sidewalk."

  14. Suzanne Galante rides to Warner's rescue over at Mother-in-Chief. Galante thanks Warner for validating her blog's subject: the plight of mothers who did believe they would have it all, only to find themselves profoundly "let down." She writes, "My whole family respects what I am doing as a parent, as a writer, as a woman, as a person. They all love and respect me. I wish I could manage the same for myself." Galante pairs Warner's diagnosis of "learned helplessness" with her own experience of "learned hopelessness": "We are so focused on creating the best learning environment for our kids by reading to them, taking them to play group, art class, swim class, the park, Germ-boree [etc] ... it seems impossible to figure out how to change things so that our worlds become a better, less insane place to live." She closes by highlighting and cheering Warner's proposed solutions, although Galante doesn't really explain how the solutions address the problems she identifies.

  15. The RetiKhah at Kol Ra'ash Gadol obviously agrees with Warner's implicit conclusion that today's mothers are oppressed. She invokes backlash theory: "We no longer have the guts to call our society and government to account for inventing new ways to keep us in the kitchen and the home, and then set those working at home against those working out of the home by confusing us about whom to blame." In a very brief post, the question of dads -- where are they and what are they doing -- gets first mention.

7 comments:

barbara curtis said...

Wow. Jody, you have done a superb job of rounding up all these different takes. I feel like I'm opening a box of chocolates! Thanks for doing this -- and thanks for including me!

Orodemniades said...

Great roundup! I too have been reading many of the posts around these articles, and what really stands out to me isn't so much the ideas as the class bias upon which these articles are founded.

As I've just posted in my blog, I think it ultimately comes down to class. I think the 'debaters' can be split into two camps: those with money to do these things, and those without money to do these things. Of course all parents want their children to do the best they can in life, that's a given.

I dunno, maybe it's just down to what you expect out of life. The Pottery Barn People have never had to struggle - not really. They've not had to choose between rent and food, between paying the electric bill or the phone bill, to wonder which flavor of Ramen noodles to eat for breakfast. It seems to me that the women that Quindlen et al are writing about worry for nothing. Years of gymnastics won't assure their children go to the right college, or get the good grades or the high-paying job. Being popular in high school doesn't ensure fabulous lives of travel and fun and lack of heartbreak, but being a person of good character and balance with many experiences both good and bad will certainly mean you can survive just about anything.

I don't know if that makes sense or not...maybe you'll pick out the good parts for me, eh?

Laura said...

Great post. I haven't had time to digest it all. I was being a mom. :) I hope to get to it more thoroughly and follow more of your links tomorrow. A wonderful synopsis, I think!

Square1 said...

I would have to say that I agree with the previous commenter. I too was alarmed at the class distinction. As if women raising families at poverty level don't feel the strain? Also I was alarmed that this was a problem assigned to simply the "baby boomers". I am a 25 year old mom who chose to have a family first. Not in lew of an education and career, but because that was how it worked out. She neglects to mention that there are stereo-types, pressures from spouses and extended family, often times many NEW mothers are suffering Post-Partum depression which in itself is isolating. There are many more issues than just the tragedy of unnaffordable child care for the middle class mom. These are just the facts of life. They suck, but you go on, and do the best you can. All any of us can do while raising kids is the best we can, in hopes that we just don't screw it up too badly. My oppinnion... worth what you paid for it.

Gerah said...

Whoa. I'm a little freaked out because these issues are exactly what I've been blogging about and have been on my mind lately. I just started a blog on this very topic and my pal referred me to your website. Very interesting, and thank you. If you're interested in hearing what I have to say on my new blog, visit http://poopandsuits.blogspot.com/

Thanks for the great writing.

Anonymous said...

Jody, great job in putting all of these posts together and the interesting points that all of them raised.

I also thought that Warner's article was elitist in the way that it seemed to assume that these middle/upper middle class moms are somehow the norm in today's world. The truth is that at least where I come from, most families are too busy worrying about paying the bills and putting food on the table to have the luxury of "overparenting" their kids. Of course the vast majority want what's best for their children, but I really think that Warner missed the boat by overblowing this story and ignoring the bigger picture.

Just my $.02

Lola
Exilefrombabyville

MojoMom said...

Your blog is a great resource, which I found from the link on Miriam Peskowitz's Playground Revolution blog. I have just gotten started in the blogosphere as well over at www.mojomom.blogspot.com (which you can also access from my main site, www.MojoMom.com).

My review of "Perfect Madness" is posted on my blog and on Amazon.com. Reading Warner's book was a conflicted experience for me. I want to support her effort in bringing the challenges of motherhood to light, but I did think she went too far in the negative direction, providing little hope for change.

I think the issues of motherhood and identity are reaching a tipping point as women who grew up with 1970's feminism in their childhood backgrounds meet the demands of motherhood (which often default more toward the 1950's).

"Perfect Madness," Miriam Peskowitz's book "The Truth Behind the Mommy Wars" and my new book "Mojo Mom: Nurturing Your Self While Raising a Family" are all coming out this spring. I'm sure we've all been working on our books for a couple of years, but they've reached their final "gestation" at the same time.

And yes, I want to honor and acknowledge the women who have published before us...I have read over 100 books in researching Mojo Mom. I wish more of the recent books on motherhood had been written before 1999 when I had my daughter!

Amy Tiemann