June 17, 2005


The madness of mothers
by Meredith Hines-Dochterman

Living in France when she gave birth to her eldest daughter, Judith Warner’s introduction to motherhood is what women in America only imagine when they’re pregnant. Warner stayed in the hospital for five days. Most American women, barring complications, are politely but firmly escorted from the hospital 48 hours after giving birth.

She found an affordable and qualified nanny through a community-based service. In America, women rely on waiting lists or word-of-mouth recommendations for childcare, but are rarely satisfied with any arrangements they make.

Warner’s pediatrician encouraged her to return to work during her child’s five-month check-up. I remember being berated by mine because I chose to abandon breast-feeding after two weeks of misery for me and my son. Warner’s conversation with her doctor gave her a sense of comfort. "Listen,” he said. “You don’t 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."

That conversation, Warner writes, was a unique gift. She repeated them over and over again, both to herself and to her friends back in America when they weren’t coping with motherhood as well as she. My conversation with my pediatrician led to my first bout of motherhood guilt.

Warner’s latest work, Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety (Riverhead Hardcover, 336 pages 2005) is a study of modern-day motherhood and everything that comes with it — long hours in the car transporting children from one activity to the next, worrying your child isn’t as advanced as your best friend’s offspring, sacrificing sleep to create homemade birthday party invitations that would impress Martha Stewart and, of course, the guilt. That constant feeling that you are failing and your children, your spouse, your job, your home and your life will suffer if you don’t get it right.

Should I be comforted that my innermost feelings mirror those of mothers across the country (or at least the upper middle-class mothers in suburban Washington, DC — Warner’s focus group)? Reading the book’s introduction, I laughed at some of the situations mothers find themselves in today. I may get a little crazed every now and then, but I am not like that. It was comforting, in a way, to feel superior to these women.

Then, reading more, my laughing stop. I recognized myself more and more in what these women were saying. Dear God, I am these women!

How did this happen? That’s what Warner wants to know. How did we go from women told we could "have it all" to women whose most important function was to create the most popular item for little Susie’s school bake sale?

We took our cues from the career women of the 1980s, throwing ourselves into our work and making a name for ourselves in professions once dominated by men. But we couldn’t forget our grandmothers from the 1950s, women who married young, had children young and made their life’s work creating a home for their family.

That’s where "having is all" became the mantra of the 1990s. It was the great solution. We could be the successful career women and still have the loving family — husband, children, dog and cat — at home.

Then reality slapped us in the face. We can’t continue to work 60-hour weeks and still be Supermom. We can barely work 40-hour weeks and be OK-Mom. What suffers — our family or our career? If having it all means feeling like this, is it really worth it?

The mothers in Warner’s book are, she writes, the first post-baby boom generation — "girls of the 1960s and 1970s that came of age politically in the Carter, Reagan and Bush years." We grew up in a time where most of the women’s movement battles were fought. We were the generation that will benefit from their fight.

So why haven’t we?

Instead of taking their progress and moving forward, we’ve chipped away at what they established little by little. For reasons Warner doesn’t attempt to understand (Do any of us?), we defeated the Equal Rights Amendment. We diluted the feminist movement. Roe v. Wade is such a political battlefield, feminism transformed from a movement of empowerment to explanation. If you were pro-choice, you were against life. If you were pro-life, you were against feminism. "Keep your laws off my body‚ became the rallying cry, not ‘Let’s change the body of the law.’” By trying to define what feminism is, we lessened its meaning. Not able to experience the feminist movement for ourselves, we relied on school and the media to explain it to us. Is there any wonder why things are so messed up today?

We were a generation that wanted control, Warner writes. We wanted to feel power. We wanted to be empowered. Unfortunately, we got our messages crossed. The fight we wanted to pursue changed. The feminist movement was no more. We didn't know how to move forward and we didn’t want to go back to the way things were. We wanted control and so we controlled the only things we could — ourselves. We controlled our minds. We controlled our bodies (which, Warner writes, is why today’s mothers suffered an increase of eating disorders during their teens and early 20s). Is it any surprise that when we became mothers, we couldn’t let go? We had to control that, too.

We’re neurotic instead of nurturing.

Women are competitive. Men are, too. But while men face their competitiveness head-on, whether it’s on the basketball court or in the boardroom, women are sly. We are the masters of guerilla warfare. Camouflage, sneak attack — we can do them all. And have.

In today’s motherhood battle, there are two sides: stay-at-home mothers and those that work outside the home. Both sides are suffering. Stay-at-home mothers, Warner writes, often feel like their life has no meaning. Years of education are reduced to scheduling play dates. They work all day, every day, but their efforts are rarely acknowledged by their children, their husbands or society.

Working mothers, she writes, are burdened with double-duty. They put in their hours at the job and come home to cram in enough "mommy time" to make up for the hours when their offspring are at childcare or with the nanny/baby-sitter. They may be exhausted from work, but there’s still dinner to cook, cleaning to do and homework to check. Yet, instead of working together to support each other, both groups of mothers eye each other suspiciously. The working moms feel that they are doing more with their lives. The at-home mothers believe they are doing a better job raising their children.

These mothers have the same issues. They work all of the time. They never sleep. They are constantly on-edge. They have no time for a meaningful relationship with their husband. Perhaps they don’t even want meaningful relationship with their husband. Because the mothers are stressed, the kids are, too. Because the mothers aren’t happy, the husbands aren’t happy.

Please tell me which side is winning.

How can we stop this? There is no clear-cut reason why we let things get so out of control, but isn’t it time to stop? We are a society where mothers often breakdown crying in Starbucks because they can’t handle it anymore. Our children are doped up on Ritalin just so they can participate in their overly scheduled lives. Today’s husbands, the group that was supposed to be a generation of evolved fathers, are following in the steps of their fathers — work more, be at home less.

Warner never gives a solution to "The Mommy Mystique." She analyzes, she discusses and she empathizes, but she never gives us an answer to all the questions she asks.

"I wish I believed that this game we all play actually had an end, or a point, or some value," she writes. "Some higher purpose. Some meaning. Something to justify all the stress and the mess that we impose these days upon our children and ourselves."

And perhaps there isn’t. America isn’t the only country with mothers. All moms want the best for their children, right? So, while we’re pushing our children to be as good as John and Jamie, countries like China and Japan are pushing their children, too. Even France, the country that understands what new mothers need, has joined the rat race we call motherhood. "School-aged French children are every bit as stressed as their American counterparts, if not more so," Warner writes.

If things are to change, we, as mothers, have to be the ones to make those changes.

We have to stop setting such high goals for ourselves and our children. We have to stop belittling our efforts. We can’t feel guilty because we didn’t make our children listen to Beethoven as infants. We can’t attend Little League teams and keep score in our heads, comparing Brandon’s success to his best friend Hunter. We can’t continue do our children’s homework and wonder why they never ace a test.

We need to find joy in parenting. Joy in having children. Joy in staying home with them or joy in the ability to work full-time and still be a good mom. We have to stop looking down at others and worrying that they are looking down at us.

One mother, any mother, needs to take the first step. She needs to say, "I’m done" and refuse to get caught up in all the cookie baking, soccer practice, cleanest home, nicest children drama. She needs to be the best mother she can be for her children, not the best mother society, the media, family or friends say she has to be. Just one mother and this madness that has consumed us will finally cease.

I’d do it, but I have to get my kids to baseball practice.

Meredith Hines-Dochterman can be contacted at


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