Motherhood in the age of anxiety
SuperMom! Author: "Supermother' obsession has spun into impossible frenzy"
BY DARLA ATLAS
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWS, DALLAS
We were supposed to have this motherhood thing figured out by now.
Middle-class moms of the 21st century are educated, nurturing and aware. We are world-class multi-taskers who often figure out how to still have a career. But above all, we must do right by our kids. For many of us, that means doing everything by the book. The "book" is long and complicated, filled with Baby Mozart, PBS, the best preschools, crafts projects, the best summer camps, soccer practice, TAKS tutoring, college essays -- the list is endless. In a winner-take-all society, our kids cannot be losers.
So we juggle it all (fitting the husband in there somewhere, sort of).
But as we hurl ourselves headlong through every day, stressed and stretched to the breaking point, there's a constant undercurrent of worry: If my child does not succeed, it will be my fault.
Anyone feeling the pressure?
The pressure is everywhere, says Judith Warner, author of the just-released book "Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety" (Riverhead, $23.95). And we feel it; we confide to friends about how insane our lives are. But we think it's just us.
"Basically, it is acceptable to air all your dirty laundry about yourself, your husband or your children," Warner says in the book. "But it is not acceptable to look beyond your family to suggest that there's something wrong with this perfect world you've bought into."
When Warner gave birth to her daughter, she was determined to raise not just a healthy baby, but also one who would succeed in life. After all, as a Newsweek special section on early childhood education noted, "Every lullaby, every giggle and peek-a-boo triggers a crackling along his neural pathways, laying the groundwork for what could someday be a love of art or talent for soccer or a gift for making and keeping friends."
She made up stories, sang and read to her baby during meals. By the time her daughter was 4, "I realized that I had turned into a human television set, so filled with 24-hour children's programming that I felt as though I had no thoughts left of my own," she says in her new book, which is becoming a hot topic among women across the country.
"And, as I listened to the maddening chatter of the playground moms around me in America, I realized that I hadn't been alone in my excess."
She also wasn't alone in her stress, as she attempted to raise the ideal child, continue a fulfilling career and keep her life together. Many women, frustrated with the job they're doing, can relate.
"People say, ‘Well, you know, that's just part of being a mom,'" Warner, now 39, says from her Washington, D.C., home, which she shares with her husband and two daughters. "But it's not. There is some anxiety, of course -- we love our children desperately, so we're necessarily going to worry about them. But other generations did not have to put up with this particular level of social and economic anxiety." We spoke with Warner by telephone recently. Some excerpts of the conversation:
Your book has struck a chord with moms across the country, who believe they're going crazy.
"Women feel like, ‘This is not such a complicated, big-deal thing -- why can't I just do this?' But once you really start talking to people, they let their guard down and say they don't at all feel like they've got it together."
It's interesting that working moms and stay-at-home moms share the same anxiety.
"The way we talk about working mothers and stay-at-home mothers doesn't encompass the reality of what our lives are like now. When I was on the radio show, another writer was on with me. She works while her kids are in school and has a baby sitter. She self-identifies as a stay-at-home mother; I self-identify as a working mom. And our lives are exactly the same."
You talk about our obsession with trivial things in our children's lives, from elaborate birthday parties to classes to help with fine motor skills. Why do we do this?
"When you feel powerless, you focus on the little things you can change. That's the difference between a control freak and a truly empowered person. I think what we're doing is, to a certain degree, what we've always done as we were coming of age in the ‘80s. There was so much emphasis on individualism, such an emphasis on culture, self-control and body control. We internalized it."
And it affects how we're raising our kids?
"We do it naturally. To a very large extent, we can't control the quality of our kids' education. But we can control the extracurricular activities, the violin lessons, the occupational therapy."
You say that our winner-take-all society is partly to blame for the anxiety we feel?
"There has to be a collective coming of awareness, which I think is happening. The way we're going about things is not good. It's crazy. A lot of people are saying that and writing that, from social commentators like me to pediatricians. And a lot of women are saying it to each other."
How did you come to realize that the way government addresses the needs of middle-class families should change?
"I moved back here in 2000 from Paris, where I had been working for Newsweek (as a freelance reporter), specializing in politics and women's issues. I was always convinced that American women were more evolved, equality-wise. I came back here and discovered that real women's lives, once they became mothers, were so much harder than women's lives in France.
The changes you recommend include affordable, part-time day care, health insurance for part-time workers and incentives for pro-family businesses. Will anything really change?
"At a time when we're taking away entitlements, to talk about new entitlements is absolutely absurd. But we can do something about changing the climate and do a better job of supporting the middle class. It can be done very easily with tax policies -- it doesn't mean some utterly unheard of, revolutionary thing."
What can we learn from our own moms?
"A lot of people are looking back nostalgically at their mothers now, the way they did things. But going backward is simply not an option. I think...we simply were socialized differently than the generation before. These problems and situations we're in -- they are not things we can just shed like a change of clothing. They are part and parcel of who we are."
You say marriages are suffering. Women, resentful and tired, often think of sex as just another thing on the to-do list. (If it even makes the list.) Do you think husbands also are getting a bad deal?
"I think they are. I don't think enough has been said or written about men. Men of this generation, in studies, have said they didn't come into this expecting to fulfill the traditional provider role. With the mom slipping into the uber-Mommy role, the husband is necessarily slipping into the traditional dad role."
If we keep going the way we're going, are we all just going to explode?
"I don't think we are going to continue on this path. This past week has just filled me with so much optimism and hope. I didn't create this, you know -- I just put it together and threw it back out there. I so hope we get some political leaders who get this feeling and apply it in a concrete way. And now that women are starting to have the conversation, things are going to change for the better."
Do you think our obsession with doing everything right has done more harm than good?
"We need to start paying attention to some of these very experienced child-rearing experts, who are saying that the incredible pressures we're putting on our children now are very, very bad for them. They talk about the levels of depression and anxiety on college campuses, from kids who haven't developed a sufficient sense of self. That said, I don't want to add another layer of guilt and worry on parents."
What can we do right now, to make things better?
"What I see around me is a lot of people running in circles, trying to find this elusive silver bullet that will set everybody on the right path. It's about...being able to listen to what you think is right, what you feel in your heart is right. And doing what makes your family happy."