Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Review: Perfect Madness by Judith Warner

Anne Taintor
Reviewed by Christina

Published: 2005

Full Title: Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety

It's about:  This righteously angry treatise explores the societal and historical pressures that create a burden of stressful expectations for middle-class mothers in America.  Ms. Warner explains how evolving parenting trends and cultural attitudes toward motherhood have culminated in our current unhealthy situation.  Working Moms and stay-at-homers alike tend toward perfectionism, continuous self-sacrifice, and ever increasing control-freakishness.  The author tells how we got here, why it's wrong, and how to fix the situation. 

I thought: Well.  I thought this was a pretty fascinating read, despite the fact that it not everything in it rings true for my generation of mommies.  The book is only seven years old, but the women quoted are closer to my mother's age than my own and the then-current statistics and situations Ms. Warner uses are from the period when I was in high school and college.  But still, I get it.  I feel for these women and their families: the endless list of "should"s, the constant procession of meaningless tasks day after day, the pain of feeling pressured to give every part of yourself to your kids.

There's some annoying melodrama in the writing style: someone's "words crackled like lightning" and sentences like "When the mommy light fades, will [the children] shiver in the dark?"  Ughhhh.  I have to fight not to snicker and/or roll my eyes when I read things like that, even if I do agree with the author's general premise and most of the arguments she makes.  People get worked up so easily about the "Mommy War" issues; there's really no need to try to pointedly ramp up the reader's emotions.  I am also not wild about the red and black cover that seems to scream "DANGER!" and "WARNING!" 

Perfect Madness is an interesting combination of forms: one-third personal essay, one-third informal history of American motherhood and feminism, and one-third reporting on and quotations from the interviews Ms. Warner held with hundreds of mothers.  The end result is 100% RANT, but since it's a rant I agree with, I didn't mind in the least.  I loved the parallels between mothering styles of the past and those of today, especially the comparisons between 1960's perfecto-moms and today's supermoms.  I think the similarities have even increased since this book was published, thanks to Mommy Blogs and the new coolness of craftiness.  And I completely agree with Judith Warner's argument that society (read: lawmakers) needs to step in and actually support families with more than lip service.  

Verdict: Stick it on the shelf!  It's not perfect, and it needs an update.  But it's still a well-written, well-researched, well-argued tract on an important subject.

Reading Recommendations: Obvs, moms will probably like this the best.  If you dig opinionated reporting and care about the lives of middle-class mothers, it's a pretty quick read.

Warnings: One chapter discusses marital sex in some detail.  One rather surprising swear word that I remember.

What I'm reading next: Then Came You by Jennifer Weiner  (my very first chick lit!)