Mommy Madness

Back in the days when I was a Good Mommy, I tried to do everything right. I breast-fed and co-slept, and responded to each and every cry with anxious alacrity. I awoke with my daughter at 6:30 a.m. and, eschewing TV, curled up on the couch with a stack of books that I could recite in my sleep. I did this, in fact, many times, jerking myself back awake as the clock rounded 6:45 and the words of Curious George started to merge with my dreams.

Was I crazy? No--I was a committed mother, eager to do right by my child and well versed in the child-care teachings of the day. I was proud of the fact that I could get in three hours of high-intensity parenting before I left for work; prouder still that, when I came home in the evening, I could count on at least three more. It didn't matter that, in my day job as a stringer for this magazine, I was often falling asleep at my desk. Nor that I'd lost the ability to write a coherent sentence. My brain might have been fried, but my baby's was thriving.

After all, all around me, the expert advice on baby care was unanimous: Read! Talk! Sing! And so I talked and I read and I sang and made up stories and did funny voices and narrated car rides... until one day, when my daughter was about 4, I realized that I had turned into a human television set, so filled with 24-hour children's programming that I had no thoughts left of my own.

And when I started listening to the sounds of the Mommy chatter all around me in the playgrounds and playgroups of Washington, D.C.--the shouts of "Good job!," the interventions and facilitations--I realized that I was hardly alone.

Once my daughters began school, I was surrounded, it seemed, by women who had surrendered their better selves--and their sanity--to motherhood. Women who pulled all-nighters hand-painting paper plates for a class party. Who obsessed over the most minute details of playground politics. Who--like myself--appeared to be sleep-walking through life in a state of quiet panic.

Some of the mothers appeared to have lost nearly all sense of themselves as adult women. They dressed in kids' clothes--overall shorts and go-anywhere sandals. They ate kids' foods. They were so depleted by the affection and care they lavished upon their small children that they had no energy left, not just for sex, but for feeling like a sexual being. "That part of my life is completely dead," a working mother of two told me. "I don't even miss it. It feels like it belongs to another life. Like I was another person."

It all reminded me a lot of Betty Friedan's 1963 classic, "The Feminine Mystique." The diffuse dissatisfaction. The angst, and the push to be perfect. The way so many women constantly looked over their shoulders to make sure that no one was outdoing them in the performance of Good Mommyhood. And the tendency--every bit as pronounced among my peers as it had been for the women Friedan interviewed--to blame themselves for their problems.

I read that 70 percent of American moms say they find motherhood today "incredibly stressful." Thirty percent of mothers of young children reportedly suffer from depression. Nine hundred and nine women in Texas recently told researchers they find taking care of their kids about as much fun as cleaning their house, slightly less pleasurable than cooking and a whole lot less enjoyable than watching TV.

And I wondered: Why do so many otherwise competent and self-aware women lose themselves when they become mothers? Why do so many of us feel so out of control? And why has this generation of mothers, arguably the most liberated and privileged group of women America has ever seen, driven themselves crazy in the quest for perfect mommydom?

I started speaking with women from all over the country, about 150 in all. And I found that the craziness I saw in my own city was nothing less than a nationwide epidemic. I heard of whole towns turning out for a spot in the right ballet class; of communities where the competition for the best camps, the best coaches and the best piano teachers rivaled that for admission to the best private schools and colleges. Women told me of their exhaustion, and of their frustrations with the "uselessness" of their husbands. I began to record their impressions and reflections, and wove them into a book, which I named, in honor of the sentiment that seemed to animate so many of us, "Perfect Madness."

I think of us as a generation who grew up in the 1970s and '80s believing that we had fantastic, unlimited freedom of choice. Yet as mothers many women now face "choices" on the order of: you can continue to pursue your professional dreams at the cost of abandoning your children to inadequate child care. Or: you can stay at home with your baby and live in a state of virtual, crazy-making isolation because you can't afford a nanny, because there is no such thing as part-time day care and because your husband doesn't come home until 8:30 at night.

These are choices that don't feel like choices at all. They are the harsh realities of family life in a culture that has no structures in place to allow women--and men--to balance work and child-rearing. But unlike the baby boomers before us, most women in our generation don't think to look beyond themselves at the constraints that keep them from being able to make real choices as mothers. It almost never occurs to them that they can use the muscle of their superb education or their collective voice to change or rearrange their social support system. They simply don't have the political reflex--or the vocabulary--to think of things in this way.

They've been bred to be independent and self-sufficient. And so, they don't get fired up about America's lack of affordable, top-quality child care. Nor about the fact that middle-class life is now so damn expensive that in most families both parents must work gruelingly long hours just to make ends meet. (With fathers averaging 51 hours per week and mothers clocking in at an average of 41, the U.S. workweek is now the longest in the world.).

Instead of blaming society, moms today tend to blame themselves. They say they've chosen poorly. And so they take on the Herculean task of being absolutely everything to their children, simply because no one else is doing anything at all to help them.

This has to change.

We now have a situation where well-off women can choose how to live their lives--either outsourcing high-quality child care so they can work with relative peace of mind or staying at home. But no one else, really, has anything. Many, many women would like to stay home with their children and can't afford to do so. Many, many others would like to be able to work part-time but can't afford or find the way to do so. Many others would like to be able to maintain their full-time careers without either being devoured by their jobs or losing ground, and they can't do that. And there is no hope at all for any of these women on the horizon.

And while many women can and do manage to accept (or at least adjust to) this situation for themselves, there's a twinge of real sadness when they talk about their daughters. As a forty something mother living and working part-time in Washington, D.C. (and spending a disproportionate amount of her time managing the details of her daughter's--and her husband's--life), mused one evening to me, "I look at my daughter and I just want to know: what happened? It's 2002 and nothing's changed. My mother expected my life to be very different from hers, but now it's a lot more like hers than I expected, and from here I don't see where it will be different for my daughter. I don't want her to carry this crushing burden that's in our heads... [But] what can make things different?"

For real change to happen, we need solutions--politically palatable, economically feasible, home-grown American solutions--that can, collectively, give mothers and families a break.

* We need incentives like tax subsidies to encourage corporations to adopt family-friendly policies.

* We need government-mandated child-care standards and quality controls that can remove the fear and dread many working mothers feel when they leave their children with others.

* We need flexible, affordable, locally available, high-quality part-time day care so that stay-at-home moms can get a life of their own. This shouldn't, these days, be such a pipe dream. I lived in France before moving to Washington, and there, my elder daughter attended two wonderful, affordable, top-quality part-time preschools, which were essentially meant to give stay-at-home moms a helping hand. One was run by a neighborhood co-op and the other by a Catholic organization. Government subsidies kept tuition rates low. A sliding scale of fees brought some diversity. Government standards meant that the staffers were all trained in the proper care of young children. My then 18-month-old daughter painted and heard stories and ate cookies for the sum total of about $150 a month.

* We need new initiatives to make it possible for mothers to work part-time (something most mothers say they want to do) by creating vouchers or bigger tax credits to make child care more affordable, by making health insurance available and affordable for part-time workers and by generally making life less expensive and stressful for middle-class families so that mothers (and fathers) could work less without risking their children's financial future. Or even, if they felt the need, could stay home with their children for a while.

I believe that women today mother in the excessive, control-freakish way that they do in part because they are psychologically conditioned to do so. But they also do it because, to a large extent, they have to. Because they are unsupported, because their children are not taken care of, in any meaningful way, by society at large. Because there is right now no widespread feeling of social responsibility--for children, for families, for anyone, really--and so they must take everything onto themselves. And because they can't, humanly, take everything onto themselves, they simply go nuts.

I hope that somehow we will all find a way to stop. Because we are not doing ourselves any good. We are not doing our children--particularly our daughters--any good. We're not doing our marriages any good. And we're doing nothing for society.

We are simply beating ourselves black and blue. So let's take a breather. Throw out the schedules, turn off the cell phone, cancel the tutors. Let's spend some real quality time with our families, just talking, hanging out, not doing anything for once. And let ourselves be.

Mommy Madness | News