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 AM 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 full 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 similarly intense hours to follow. 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. I'd seen the proof of that everywhere--in the NEWSWEEKlies and the New York Times, on TV, even in the official statements that issued forth from the White House, where First Lady Hillary Clinton herself had endorsed "singing, playing games, reading, storytelling, just talking and listening" as the best ways to enhance a child's development.

All around me, the expert advice on baby care, whether it came from the What to Expect books or the legions of "specialists" hawking videos, computer software, smart baby toys or audiotapes to advance brain development, 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 four, 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 ("What that lady is saying is, she would really prefer you not empty your bucket of sand over her little boy's head. Is that okay with you, honey?")--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, hidden behind all the obsession with trivia, 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. There was something new, too: the tendency many women had to feel threatened by other women and to judge them harshly--nowhere more evident than on Urbanbaby and other, similarly "supportive" web sites. Can I take my 17-month-old to the Winnie the Pooh movie?, one mom queried recently. "WAY tooooo young," came one response.

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--the biggest question of all--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 mommy-dom?

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. Women from Idaho to Oklahoma City to the suburbs of Boston--in middle and upper middle class enclaves where there was time and money to spend--told me of lives spent shuttling back and forth to more and more absurd-seeming, high-pressured, time-demanding, utterly exhausting kids' activities. 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 depression, and of their frustrations with the "uselessness" of their husbands. They said they wished their lives could change. But they had no idea of how to make that happen. 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 the first post-baby boom generation, girls born between 1958 and the early 1970s, who came of age politically in the Carter, Reagan and Bush I years. We are, in many ways, a blessed group. Most of the major battles of the women's movement were fought--and won--in our early childhood. Unlike the baby boomers before us, who protested and marched and shouted their way from college into adulthood, we were a strikingly apolitical group, way more caught up in our own self-perfection as we came of age, than in working to create a more perfect world. Good daughters of the Reagan Revolution, we disdained social activism and cultivated our own gardens with a kind of muscle-bound, tightly wound, ober-achieving, all-encompassing, never-failing self-control that passed, in the 1980s, for female empowerment.

We saw ourselves as winners. We'd been bred, from the earliest age, for competition. Our schools had given us co-ed gym and wood-working shop, and had told us never to let the boys drown out our voices in class. Often enough, we'd done better than they had in school. Even in science and math. And our passage into adulthood was marked by growing numbers of women in the professions. We believed that we could climb as high as we wanted to go, and would grow into the adults we dreamed we could be. Other outcomes--like the chance that children wouldn't quite fit into this picture--never even entered our minds.

Why should they have? Back then, when our sense of our potential as women was being formed, there was a general feeling of optimism. Even the most traditional women's magazines throughout the 1980s taught that the future for up-and-coming mothers was bright: The new generation of fathers would help. Good babysitting could be found. Work and motherhood could be balanced. It was all a question of intelligent "juggling." And of not falling prey to the trap of self-sacrifice and perfectionism that had driven so many mothers crazy in the past.

But something happened then, as the 1990s advanced, and the Girls Who Could Have Done Anything grew up into women who found, as the millennium turned, that they couldn't quite... get it together, or get beyond the stuck feeling that had somehow lodged in their minds.

Life happened. we became mothers. and found, when we set out to "balance" our lives--and in particular to balance some semblance of the girls and women we had been against the mothers we'd become--that there was no way to make this most basic of "balancing acts" work. Life was hard. It was stressful. It was expensive. Jobs--and children--were demanding. And the ambitious form of motherhood most of us wanted to practice was utterly incompatible with any kind of outside work, or friendship, or life, generally.

One woman I interviewed was literally struck dumb as she tried to articulate the quandary she was in. She wasn't a woman who normally lacked for words. She was a newspaper editor, with a husband whose steady income allowed her many choices. In the hope of finding "balance," she'd chosen to work part-time and at night in order to spend as much time as possible with her nine-year-old daughter. But somehow, nothing had worked out as planned. Working nights meant that she was tired all the time, and cranky, and stressed. And forever annoyed with her husband. And now her daughter was after her to get a day job. It seemed that having Mom around most of the time wasn't all it was cracked up to be, particularly if Mom was forever on the edge.

The woman waved her hands in circles, helplessly. "What I'm trying to figure out--" she paused. "What I'm trying to remember... Is how I ended up raising this princess... How I got into... How to get out of... this, this, this, this mess."

Most of us in this generation grew up believing that we had fantastic, unlimited, freedom of choice. Yet as mothers many women face "choices" on the order of: You can continue to pursue your professional dreams at the cost of abandoning your children to long hours of 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 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. To rely on their own initiative and "personal responsibility." To privatize their problems. And so, they don't get fired up about our country's lack of affordable, top-quality child care. (In many parts of the country, decent child care costs more than state college tuition, and the quality of the care that most families can afford is abysmal.) 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.) Nor about the fact that in many districts the public schools are so bad that you can't, if you want your child to be reasonably well-educated, sit back and simply let the teachers do their jobs, and must instead supplement the school day with a panoply of expensive and inconvenient "activities" so that your kid will have some exposure to music, art and sports.

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. Because if they don't perform magical acts of perfect Mommy ministrations, their kids might fall through the cracks and end up as losers in our hard-driving winner-take-all society.

This has to change.

We now have a situation where well-off women can choose how to live their lives--either outsourcing child care at a sufficiently high level of quality to permit them to 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.

Some of us may feel empowered by the challenge of taking it all on, being the best, as Tea Leoni's "Spanglish" character did on her uphill morning run, but really, this perfectionism is not empowerment. It's more like what some psychologists call "learned helplessness"--an instinctive giving-up in the face of difficulty that people do when they think they have no real power. At base, it's a kind of despair. A lack of faith that change can come to the outside world. A lack of belief in our political culture or our institutions.

It really needs to change.

For 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 that comes out 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? Because look at us: 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 don't need more politicians sounding off about "family values." Neither do we need to pat the backs of working mothers, or "reward" moms who stay at home, or "valorize" motherhood, generally, by acknowledging that it's "the toughest job in the world." 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. After all, in his State of the Union message, President Bush reaffirmed his support of (which, one assumes, includes support of funding for) "faith-based and community groups." I lived in France before moving to Washington, and there, my elder daughter attended two wonderful, affordable, top-quality part-time pre-schools, 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 in fees of about $150 a month. (This solution may be French--but do we have to bash it?)

^ 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.

^ In general, we need to alleviate the economic pressures that currently make so many families' lives so high-pressured, through progressive tax policies that would transfer our nation's wealth back to the middle class. So that mothers and fathers could stop running like lunatics, and start spending real quality--and quantity--time with their children. And so that motherhood could stop being the awful burden it is for so many women today and instead become something more like a joy.

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 see this all the time. It never seems to stop. So that, as I write this, I have an image fresh in my mind: the face of a friend, the mother of a first-grader, who I ran into one morning right before Christmas.

She was in the midst of organizing a class party. This meant shopping. Color-coordinating paper goods. Piecework, pre-gluing of arts-and-crafts projects. Uniformity of felt textures. Of buttons and beads. There were the phone calls, too. From other parents. With criticism and "constructive" comments that had her up at night, playing over conversations in her mind. "I can't take it anymore," she said to me. "I hate everyone and everything. I am going insane."

I looked at her face, saw her eyes fill with tears, and in that instant saw the faces of dozens of women I'd met--and, of course, I saw myself.

And I was reminded of the words of a French doctor I'd once seen. I'd come to him about headaches. They were violent. They were constant. And they would prove, over the next few years, to be chronic. He wrote me a prescription for a painkiller. But he looked skeptical as to whether it would really do me much good. "If you keep banging your head against the wall," he said, "you're going to have headaches."

I have thought of these words so many times since then. I have seen so many mothers banging their heads against a wall. And treating their pain--the chronic headache of their lives--with sleeping pills and antidepressants and anxiety meds and a more and more potent, more and more vicious self-and-other-attacking form of anxious perfectionism.

And 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 at all for our 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 (fire the OT!). Let's spend some real quality time with our families, just talking, hanging out, not doing anything for once. And let ourselves be.

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