What Makes Mommy Run? An Anatomy of the Über-Mutter

Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety, by Judith Warner. Riverhead Books, 327 pages, $23.95.

When I first read Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety, a week after giving birth to my first child, it registered as little more than a theoretical exercise. Being a parent was an intensely physical state-postpartum fluid was still being flushed out of my body in night sweats, and I was so painfully constipated that on doctor’s orders I had to send my husband down to the corner for a Fleet enema (a household first!). Between our baby’s circumcision wound and his umbilical-cord stump, his needs, too, seemed limited to those of the flesh.

Six weeks later, I reread Perfect Madness in short, hungry bursts, occasionally calling out to my husband passages such as this: “Studies have never shown that total immersion in motherhood makes mothers happy or does their children any good. On the contrary, studies have shown that mothers who are able to make a life for themselves tend to be happy and to make their children happy.” I was hurling these declarations from my once-pristine Ultrasuede couch, where hour upon hour of breast-feeding had created an outline of my posterior in spit-up, sandwich crumbs and newsprint-all of which made even more convincing Judith Warner’s argument that motherhood in America has become dangerously all-consuming.

Ms. Warner-a journalist who has written quickie bios of Hillary Clinton and Newt Gingrich-came to this conclusion after moving to Washington, D.C., with her husband and two young daughters. They’d come from Paris, where they’d lived for six years. While she was in France, she writes, she “never met a mother, working or otherwise, who didn’t have the ‘time’ to read a book, or have lunch with a friend, or go out to dinner once in a while.” Not so in the U.S., where mothers seemed to her both miserable and maniacal. So she began interviewing them to find out what lay at the heart of this widespread malaise.

We’re in familiar territory, of course, traversed in 2001 by Naomi Wolf in Misconceptions: Truth, Lies and the Unexpected on the Journey to Motherhood and Ann Crittenden in The Price of Motherhood: Why the Most Important Job in the World Is the Least Valued. (Both of those authors were also living in Washington and interviewing local residents-maybe the nation’s capital isn’t such a great place to raise kids after all.)

While Ms. Wolf targets the medical establishment and workplace values, and Ms. Crittenden looks at how government policies and the economy penalize moms financially, Ms. Warner’s analysis is both wider-ranging and more pointed, and in the end she arrives at the controversial conclusion that mothers are not victims of outside forces but rather their own worst enemies. “The desperate, grasping and controlling way so many women go about the job of motherhood, turning energy that could be used to demand social change inward into control-freakishness, is our hallmark as a generation,” she writes. “We have taken it upon ourselves as supermothers to be everything to our children that society refuses to be: not just loving nurturers but educators, entertainers, guardians of environmental purity, protectors of a stable and prosperous future.”

Ms. Warner traces the origins of the über-mutter trend to the British psychoanalyst John Bowlby, whose theories about insecure attachment introduced the possibility that you can psychologically damage an infant for life. (This paranoia about attachment, I learned as I read various how-to nursing books, is echoed by La Leche League’s term “poor latch,” meaning, quite literally, an incomplete, inadequate or imperfect fit of baby’s mouth to breast.) Ms. Warner also catalogs the wild swings in child-rearing practices and points out that being a mother in the 1950′s, when most women didn’t breast-feed and there was no such thing as the family bed, was actually less enslaving than it is today.

Along the way, she attempts to slay a few contemporary myths-namely, that the problem women with children face today is the work-or-stay-at-home debate. In fact, she says, most so-called stay-at-homers work part-time, as do most back-to-workers (and Ms. Warner’s not even talking about middle- and lower-class moms who have no choice but to punch the clock.) The bigger issue, Ms. Warner argues, is that whether working or not, moms are consumed by what she sees as a new, “soul-draining” perfectionism that’s turned parenting-from the first ultrasound to the last college application-into a competitive sport. Hence the overscheduled, overprotected child who knows no boundaries and rules the roost.

Ms. Warner’s observations inject new life into what has become a long, tired debate. There’s now undoubtedly a culture of maternal martyrdom, and it seems oddly out of step with the times. I know one mother of a toddler, a lawyer in New York, who boarded a train from Penn Station to Chicago, alone, for the sole purpose of getting some uninterrupted sleep. Ms. Warner argues that women today are running themselves into the ground because they’re afraid that their children will slide down rather than climb up the socioeconomic ladder. Or else they’re making up for their own childhood wounds. Both of which are plausible explanations, but I’m not so sure it’s fair to lay all the blame on mom.

Perhaps the anxiety Judith Warner accurately describes is simply the result of wanting to do right by one’s children in an environment that doesn’t exactly make it easy. As Naomi Wolf points out in Misconceptions, mother love is the reason why women put up with “the juggling,” “the imbalance,” the not having “the time” to read a book and other clichéd phrases of modern motherhood. (That and a steady supply of women from the Caribbean and West Indies willing to work as under-the-table nannies so they can send money back home to their own kids-more mother love.) Why do I wrench myself out of bed several times a night to soothe my wailing little angel? Mother love, I think. Then again, he’s only 11 weeks old. I may have to get back to you on that.

Ruth Davis Konigsberg is about to return to the workforce as the deputy features editor at Glamour.