Many women today face the challenge of balancing motherhood and professional lives. It’s an important subject, one that the IWF has tackled in various papers and articles over the years.

But what jumps out at you in Judith Shulevitz’s treatment of the issue in Sunday’s New York Times is the chillingly status-driven character of life among America’s blue state meritocrats.

Ms. Shulevitz is reviewing Judith Warner’s new “Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety.” The book, which was a Newsweek cover story last week, is being hailed as a sort of “Feminist Mystique” for mothers. “[L]ike [“Feminist Mystique” author Betty] Friedan,” notes Shulevitz, “Warner channels a big, explosive feeling, which she identifies as frustration at ‘the mommy mystique’ or, more resonantly, ‘this mess.’”

While critical of the book, Shulevitz nevertheless shares its values and identifies with the “mess” aspect of the modern mother’s supposed plight:

“Since I and other mothers I know expend a great deal of energy trying to quash the suspicion that our once carefully groomed resumes now look as shabby and unpromising as our toy-strewn homes and lumpy midsections, I read most of Warner’s long and somewhat repetitive book in a single sitting, and so, I think, will fellow travelers on the mommy track. The mess, c’est moi; the injustice is that it doesn’t matter how committed I am to my work or how efficient I become. As soon as I began bearing children I hit, not a glass ceiling, but a brick wall. It is no longer cool to say stuff like this, not even in female company.”

A resume is a job-getting tool, not a metaphysical document, dear Judith. Moreover, I’d like to ask: How many of you out there have a “carefully groomed resume”? Would you be rendered suicidal by a gap created when, say, you took off to go home and care for ailing parents? 

The Shulevitz/Warner version of being a parent is built around the all-consuming pursuit of status: 

“Warner tends toward hyperbole, but she strikes me as right about the basic phenomenon. In a society that measures status in consumer goods and hard-to-come-by symbols of achievement — grades, awards, brand-name colleges — the scramble for advantage is bound to propel American upper-middle-class parents into exponentially goofier displays of one-upsmanship. Try giving your 3-year-old an old-fashioned cake-and-balloon birthday party at home, with neither facilitator nor gift bags, and you’ll see that Warner’s onto something, and that it’s harder to opt out than you’d think.”

Can you imagine not having the courage to give your 3-year-old an old-fashioned cake-and-balloon birthday party at home? Is the quest for “symbols of achievement” really “bound to” propel you into “exponentially goofier displays of one-upsmanship”?

Or could you say: This is a shallow way to live, much less to bring up children?

Shulevitz continues:

“Parents no longer set up metal swing sets in corners of their backyards; they hire professionals to erect sprawling wooden castles that consume half the lawn. Parents line up at 5 a.m. to get slots in just the right neighborhood preschool and bring their children to specialists upon noticing the slightest delay in speech or motor coordination. Desperate to maximize their children’s levels of attachment and developmental capacity, they turn marital beds into family beds, flash ’Baby Einstein’ cards at their 3-month-olds, enroll toddlers in nonstop improving activities, and give up quiet evenings at home to plan Girl Scout cookie drives ‘ ‘Girl Scout cookie meetings? At 8 o’clock at night?’ exclaims Warner. (That last surely is a mother-only activity.) The ex-professional stay-at-home mothers who, like haughty high priests, identify each new form of self-sacrifice set the pace for the still working ones, some of whom leave their jobs to keep up.”

Let’s parse that: You don’t leave your job to stay home with the children’no, you quit work to compete with other mothers. There was a novel a couple of years ago that captured the English version of motherhood hell. Not surprisingly, Shulevitz loved it:

“[Novelist] Allison Pearson was a lot funnier [than Warner] about the anthropology of parental rivalry in her novel, ’I Don’t Know How She Does It,’ and incidentally revealed that elites use their children to jockey for status in other developed nations, not just in the United States. (Pearson’s hyperjudgmental mothers lived in London.) But then, fiction is always better on the details than sociology.”

I actually reviewed this book for National Review, and my reaction was different from Shulevitz’s. I wrote (the review is no longer available on line):

“The central question in this much-talked about book isn’t: How does Kate Reddy, working mother, do it? It is rather: Why is she such a bitch?”

Tellingly, the book opens with Kate Reddy trying to make store-bought cookies look homemade. The children, of course, couldn’t care less–but Reddy is competing with the mothers.

Judith Shulevitz is by all accounts a nice person, but the world she portrays is not. 

More than the ideas involved (pretty hackneyed: both Warner, coauthor of a book with DNC chairman Howard Dean, and Shulevitz believe in more day care and other government programs are the partial answer, though Shulevitz is critical of Warner for not telling mothers how to lobby for such programs in our “rightward-drifting, Europe-hating America”), it’s the narcissism that appalls.

New York Post columnist John Podhoretz (see below) is a father instead of a mother. But there is nothing in Shulevitz’s review remotely comparable to this:

“For some of us, being a parent is a liberation from the tyranny of the self. Others seem to cling to the shackles of their solipsism. Tragically, they have been unable to wrest free from a worldview more suitable to childhood, and therefore sadly denied themselves the particular satisfactions that come from embracing adulthood in all its glorious mundanity.”