Judith Warner’s bestselling Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety:
Is it a book about the neuroses of competitive America, a society so cutthroat that even mothers have been pulled into the rat race, striving to outdo each other finding the right art camp for their kids?
Or is it a book about the neuroses of Judith Warner and her gal-pals in the plush Washington, D.C., neighborhood where Warner lives?
The media adore “Perfect Madness,” because it’s the usual slam on tax cuts, capitalism, and Americans’ perennial resistance to hugely expensive federal day care programs. If only we were like France, sighs Warner, where there’s free day care, free parental leave, free just about anything a mom could want (all paid for with enterprise-stifling sky-high taxes and a gruesome unemployment rate–but that’s another story).
Now, however, the Washington Post reveals that Warner did most of the research for her book in just two tiny, exceedingly upscale neighborhoods in Washington, D.C., Chevy Chase (where Warner lives) and adjacent Cleveland Park. They’re the kind of ‘hoods where every house is a lovingly remodeled Victorian or Edwardian that goes for at least $1.5 million (and I mean at least), the multiple BMW’s bulge out of every garage, and every exquisitely manicured lawn last fall sported a Kerry-Edwards sign. The Post also reveals that most of the mothers Warner interviewed were women she knew–that is, women just like her.
So maybe that’s why the mental problems of mothering that the women in Warner’s book describe don’t sound so much typical as, well, weird.
First, there’s Judith Warner herself, as Post reporter Hanna Rosin tells it:
“Warner describes spending night after night arranging toys by color and size in the basement. She tells how she became paralyzed trying to decide whether to order the basic or deluxe Hello Kitty birthday package for her soon-to-be 3-year-old’s party.”
“Before moving to Washington, [Warner] says, she didn’t know that not having an easel in her house was the equivalent of child neglect. That she would find herself trying to bake the perfect cookie, hunting down the last gram of trans fat, indulging in all the baroque ways we find to ‘make ourselves miserable’ in the endless quest for perfection.”
And this quote from Warner’s book:
“I put my elder daughter in a D.C. public school and watched the light in her eyes go dim.”
Huh? The “D.C. public school” she’s talking about is Murch Elementary in Chevy Chase, so showered with parent-paid goodies and academic extras that it might as well be an exclusive private day school.
And if Warner sounds like the kind of gal who makes you want to tap your skull when her back is turned, how about these other mamas from Chevy Chase and its environs:
“One Washington woman spent the night before Valentine’s Day baking cupcakes with her two sons. She woke up the next morning to read Warner’s New York Times op-ed piece on how we now celebrate the holiday for our children instead of our husbands. ‘Is our national romance with our children sucking the emotional life out of our marriages?’ Warner asked. The woman dumped the cupcakes in the garbage and declared herself a failure.”
“One woman came up to Warner at a book signing and declared she was firing her occupational therapist — one of those experts familiar to upper-class parents who cure your child of low muscle tone or lagging gross motor skills.”
Dumped the cupcakes in the garbage? Employed an occupational therapist for the kids? Who are these people? They sure don’t sound like any mothers I know.
Reporter Rosin also digs up a book review that Warner wrote for the Post about a year ago. Here’s the opening paragraph:
“My father, a psychologist, spent the last three decades of his life writing what he called his Book of Love. . . . When he died, in 1995, and I sorted through his papers . . . I found a couple of old manuscripts that had been rejected by publishers back in the 1970s. And beyond that, nothing but notes — boxes and boxes and file drawers and desk drawers and closets and bookshelves and kitchen cabinets filled with notes. All expressing his passionate and prodigious hatred. Largely of me.”
Mind you, neither of the two books that Warner was reviewing had anything to do father-child relations. One was Helen Fisher’s Why We Love: The Art and Chemistry of Romantic Love, and the other was Jerome Groopman’s The Anatomy of Hope: How People Prevail in the Face of Illness.
I won’t go so far as to say that I sympathize a teeny bit with Judith Warner’s late father. But I do ask: Are these the kind of problems we need to raise our taxes to cure?