Dang, Judith Warner must have a good publicist. She has no less than three different articles out in major publications, all based on her new book Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety.
Her Valentine's Day op-ed in the New York Times asks "Is our national romance with our children sucking the emotional life out of our marriages?" She concludes that it is, and urges readers to stop making construction paper cards for their children's classmates and to go on a real date with their spouses. While she's at it, she blames the family bed and extended co-sleeping for a decline in physical intimacy.
The second story is the cover article in Newsweek, entitled Mommy Madness. In this Warner describes a generation of miserable mothers, driven to desperation by their own high expectations and lack of societal support:
"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."
Warner then tries to tie this in to an argument that we need societal supports for parenting -- tax incentives to promote family-friendly work, high quality day care for both full-time working parents and as occasional relief for at-home parents, more opportunities for part-time work. I generally think these are good things, but it's not clear how they're going to solve the problems of the women featured in the article, who can't sleep at night because they're worried about the preschool party they're organizing. What they need is to get a grip.
As Jody at Raising WEG points out, this cult of the hyper-parent is very much a middle-class privilege, and far from the universal state. Most parents are plenty busy just from doing the basics -- earning a living, keeping their kids clean and fed and the homework done -- not from participating in a million afterschool activities or distressing store-bought pies to look homemade.
As I see it, the middle-class stress of extreme parenting is driven by several factors:
First, as Warner correctly points out, there's been a decay of the parenting "commons." Organized sports with registration, and schedules and fees have replaced pick-up games. You can't count on the local public school being good unless you deliberately pick a place to live based on the schools.
Second, as being an at-home parent has become a deliberate choice rather than the default position, some at-home parents feel the need to justify their decision by giving their kids every bit of attention and stimulation possible. This is how they prove that they're not wasting their expensive educations.
Third, some working parents feel the need to justify their decision by making sure their kids aren't suffering at all from their absence. They try to cram as much attention and activities into the weekends and evenings as an at-home parent might do all week, and give up sleep instead.
And finally, as Laura points out, there's a natural tendency to measure what's appropriate by looking at the people around you. Moreover, the standard of comparison is usually the "best" of those around you, not the average. So it just takes one family having a magician at their kid's party for everyone in their social circle to start wondering whether they should be having a puppet show. And the expectations creep up as each family joins in. (My personal act of resistance against this madness is to respond "YOU DON'T NEED A GOODY BAG" every time someone posts on the DC Urban Moms list asking what items are good for a goody bag for a 3-year-olds party.)
Third article is from Elle, and it mostly emphasizes the differences between American and French attitudes towards parenting. It's by far the most interesting of the three articles, making the point that the whole culture of intense parenting is a uniquely American phenomenon. Warner concludes that the problem is an ideology that is so widespread that it's hardly ever questioned:
"[It] tell us that we are the luckiest women in the world, with the most wealth, the most choices. It says we have the know-how to make “informed decisions” that will guarantee our children's success. It tells us that if we choose badly, our children will fall prey to countless dangers—from insecure attachment to drugs to a third-rate college. And if our children do stray from the right path, we'll have no one but ourselves to blame. To point fingers at society is to shirk “personal responsibility.”"
I'm intrigued enough to put Warner's book on hold at the library. I'll report back when I've read it. I'm wondering if there's not an overlap with some of the arguments that Schwartz makes in The Paradox of Choice.