Judith Warner's newest book, Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety (Riverhead Books, 2005) has a provocative theme that has grabbed the attention of harried working moms. The U.S., she argues, should emulate the French system, which she says supports families economically -- and, in turn, helps them psychologically.
Warner has authored a host of nonfiction works on government and policy, including You Have the Power: How to Take Back Our Country and Restore Democracy in America, and the best-selling biography Hillary Clinton: The Inside Story. A former special correspondent for Newsweek in Paris, Warner reviews books for The Washington Post and has written about politics and women's issues for magazines including The New Republic and Elle. She lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband and their children.
She recently spoke with BusinessWeek Online reporter Jeffrey Gangemi about why this is such an anxious age for mothers and about the constraints of workplace culture on families. Here are edited excerpts of their conversation:
Q: Where does all the anxiety come from for working mothers?
A: There's an enormous amount of economic anxiety for American families -- all the way up to the very wealthiest. While not always completely avowed by people, this anxiety conditions the experience of parenthood. For most people, daily financial worry is a very real and present thing. There's fear that the future is not secure, the present is pretty frightening, and that no one is out there to help you. And because people don't have the instinct right now to think globally and to look outside themselves, they tend to focus this anxiety on small things they feel they can control.
Q: How would you characterize the demographic you chose to study?
A: The women I interviewed were middle to upper-middle class, and what I really wanted to do was to write a middle-class person's book. They were mostly college-educated, professional people. My goal was to focus on immediate post-baby boomers, the generation of women born from 1958 to 1972. I was looking for people who came of age in a certain political climate -- [Ronald] Reagan and the first [George] Bush.
Q: Do you think motherhood takes away from workplace equality?
A: Motherhood doesn't take away from workplace equality. The way that our culture deals with motherhood is now taking away from workplace equality. The culture of the workplace forces mothers to choose to continue their career and not get to spend enough time with their children. Or they can choose to go part-time, at which point they often don't make enough money to support their family, and they'll probably lose benefits. This is a nonchoice that we're forced into.
Q: How would you characterize the women you studied as consumers?
A: I wish that we weren't constantly being sold things that promised to allow us to control and perfect our children. That's the main marketing message that comes to us, and it's an insidious message. To encourage a hubristic sense of control is wrong. [But] from a marketer's and manufacturer's point of view, it's an excellent approach because it resonates deeply with this generation. If the point of marketing is solely to sell products, then there's no better approach.
Q: What would it mean for a mother to opt out of this system?
A: That's tricky. How completely can you opt out? It would mean keeping a sense of your center and your values -- not [necessarily] raising your kids to be soccer stars and math geniuses, but determining the kind of human being you want them to be.
Q: How do you balance your personal and professional life, and can you offer any tips?
A: It's a constantly shifting thing -- trying to get to the right level of child care and be with my kids as much as I want. Generally, things tend to be working well for a couple of months, and then they fall apart. I try to get as much work done as I can between nine and three and reduce my dependency on child care to the bare minimum, so that, when things fall apart, it's not the end of the world.
Q: What can we learn from the French, in terms of policy?
A: In terms of family policy, we have everything to learn. If you support families materially, then you also support them psychologically. You lower their stress level tremendously. Clearly, families in France are stressed, too. There's high unemployment, and life has become very expensive.
Yet, they don't worry as much as we do. They know they can afford to have their kids go to the doctor. They don't have to pay for college. And when it comes to very early childhood, they don't have to worry about child care for the first three years because there are structures in place to help them.