Mommy Diarist

On a recent afternoon, Judith Warner -- author of the best-selling Hillary Clinton: The Inside Story and a former special correspondent for Newsweek in Paris -- is sipping organic tea in her sunroom while reflecting on her forthcoming book, Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety (Riverhead). She talks with Dorian Friedman about The Feminine Mystique, French women, and modern motherhood in America.

Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique clearly informed your writing. Is your book in some ways its intellectual successor?

I didn't see it so much that way as aspired to it. When I began the research for the book, I was spending a lot of time with stay-at-home moms. Hearing the way they talked about their lives and looking at the effect of not working, so much of it reminded me of Friedan's observations [from 1963] -- that sort of vague, indefinable feeling of emptiness and unhappiness and anxiety and angst. I found myself digging out my old copy of The Feminine Mystique to see how she had articulated it. She had written about a culture-wide “mystique of feminine fulfillment” that was driving women quietly insane. Today, of course, we no longer worship women who, like the “happy housewife heroine” of Friedan's day, can find fulfillment in making their floors shine. Yet, while our world has changed so much, why were the women I knew speaking in such a similar way and seeming to feel such similar things? The concrete facts of their lives were different, but the stuff going through their heads -- and the internal struggles -- were so similar.

Your two daughters were born in France, and your initiation into motherhood seemed like paradise in contrast with the experience of your American peers.

Yes, I've been thinking about that a lot lately. I hate it when Americans decide that everything is somehow better in Europe, because it's not. But for me, personally, life as a mother was just great. I had the freedom to continue being, as a mother, who I was before I was a mother.

Of course, it helped that I was living in a country that has an astounding array of benefits for families -- and for mothers especially. Starting with childbirth -- when women typically enjoy five comfortable days in the hospital -- to my pediatrician, who answered his own phone and always had time to talk. Then there's the helpful corner pharmacist; the free, community-run referral service for childcare and babysitting; and access to good-quality and surprisingly affordable childcare and preschools. It adds up to a general feeling of being supported by a community network. I never had that feeling so many of us have here that you're entirely on your own, floundering in an effort to keep it all together. After I had my first child, sure, I felt the same pull so many mothers do: How can I possibly return to work? But I had this wonderful conversation with my pediatrician. “You'll have this child for the rest of your life,” he said. “And you have to be happy because, if you're happy, she'll be happy.” There's none of this angst about choosing (and praying you're admitted to!) the right preschool so she'll get into Harvard. All of that was just easy and natural in France.

For all of the cultural ideal of French romance and seduction, French mothers seem somehow more liberated, no?

I always thought Americans were so much more advanced because we had this basically gender-neutral society in which we weren't caught up in just trying to please men. And yet when we became mothers, we had these lives that were suddenly unlivable. Our society did not offer us the possibility for setting our lives up in a rational way that permitted us to go on being the women we were before. Whereas, in France, for all this surface froufrou, you had the possibility to continue being yourself once you became a mother, and no one expected you to transform into June Cleaver. The expectation was you were an adult woman, and your life is made up of work and your spouse or companion and your children. And the whole society is set up to make that balance a possibility. So it seemed to me that, in fact, you had greater abstract equality in America but greater practical equality in France. And that was the paradox that came to fascinate me.

How do we get beyond those abstractions to begin changing our life options?

First, all this rhetoric about the “choices” we have hides the reality of most women's lives, which is that they make decisions for economic and pragmatic reasons. So for a high-achieving woman who doesn't want to forego the best jobs for lower pay and no benefits, for example, is there really a choice? I think it's making the best of a bad situation and doing what you have to do. And just as important, we have to free the debate from what I call the motherhood “religion,” which only narrows the possibilities for thinking about new and creative solutions.

In fact, there are orthodoxies on both sides of the political divide. On the feminist left, there's been a reluctance to admit that many women really want the option to work part-time or to have “mommy track” careers. So I think more energy ought to go into finding practical solutions to what more women want. I'd much rather focus on the women at Wal-Mart and the needs of middle-class mothers generally than on women like Hillary Clinton (and have them be the exemplars of women's progress).

How do we shift the debate?

This isn't a book about policy prescriptions, but I do think there are many things society—and government—can do to make working motherhood something other than an exercise in guilt. We need incentives for companies to offer part-time work with proportional pay and benefits, so that part-time work isn't something that ends up impoverishing families and is untenable. We need greatly increased spending on early child education and childcare to put it in reach of all working parents. And we need higher standards for childcare and better pay for the provider. These are large, systemic things, of course. But they'd begin to add up to a global “taken-caredness” of American families.

But you really can't make policy changes until you've made the bigger cultural changes. Today, people just don't think in these terms. People are so hostile to collective solutions right now -- and not just hard-core right-wingers, but most people. If you want all this stuff, you have to pay for it. All of these programs combined could cost less than the Bush tax cuts, but you have to be ready to pay for it. It's a matter of national priorities.

And it's a matter of us not continuing to think of these things as private problems with private solutions. So many parents are willing to fetishize getting their kid into the right preschool and fill their lives with horrible anxiety about the process -- yet they're not willing to pay some extra taxes to remove the anxiety from their lives.

Dorian Friedman is the Prospect's policy editor.