Saturday, May 05, 2007

Perfect Madness

Rebekka asked if I had read Judith Warner's Perfect Madness. It has been on my to do list. But I didn't get around to reading it until this week. I found the book unsatisfying and somewhat disorganized. This post will be somewhat disorganized as well.

She is a journalist, not an academic. The book covered too much ground for such a short book; she could only treat the topics superficially. As she wrote in the preface, it is a book exploring a feeling. On that level, she is successful. Too bad that I don't share the feeling.

First off, I do not believe that France is as much a feminist utopia as she makes it out to be in the early chapters. (Only in the last chapter does she write about the dark effects of the French laws upon working women.) That said, I do agree with several of her arguments.

I had a hilarious and somewhat sad conversation with a French scientist at a meeting about feminism and motherhood in our respective countries. Bear with me during this digression.

She told me about how mothers get Wednesdays off at full pay to stay home with their children. I exclaimed how wonderful that would be. Mothers could take Wednesdays off and Fathers could take Fridays off and children would only be in daycare for 3 days a week!

She looked kind of taken back. She said that she supposed fathers could take time off, but they never do. I asked why. She said that it was because they would have to take time off without pay.

Then it was my turn to look taken back. I asked, "You mean the law treats fathers and mothers differently? Why would anyone hire a woman, then?"

She scoffed, "You Americans want everything to be equal. Look where it has gotten you. Nowhere." Judith Warner did write that French women think that American women lead dog's lives. Well, this French scientist certainly agrees

Anyway, back to Perfect Madness. I slogged through the chapters about eating disorders and women who internalize things rather than deal with the root cause of their misery (society and their husbands). In fact, I found that women at Berkeley with eating disorders often did blame "the patriarchy" for everything that was wrong with their lives. For the most part, those women weren't science majors and I didn't hang out with them. I just didn't identify with the perfectionist motherhood malaise Warner chronicled in her book.

That might be part of the problem. Judith Warner, her subjects, and the essayists in The Bitch in the House are mostly writers or in other feminine professions. (A friend called them pink collar ghettos.) Except for a few, most are likely out-earned by their husbands. Like Linda Hirschman pointed out, if you choose a low-paying profession, don't be surprised when you are economically forced out of the workplace by childcare costs.

I mainly hang out with working moms or retired women who have paid their dues. Though I did see a little bit of that when my daughter attended a private Montessori school in Manhattan Beach, a very expensive enclave. Many of the stay at home moms complained about their busy schedules even though they had full-time nannies and/or housekeepers. They spent their days on conspicuous grooming, cosmetic surgery and chauffeuring their kids around in Escalades and Range Rovers.

(I read an epidemiology article that said that the spread of breast implants fits the mathematical models of a socially communicable disease. That led to my rule that Iris has no playdates at the homes of mothers with breast implants. This is a non-negligible subset in LA. A radiologist friend, an MRI guy, said that women whose breast implants have gone awry make up 30% of his practice.)

Back to Perfect Madness again. The kids of the really worried and anxious moms have very full schedules. They can be booked for 2 months out. Since those are the kids with the moms more likely to have breast implants anyway, Iris doesn't play with them anymore.

I do object to the way Warner disses women who are careful about what they feed their children, e.g. mothers who feed their children soy products. Her book is ostensibly about how women shouldn't undermine each other and cut each other down. Yet, she appears to do the same thing. At the very least, she is culturally insensitive; Asian women have always fed their children soy products. I don't find that in the least bit weird or control freakish. In fact, I find it very yummy and environmentally conscious. (She is conscious of her bias. Warner herself admits she is mainly describing the lives of upper middle class white women in the DC area.)

The same goes for her criticism of women who breast feed longer than a few months. We don't do it because we are control freaks. We do it because it works for us. I breastfed until Iris was 18 months old, weaning her in May, after her second flu season had passed. I didn't find it as onerous or as strange as Warner found it. It was the only guaranteed way I had of putting Iris to sleep. ;-) My employer also guaranteed me a private office as long as I was pumping at work. It is also very common to breast feed in Asian cultures, even children up to 4-6 years of age.

Anyway, the book improves in the last section, when Warner turns her anger at the way American society and work is structured. I wish she spent more of the book building up her case here.

Joan Williams wrote a devastating analysis of how the legal profession, and American society in general, fails mothers in Unbending Gender: Why Family and Work Conflict and What to Do About It. Williams does a very thorough job, explaining why we are not failing. Society has failed us. The workplace, and our husbands, has given us a Sisyphean task. The whole setup is a farce and I refuse to shoulder the blame for it on top of my already monumental workload.

Read Joan Williams book. Amazon users give it 4.5 stars; Perfect Madness only gets 3. I would have given them 5 and 3 respectively.


  1. Thanks for that!

    I agree with a lot of your critisisms of the book (particularly the critisisms about feeding kids particular things, and breastfeeding for what is, after all, a perfectly normal length of time world-wide) - but what the book did for me was open my eyes to the need for better public policy in this area. The last couple of chapters of the book do start to address this, but it does raise more questions than it answers.

    I'm supposed to be writing a piece on the sort of public policies that would encourage a better balance in the private sphere - so that women *don't* come home and find their partners haven't done the laundry - and encourage women to use the qualifications we've worked hard to get.

    What do we do?

    Do we educate boys about how to do the housework at school, since they're obviously not learning it at home? Or perhaps set homework of doing various household chores instead of just academic homework?

    If we don't get men generally to do more of the unpaid work, can we possibly get women back into paid work?

    There are so many things bubbling around in my head...

  2. I have been kicking around ideas for a blog post comparing the US, Europe and Japan. But my thoughts need to marinate a little bit longer.

    Send me your email address if you would like to read some of my incomplete and slightly incoherent thoughts about that.

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