7 Mar 2005, Comments (0)

The mothers, they are revolting

Author: Helen

The Chez Miscarriage series on Mummy Drive-bys has generated so much interest all over the blogosphere. It’s one of those experiences all parents share but rarely talk about.

Here’s mine. I was playing with my little girl, then three, in a local playground. She wanted to swing on the monkey bar – one of those structures like a horizontal ladder a bit over adult head height. This would mean that she’d be hanging on as long as she could and then dropping, rather like the legendary drop bear, and I’d have to stand underneath and catch her. Anyone who has lifted a healthy and muscular three-year-old will understand that I was a bit reluctant to lift her way up and then catch her on the way down. (My back! Aaaiee!) Besides – it was out of her age range. Bad idea.

After half an hour of concentrated pester, I finally gave in and granted the little horror her wish. I’d no sooner lifted her up so she could grasp the thing when I heard a female voice say, “I do hate these pushy mums who force their toddlers to do things they’re not ready for!”


Getupgrrl (Chez Miscarriage) writes like a dream and is always funny. The drive-bys theme has struck a chord with us all. But it begins with a guns-blazing critique of a writer called Judith Warner, who has published a book called Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the age of anxiety. Yep, the title suggests she’s probably not the most academic or restrained writer in the feminist field, and I haven’t read the book, but you can read an article first published in Newsweek where Warner provides us with a seven-page version. My reading of that article gives me the impression that Getupgrrl is being a bit unfair on Warner. Perhaps I’m wrong.

What Warner is describing is a phenomenon I’ve seen enough of myself at the parent coalface: Competitive parenting. She’s talking about the fin-de-siecle epidemic of extracurricular activities and coaching, even hothousing, classes and courses and scholarship applications and “KUMON” classes for preschoolers, that is filling up childrens’ time and in some cases interfering with their natural ability to play. It goes with the individualistic, neocon way of thinking, where the kids are ferried from school to ballet to extra coaching in the giant 4WD (SUV) – where life is seen as a competition, the devil takes the hindmost, and if anyone is foolish enough to collide with my 4WD it’s their kid who will die, not mine. Warner points out that this overcompetitive parenting style puts enormous pressure on working mums – and with workplaces still pretty family-unfriendly, it’s a recipe for madness of a sort. Like the absolute need to identify every Maddisyn and Jake as ‘gifted’.

Getupgrrl’s first criticism is the “ahistoricity” of Warner’s book (I assume she’s read the book, not just the article?) She complains that Warner is writing about all these phenomena as if they’re new. Well, some of it is, or it’s changed – for instance, at the time of the Feminine Mystique, the average family was larger. You didn’t have so much all-or-nothing focus on one or two cherished offspring. But it’s also wrong because it is Warner who herself brings up the Feminine Mystique (1950s) comparison.

Getupgrrl won’t get any argument from me on the need for women to take notice of historical attitudes to mothering and working women: in fact, here’s one of the best potted accounts you could ever wish for:

Hello? Anyone see a pattern here? Anyone suspect it might have something to do with, oh, I don’t know, large-scale social and economic patterns? Like, say, the fact that women were encouraged to stay home during the Depression in order to free up jobs for men, and then encouraged to join the war effort and work outside the home during the early 1940s, and then instructed to return home after the war in order to create more opportunities for male employment, and then urged to be tough during the Cold War hysteria that espoused a need for soldiers to feed the war machine (Spiro Agnew actually made maternal overprotection a 1968 campaign issue!), and then implored to stay home during the decade of no-fault divorce and women’s increasing sexual and economic power, and then, and then, and then?

Yes, that’s something I wish more women would take notice of, I think our society is too ahistorical in general, and kudos to Getupgrrl for reminding us of it. But does every article on gender-related topics have to go that way? Isn’t this a bit like the RWDB argument, “Well, you didn’t post on XXXX last week so you have NO RIGHT to criticise YYYY”, or whatever?

Warner may not delve into the historical background, but she ascribes the “overparenting” phenomenon to external pressure. Getupgrrl dismisses Warner’s thesis as not only un-original (which I agree with) but as a rant against mothers (which I don’t).

The mothers, they are screwing it up again. Frankly, I don’t know why we even let them out of the house. Or was that, in the house? Regardless, thank God we have Judith Warner to set them straight.

It’s hilarious, but a distortion, according to my reading of the Newseek article (and yes, Getupgrrl is absolutely right to be wary of anything published therein). Warner is not blaming the mothers for “screwing it up” at all. Quite the reverse. Warner says this is happening

Because they are unsupported, because their children are not taken care of, in any meaningful way, by society at large. Because there is right now no widespread feeling of social responsibility-for children, for families, for anyone, really-and so they must take everything onto themselves.

My reading of the Newsweek article is that Warner feels the mothers, they are being pushed into some pretty strange behaviours (like spending $16,000 a year on private school) because of a competitive economic rationalist, individualist society (Check…) and that what is required is a calmer and more work-and-family friendly society (Check…), and that includes the economy and the workplace (Check…). On page 6 of the article, Warner provides a list of reforms she would consider beneficial. In other words, she’s suggesting alternatives – not just ranting or fault finding. Here’s an edited version:

* We need incentives like tax subsidies to encourage corporations to adopt family-friendly policies….
* We need government-mandated child care standards and quality controls …
* We need flexible, affordable, locally available, high-quality part-time day care …. A sliding scale of fees …
* We need new initiatives to make it possible for mothers to work part-time ….(make) health insurance available and affordable for part-time workers ….
* In general, we need to alleviate the economic pressures that currently make so many families’ lives so high-pressured, through progressive tax …So that mothers and fathers could stop running like lunatics…(See? She’s not just talking about mothers…)

As with so many things, we Aussies already have some of these in place (e.g. a sliding scale of child care fees, through the CCB scheme-that is, if you can get a child care place) but, regrettably, we are always going further down the American path – that is, backwards – due to our political elites’ excessive US-worship.

Judith Warner’s no Barbara Ehrenreich, but I just couldn’t read the deeply offensive meanings into it that Getupgrrl did. Chez Miscarriage is a wonderful blog, but her humour – incisive, in your face, sarcastic – comes from a place of deep hurt and pain. That’s not a criticism – it’s where the snap and crunch of many humorists’ work comes from. But sometimes, Getupgrrl just seems to be enjoying the feeling of being slighted just a little too much. As someone who’s about to become a parent in a non-traditional way (through surrogacy), I can see she has her mental rocket launchers at the ready, in anticipation of imagined future mummy drive-bys. I can imagine her being just a little bit… disappointed… if she gets through the first few weeks without at least one juicy insult to be outraged about.

She may get all kinds of insensitive flak. I hope not. But for my money, Judith Warner’s article definitely doesn’t come into that category.

Comments (0)

  • mallrat says:

    i LOVE chezmiscarriage.
    but there’s a not-yet mummy hgangbanging, too.
    women of a certain agecop so much shit if they look at a baby for a nanosecond. “oh you’re clucky arent you?” let alone play with one, etc. it sucks. whether i want to have one or not is beside the point- it’s the horrible assumption, and the knowing tone and look, like you’ve just been caught masturabting with a vacuum cleaner with the pet goldfish.

  • Helen says:

    Oh yes, I can relate to that one MR, since I hung out util age 34 before producing any. And my friend has caused a lot of jaws to drop mightily by waiting until 39 and then accidentally having twins. I can just imagine the amount of unsolicited advice that woman gets.

    Ripper booze up the other night ay. Next time I’ll organise myself better i.e. not have a car and stay longer.

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