Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Perfect Madness: Book Review

Again, a couple of book reviews from 2005 that were lost in the ether, retrieved by the magic of the Wayback machine. I fixed a couple of spelling errors, love that Firefox add-on.

Perfect Madness or Localized Insanity?

Well, I finished reading Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety, by Judith Warner today.

I was very disappointed. The reviews were better than the book (and a lot more coherent). She totally disses Mothers & More and other similar groups, by the way, as:

“utterly corrupted by the competing religions of the American left and right”….(they) “purport to unite working and nonworking mothers alike in an ecumenical, pro-family social agenda. Their organizers, I found, were committed to this vision, and strove to make it a reality. But their membership, carried over from their pre-name-change days, was another story. Once you scratched the surface of their pro-unity slogans, all too often, something quite different emerged. Competition. Intolerance. And a big dose of sanctimony. Coming, most notably, from stay-at-home mothers seeking validation for the “sacrifices” they’d made in the name of motherly virtue” (p. 265-266).

It’s possible that other chapters are a lot different from mine. Do any of us seem sanctimonious here? I’m just not getting that vibe. But more on Warner’s book later, I have to go eat lunch with my daughter. She’s done drawing dinosaurs.


Imperfect Madness

Judith Warner’s Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety is first and foremost an opinion piece on “the current culture of motherhood” - it should not be taken as sociological or cultural analysis of even the most rudimentary kind.

I liked Miriam Peskowitz’s The Truth Behind the Mommy Wars a lot more for its examination of the work/family/time issues facing American mothers, and Douglas and Michael’s The Mommy Myth for its historical analysis of the media and its influence on modern parenting. Strangely, and very obviously leaving a gaping hole, Warner makes absolutely no mention of Douglas & Michael’s book, even though she covers a lot of the same issues (Peskowitz’s was published close to the same time as Warner’s).

Warner’s book strikes me as sloppy in terms of research, logic and presentation. Her endnotes are not presented in the text of the book, but arranged by page number in the back, so when you want to check the basis for a given statement, you have to turn to the back to see if it is endnoted. Almost every time I did this, I found Warner’s statement was based on a secondary source - a newspaper article or a magazine article usually. Very rarely was any scientific data (even from soft sciences, like sociology, psychology, or anthropology!) cited. For instance, her statement that today’s children display more anxiety, throw more tantrums, behave more disrespectfully, and are just overprotected brats is based on an article from Better Homes & Gardens.

Warner makes some sweeping (and unfounded and just plain inaccurate) generalizations about kid’s food allergies and the use of medication for ADHD & other behavioral problems that are sure to piss off many parents who deal with children with real problems of this nature.

And “Attachment Parenting” - even a middle class watered down version gets given extremely short shrift as just an example of the bad side of over-parenting: “baby-wearing, co-sleeping, long-term breast-feeding and the rest of it — cruelly insensitive to mothers’ needs as adult women”. According to Warner, co-sleeping makes for unhinged, sleep deprived mothers. Funny, everyone I know that co-slept did it because it enabled them to get more sleep.

Some other things that bothered me were the chapters on how this socio-cultural phenomenon that she calls “The Mess” is a personal psychological failing, like bulimia or anorexia, caused by mothers:

1. trying to capture their own idyllic childhoods (repressed overworked mothers & all)

2. trying to compensate for horrible childhoods and neglectful mothers

3. trying above all to gain CONTROL

But then she implies it’s a cultural thing, a mass hysteria, or a cultural OCD where the compulsions include making cupcakes, arranging birthday parties, etc. , and the obsessions are “perfect” children.

My main problem, though, is just with Warner’s basic premise: that the majority of mothers today have this “widespread, choking cocktail of guilt and anxiety and resentment and regret…poisoning motherhood for American women today”. Maybe it’s just her wacko friends and the women (about 150 of them, selected how?) that she interviewed in Washington, D.C.? Do I just live in a small bubble of sanity? Ann Arbor is a relatively wealthy (but too idealistic and activist oriented?) place, and I’m just not seeing this compulsive over-parenting and cult of hyper-motherhood she describes in sometimes hilarious detail.

The sad thing is that I agree with many of the (politically liberal) solutions that Warner proposes that would help American mothers. But this material is tacked onto the next to last chapter, “For a Politics of a Quality of Life”, and hardly given the emphasis or the detail invested in the preceding ten chapters. And Warner completely ignores all of the other people who’ve already called for these changes, making it sound like the solutions are something new and innovative she discovered after she returned from France and discovered a lack of affordable childcare and a bunch of DC area neurotic mothers (not unlike those portrayed in Danielle Crittendon’s Amanda Bright@Home, or perhaps in Desperate Housewives? I need to watch Desperate Housewives). Also, it is hard to see how these laudable structural changes would actually improve “The Mess”, which is supposedly self-imposed, all-encompassing, and inextricably intertwined with our American lifestyle and identities as mothers.

Thanks to the Wayback Machine

I've retrieved a book review that I did for Mothers & More for their "Mothers at Work" blog campaign in 2005. Since you can't access it anymore through regular avenues, I didn't think they'd mind if I put it on my personal blog, so all of my book review links work.

It Really Is All About Time...

….according to Miriam Peskowitz in The Truth Behind the Mommy Wars: Who Decides What Makes a Good Mother?

What a great book. Here’s my review from my personal book log:

A really good, thoughtful, well-written book. I don’t know why it hasn’t been reviewed anywhere but a couple of blogs, when Judith Warner’s book (which I haven’t read yet, so no comparisons) is all over the place.

Peskowitz looks at SAH moms, moms who work PT, and WOH moms, and every permutation of work/childcare and “sequencing” you can imagine. She examines the stereotypes, politcal manipulation, media & marketing, and what women (and some men) really do, and how women’s “personal choices” (as in “opting out”) may actually be more being “squeezed” by culture, companies, and just the time crunch that being a parent entails. She looks at feminism’s role in this and in motherhood.

This book was a huge breath of common sense. Peskowitz doesn’t rant, she doesn’t tell gut-wrenching personal stories (or especially hilarious ones), and she doesn’t over-simplify the issues. Maybe that’s why it hasn’t been a big hit? It’s too reasonable? I dunno.

One thing lacking: an index. There are good footnotes, and you can tell that her statements are backed up by fact (and you can check the facts yourself via the footnotes), but an index would help you when you think, hmm, what did she say about FMLA (the Family Medical Leave Act)? What chapter was that in again?

Here’s one of my favorite quotes: “With the kids interrupting and needing attention, who can finish a setence, let along organize a piece of a revolution?” (p. 173).

I don't even feel the need to change anything I wrote over four years ago! The book is still a breath of fresh air.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Busy Tree: Book Review

I got two review offers a couple weeks ago. I turned down the offer for Tucks Pads (I'm not sure what I would say about them....maybe I could have looked at the medicinal uses of witch hazel? Hemorrhoids in history?), but I happily accepted a free copy of The Busy Tree, written by Jennifer Ward and illustrated by Lisa Falkenstern.

My seven year old nature lover mostly picks chapter books for herself now, but luckily (for me, because I love them, too) she still enjoys picture books. She agreed to review The Busy Tree with me, to give everyone a kid's perspective.

Here's her comments:

"I like the cover.

It's really realistic! It shows underground! And it shows animals there."

Basically, she raved about the artwork and the progression of the story, and happily read the simple rhymes.

I enjoyed The Busy Tree a lot, too. It's nice to be able to give such a positive review to a book. The last free book I got I hated (but luckily only had to discuss in an online salon), and I was critical enough of Maximum Ride: Saving the World and Other Extreme Sports to enrage a few tween readers who couldn't stand seeing their favorite book series criticized. They were downright polite compared to Darla Shine's fans, though.

Anyway, The Busy Tree made me mourn the loss of the giant elm tree in our back yard, and long for a big old oak tree. The kind that takes about a hundred years to mature, unfortunately.

Like my daughter, I loved Falkenstern's illustrations, and all of the different aspects of the single tree that the authors brought forth for us.

When I first saw the cover, I was afraid the book was going to be too precious and and/or overly cute, but as my daughter pointed out, the cover is just a clever collection of many of the different creatures shown in the book. She noted that the moth there was probably the result of the bagworm cocoon pictured on one of her favorite pages. There's nothing terribly cute about bagworms, though they are definitely an interesting and common tree dweller. My son actually actually considered some of the bagworm caterpillars on our pin cherry tree as pets one year (then again, he also wanted to keep maggots as pets).

The graphics I found of the cover online were kind of dark, so I took the pictures here so you can get a better feel for the book. Which I happily recommend for kids and adults who like gorgeously illustrated picture books featuring realistic natural settings, or trees (especially oak trees), or who may be interested in the ecology of a single tree.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Libraries & State Parks - Hammocks Subject to Availability

If you're in Michigan and you have a library card (and if you don't have a library card, what's wrong with you?), there's a great deal going from now to the end of September, combining two of my favorite things: books and nature. You can go to your local library and get a free pass for any state park (98 of them!), good for seven days (usually there's a $6 vehicle fee, unless you've got an annual pass). It's part of their new Park & Read program:

Many parks will also have a hammock available at no charge for Park & Read participants to borrow while on-site for the day so they can fully enjoy a great book in Michigan's great outdoors.

"The program was designed to give people a free trial visit to experience what a fantastic family and recreational resource their Michigan state parks and recreation areas can be," said Maia Stephens, recreational programmer for the DNR Parks and Recreation Division. "Besides, what's more relaxing than a day at the beach or under a shady tree with a good book?"

Here's a list of the Park & Read Parks with hammocks. Although the Saline District Library isn't on the list of participating libraries, since I found the link for the program on their website, I think they offer the passes, too. The Ann Arbor District Library is listed, along with Chelsea and Brighton libraries.