Just recently I ran across a letter I wrote to my parents when our younger daughter was 5. We’d seen the musical “Les Miserables,” bought the CD, and played it incessantly.
One day our daughter began wailing of her own misery, and out of her mouth flew a salient snippet of the lyrics. “This hell I’m living!” she exclaimed.
The stress of that stage of our lives flew back into my consciousness last week when I read Judith Warner’s new book, “Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety.” Warner, a former Newsweek special correspondent, has captured the attention of mothers across the country. An excerpt from the book appeared on Newsweek’s cover just a few weeks ago.
Warner became a mother in France, and it wasn’t until she returned to live in the United States that she realized how anxious, perfectionistic and frenetic the lives of American mothers have become.
She watched one class mother spend 14 hours hand-painting paper plates orange – because they came orange on only one side. She describes well-educated, high-achieving moms who feel as if they’ve just fallen down a rabbit hole.
It might be tempting to dismiss this as a level of obsession typical of her generation, simply the tale of what happens when Bridezilla finally gives birth.
But when I look back to the reality of my own child-rearing days, I remember days I, too, felt tired out, burned out, or just plain whacked out by the whole routine.
I remember being confounded by preschools programs that required working moms to pick up their kids at 2:30 p.m. each day and day-care centers that couldn’t deal with kids with sniffles. There were workplaces that couldn’t possibly allow mothers to work part time and school PTA meetings designed strictly for those who did.
My daughters still remind me of the day a well-loved after-school sitter quit and they watched tears roll down my cheeks.
I fell down the rabbit hole more than 20 years ago, but I thought my generation would get this all sorted out before our own daughters entered the work force. We did – more or less – for ourselves, patching together workplace negotiations and a baby sitter here, a child-care program there. But we didn’t fundamentally change the system.
This week I called 29-year-old Zibby Merritt, a North Side mom of Will (11/2) and Ben (3½). Merritt works two 12-hour night shifts – that’s 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. – per week as a labor and delivery nurse at Deaconess Medical Center, leaving her feeling jet-lagged and always pressed for time.
“It doesn’t matter if I stack my freezer with meals or pay bills on a certain day or clean my toilet every other week, blah, blah, blah. … There’s never enough time in the day,” she says.
When Deaconess shut down its child-care program recently, she temporarily became a basket case.
Fortunately, after she scrambled around and discovered a list of local day-care programs that absolutely, positively WON’T take part-time kids (they can’t stay afloat financially if they do), she miraculously landed on a part-time slot at St. Al’s.
Warner believes women like Merritt pay a high price for embracing the Reagan-era mantra of personal responsibility.
She advocates for societal solutions such as high quality, affordable, part-time day care. She calls for tax breaks for corporations that allow young mothers to work part time and laws that would provide them health-care benefits.
Curiously, both the religious right and hard-line feminists have lined up to fight these common-sense solutions.
Zibby Merritt, like me, believes in personal responsibility. It’s important, for example, to search out sanity whenever you can.
To treat 14-hour paper-plate painting projects like you would an offer to smoke crack: Just say no.
But we’d both like to vote for someone who could bring these political changes into reality.
This next generation of young mothers needs an effort like Title 9. It opened up the world of sports when they were younger; now a similar energy could transform the landscape of their adult lives.
It’ll be up to the people who love them – and those who hope for a better future for their children – to take this project on, though. Merritt lacks room in her jet-lagged life for political action.
“Maybe there are some turbo women out there, but I don’t have time to be turbo,” she laughs. “Actually doing something about it takes a little more energy than I have these days.”
That’s where the rest of us come in.
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