Miércoles 1 de Marzo de 2006, Ip nº 142

Helicopter mums are go
Por Deirdre Fernand

Middle-class anxiety has bred a new kind of pushy mother who forever hovers over her children, writes Deirdre Fernand.

By their SUVs shall you know them. Observe the pushy, competitive mother at the school gate. Her hair is immaculate, her nails manicured. Driven and dangerous, she obsesses about the organic raisins in her child’s lunchbox and is always up to speed with the PTA.

Perfection is demanded from her child. Handwriting must be neat, spelling mistakes corrected, supper must be healthy, after school activities productive. And playtime? There isn’t any after the Kumon maths and the karate. Perhaps you are starting to recognise yourself.

These “helicopter mothers”, always hovering over their children, are the subject of an alarming new book by Judith Warner, Perfect Madness, published this week. A former Newsweek journalist, she had two babies in Paris before moving back home with her journalist husband to settle in Washington with her small daughters.

Her experiences on both sides of the Atlantic form the basis for her study. “Everything in France was easy,” she says in retrospect. “It was paradise but I didn’t know it at the time.”

Her book, subtitled Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety, has been a bestseller in America. She believes the insanity affecting transatlantic mothers is coming here. Her book serves as a warning shot to anyone who ever believed that stay-at-home mummydom was all about finger-painting and baking cookies. For every woman Warner knew who was truly fulfilled baking gingerbread men and tidying up Lego, she could name a dozen or more who were truly desperate.

It was after the birth of her second daughter in 2000 that Warner returned to the US. What she found in the “pressure cooker” society of middle-class America sent her into shock — until she herself became infected by the culture.

She found herself in a maelstrom of über-mum competitive parenting. It wasn’t just a question of choosing the right kindergarten and school, it was the right kind of party bag and the right sort of cake. It was a case of stress, exhaustion and tears before bedtime, and that was just the mums. She realised they were harming themselves, their children and family life.

“In Washington I met women who were wading through life in severe depression. Childcare was expensive, they worried about getting into the right school. Many of them felt guilty about ever having any time to themselves.”

In France, by contrast, she had time to go to the gym, carried on working (using heavily subsided childcare) and read books. “There was no entrenched idea that it was selfish to work,” she remembers. She had time to cultivate herself and pay attention to her husband. “But the women I knew in America talked of having lost interest in sex. Many of them were drinking alone.” As she hit the calvados every evening, her husband told her she was becoming one of the psycho-mums she feared so much.

Warner believes the American experience of motherhood is the shape of things to come. She cites a British survey of 2,000 women in 2004 that found 90% said they had too much to juggle in their roles as “supermums”. Sixty per cent said they found their sex and social lives unfulfilling.

Like her affluent neighbours in suburbia, Warner found herself obsessing about the smallest things. She once spent an entire morning poring over a mail-order catalogue. “Should I order a Hello Kitty basic package for my daughter’s third birthday party or the deluxe set with foil balloons?”

Her French au pair had just walked out and it was the day before the Iraq war started — perhaps it was easier to think about balloons. Someone should have told this celebrated author and journalist, the biographer of Hillary Clinton, to get a life.

But nobody did. In all, Warner conducted more than 150 interviews with women from all income groups across the US for this study and it does not make for happy reading. Some worked; others stayed at home. She believes that crippling insecurity, what other commentators have called an “age of anxiety”, lies at the heart of their unhappiness.

Tax rises are squeezing middle-income America, she says. Add the lack of affordable childcare and you have a recipe for misery in the burbs. Husbands are working longer to meet the mortgage and wives are more isolated.

“If people feel their world is growing increasingly tough and competitive . . . if despite working 50-plus hours a week, they still can’t quite afford to make ends meet . . . if society feels callous and uncaring, then they respond, in their culturally appropriate way, much like the demon control freaks I found in America.”

So they raise their children like hothouse flowers, she argues, precious, perfect and bred to succeed because they are scared of the world outside. She also believes that a slew of childcare books has emphasised the havoc bad parenting can wreak. “I think many mothers feel burdened by a sense of over-responsibility,” she says.

So what is to be done? Warner thinks more family-friendly policies are needed. She wants tax breaks for childcare and more state nursery provision. Such measures, more prevalent in Europe than America, may be a long time coming. In the meantime, she says, lighten up. Throw away the childcare books and cancel that private tutor. In her sanest sentence she writes: “I think we should give ourselves a break.”

  26/02/2006. Times Online.


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