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More Than a Feeling

By Jennifer Niesslein

fakesmileCleo, my dog of eight years, died recently. There was one good thing about the day she died: the emotional clarity. We were all sad, and we were all supposed to be sad. There was no disconnect. Why was I driving down the road with tears and snot streaming down my face? Why was I having a beer for lunch on a Thursday afternoon? Why didn’t I answer your email? Because my dog just died. No further explanation necessary, no judgment on whether I deserved to act so wrung out.

It’s rare, in life, to get that sort of blanket approval to be unhappy.

Chances are excellent that, by now, you’ve heard of Judith Warner’s controversial book Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety. In it, Warner takes up the issue of unhappiness among American mothers. She asserts that there are many, many middle-class American women for whom motherhood causes anxiety. “The feeling has many faces,” she writes, “but it doesn’t really have a name. It’s not depression. It’s not oppression. It’s a mix of things, a kind of too-muchness. An existential discomfort. A mess.”

Warner had lived in France with her husband and two young daughters, and when they moved to the Washington, D.C., area, she was shocked at how different the experience of motherhood felt. While in France, she had enjoyed a leisurely postpartum period, high-quality, low-cost childcare, and a culture that took for granted that mothers work and children grow up perfectly fine without being the royalty of the family. Back in the States, though, she found something else entirely: The mothers here–and she interviewed about one hundred fifty of them for this book–were being driven crazy. In many cases, the mothers themselves were behind the wheel.

Warner makes clear early on that she’s writing about a certain demographic: middle-class mothers born between 1958 and the early 1970s. (And let’s say, for the sake of argument, that the middle class, in this review, includes the upper middle class.) She alternately calls the crazy-making situation these mothers find themselves in “This Mess” or, taking a page from Betty Friedan, “The Mommy Mystique.” According to Warner, you might be suffering from This Mess if you spend an awful lot of time coordinating extracurricular activities for your children, or if you have no interest in getting it on with your husband. You might be suffering from This Mess if you attend PTO meetings at night or feel that “attachment parenting” is the only avenue to help your child achieve her potential. If you wear overalls (childish, Warner thinks), or tend to get caught up in things like throwing the perfect birthday party for your five-year-old, you might be suffering from This Mess. Everywhere Warner looked, she saw mothers crumpling under the pressure–from within and without–to sacrifice themselves to motherhood.

Clearly no one is putting a gun to any mother’s head and forcing her to rent a pony and a moon bounce for her preschooler’s birthday. But, Warner asserts, there are real reasons women make this and similar over-the-top gestures–a mass psychology affecting us, if you will. In Perfect Madness, she sets about figuring out why she and the other mothers she interviewed participate in the sort of lives that make them unhappy.

Her main conclusion is that we feel helpless, so we obsess over the details. “Our baby boomer elders often call us selfish,” she writes, “but in doing so they often miss a larger point: that what our obsessive looking-inward hides is at base a kind of despair. A lack of faith that change can come to the outside world.” She calls us, more than once, “a generation of control freaks.”

How did we get to be this way? Warner floats some psychological and cultural theories.

Among the more convincing: The rise of “attachment theory”–the idea first put out by British psychoanalyst John Bowlby in the 1950s–has worked to mothers’ detriment. Bowlby proposed that the relationship formed in the earliest days of life between a mother and her baby set the stage for the kinds of relationships they’d have with others down the road. Mess up that relationship and a child is all but doomed.

Attachment theory is so mainstream now that we pretty much take it for granted. We call it bonding. We do it until we’re blue in the face. After all, the most widely read parenting experts in the period when we became mothers–Penelope Leach and T. Berry Brazelton–were steeped in attachment theory . . . Bowlby’s theories are now part and parcel of what we call good parenting. Normal parenting.

Bowlby’s research, however, was conducted on homeless children, and its application to the average family seems a little excessive. Warner does a fine job of showing how Bowlby’s theories of childrearing took seed–in the culture and in women’s own minds–when the U.S. was trying to figure out women’s relationship to the workforce.

Another convincing theory: Warner sees the current state of the country as a “winner take all” society, where the very successful reap most of the rewards and the rest “end up, de facto, losers.” Parents want their own children to be the winners. “They want the best for their kids . . . in part because they fear that they cannot do the best for them,” Warner writes. “Often, they cannot give them the best of education, of neighborhood, even of health care, because, for more and more parents, ‘the best’ is out of reach. Yet anything other than the best, all too often, is pretty mediocre.” It’s this fear that the kids will wind up on the second tier of society–scrambling to pay the bills, working an unsatisfying job, worrying about health care, all while in the middle class–that leads mothers to do what appear to be crazy things, Warner says. Why else would a woman find herself driving each week to ballet lessons, SAT prep classes, swimming lessons, soccer matches, music lessons, and her kids’ volunteering spot, all in the service of creating the über-child?

These two theories sound convincing because I personally could see how these pressures could get stuck in one’s head and become internalized. They make sense to me. Some of her other theories? Not so much. Warner tells us on the very first page of Perfect Madness, “This is a very personal book . . . an exploration of a feeling.” I had to keep reminding myself of that line.

For example, in the chapter titled “A Generation of Control Freaks,” she constructs a profile of the modern middle-class mother, growing up in the wake of second-wave feminism. She takes feminists to task for coming up with a kind of girl-power narcissism, which stemmed from the “choice” concept. We thought, she claims, we had the choice to control everything in our lives. And our own individual lives–not the greater good of the world–is where we chose to focus our attention. This looking inward, Warner says, manifested itself in phenomena like eating disorders, a condition she spends a surprising amount of ink chronicling. Then she goes further:

The look of our generation was Ray-Bans and oxford-cloth button-down shirts. The sound of our generation was arrogance and irony. The book of our generation was Less Than Zero. . . What we did believe in was money and our own power to succeed. We voted overwhelmingly to re-elect Ronald Reagan in 1984–ringingly endorsing his “small-government” policies that would, or so it was promised, allow us to pursue success unchecked and reap the maximum rewards for our efforts.

Huh? Yes, I too saw Judd Nelson and friends in St. Elmo’s Fire, but this didn’t at all sound familiar to me. I wasn’t sure which “we” Warner was writing about, although I fall in the tail end of Warner’s age demographic. I spent my coming-of-age years dressed in black and fretting about the Constitutional rights of minors. I fucking hated yuppies.

Reading Perfect Madness, I wondered sometimes if Warner herself knows which “we” she’s talking about. She starts out sympathetically enough, writing, “[T]oo many women in America are becoming sick with exhaustion and stress as they try to do things that can’t be–shouldn’t be–done.” She seems to feel a tenderness for these women who, despite being pretty well ensconced in the American dream, are often miserable.

But by the end, you can feel Warner’s exasperation with the mothers. She distances herself, and the sisterly “we” becomes the tsking “them.” In her chapter on husbands and not having sex with them, she writes, “There was something sinister in the fact that the very same women who would tell me how wonderful their husbands were would, in the next breath, let me (and a roomful of avid listeners) in on the most awful humiliations of their mates’ private moments.” Maybe, although probably not as sinister as a writer who publicly judges the revelations shared by the very women who were kind enough to go on record with her. (Too much information, ladies!)

And when writing about the state of modern parenting, Warner nearly shrieks with alarm. In Warner’s estimation, parents who, for instance, arrive late to a birthday party so as not to upset the nap schedule of their baby will damage their kids. Depression, suicide, anxiety, narcissism–all conditions that could await our children if we keep putting them first in the family. Really? I thought. Generations of Americans have grown up with beatings for discipline, no hugs from their parents, and child labor and they’ve turned out fine–but this is what’s going to ruin our kids? Hyper-parenting?

Warner ends with a rallying cry for mothers. (In what I began to think of as Warner’s trademark move, she rallies with uplifting prose, all the while giving the finger to the media, many in the mainstream feminist movement, Republicans, big business, and mothers’ movement organizations.) “This is not just a problem of individual women and their privately managed psychological pain,” she writes. “This is a problem of society.” She argues for a “quality of life” politics. She maintains that the government needs to create a set of pro-family entitlements. (She’s vague on the specifics, but you get the sense that universal childcare and paid leave are part of this vision.) She acknowledges, “It could be said that making an argument for a set of middle-class entitlements is obscene when the conditions of working-class and poor families in this country are so dire . . . But I believe that [these] kinds of quality-of-life measures . . . are potentially helpful for everyone.”


Everyone had lots to say about this book–and/or Warner’s Newsweek article that came out about the same time–partly because the book itself was reviewed and covered and analyzed so extensively. The responses tended to fall into one of two camps: Thank You, Judith Warner or Stop Whining, Whiner. (I got these from Amazon, but they seem pretty representative):

A Thank You, Judith Warner: “This book has struck a chord with me and many of the women I know balancing a family and work. The author has some great points about the lack of a public support system (or even a private one in today’s world) and my generation of control freaks. I recognized myself and many of my friends in bits here and there throughout the book.”

A Stop Whining, Whiner: “Here is a line from the book: ‘It was the day before the Iraq war started and our au pair had fled back to France. If I was going to keep working, I might have to take out a home equity line on my house.’ Oh, boo hoo.”

A Thank You, Judith Warner: “I loved this book! As a mom of six children, I have read my share of parenting books and Perfect Madness is now at the top of my list! Warner has braved the waters to write about this ‘mess’ we are in trying to do it all and do it all ‘perfectly.’ We need to give ourselves a break! This book also opens up communication on a subject we don’t often broach–competitive parenting.”

A Stop Whining, Whiner: “I have a great cure for mommy madness and a terrific new reality show all wrapped up in one! We will take all of the rich, urban white women suffering from mommy madness and have them swap places with poor mothers in exciting locations such as inner-city Detroit, Harlem, South Central L.A., Little Havana in Miami and under the local interstate overpass . . . Another thing, can we please ban the word ‘stress’ from the English language? It now seems to mean ‘made up problems by someone who has too much free time.’ “

There was also a smattering of Stop Blaming the Mothers responses as well as some You’ll Spend My Federal Dollars on Universal Childcare When You Pry It from My Cold, Dead Estate Tax responses.

Me, my first instinct was one of mild dismissal. Really, how many mothers get worked up over this sort of stuff? And why can’t they figure out what seem like obvious solutions? Don’t like the endless hours spent in extracurricular activities? Don’t do them. Can’t get Junior into that perfect school for little geniuses? Pick another school. Didn’t have time to bake cupcakes for the second-graders’ holiday party? Two words: grocery store.

My co-editor Stephanie and I went round and round on this. It seemed to me that these were problems affecting just a tiny segment of the population–not nearly enough to justify all the buzz surrounding this book.

Stephanie, meanwhile, was getting a little frustrated with my inability to see beyond my own life. “I don’t think that Judith Warner is lying when she says that she interviewed a hundred fifty women for this book,” she’d say. “Maybe where you live, or among your friends, not everyone has their kid in a million lessons, but maybe in other places, everyone does. Sure, you might be able to resist peer pressure, but other people really might be feeling miserable and caught. What’s wrong with helping them out with pro-family policies?”

She was kind enough to resist pointing out that I’d never actually parented in one of these high-pressure suburbs.

Still, I couldn’t muster much interest. Perfect Madness was the latest in a string of big serious books on motherhood, and the others seemed to be built on more solid ground. Ann Crittenden built hers on the venerable field of economics in The Price of Motherhood. Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels built theirs on the interplay between media and public policy in The Mommy Myth. Katherine Ellison, we knew, was just about to come out with The Mommy Brain, a book based on neuroscience. Money, policy, science. These were things you could prove affect people’s lives.

And then there was Judith Warner with her book on happiness. No one has the right to happiness, I thought–only the pursuit of it.

I kept thinking this until a month or so after Cleo died. The day was windy, and fat pouffy clouds moved across the sky. On a day like this one a few years earlier, my then three-year-old son and I lay side by side in the grass–his hand, soft and still faintly dimpled, was warm on my arm–and we watched the clouds blow by. I see a pig! Doesn’t that look like the letter C? There’s a dinosaur footprint, Mama! Inside, I had jambalaya cooking in the crockpot, and the last load of laundry was in the dryer. Eventually, though, the wind got colder and colder and Caleb got cranky and the happiness of that day disintegrated in a matter of hours. I hadn’t added enough water to the crockpot and the jambalaya burned. I can’t remember now what his big tantrum was over, but it was a typical one, irrational and crazy-making. I remember that afternoon, it rained hard, and I sat agitated in front of an Elmo video, feeling desperately unhappy for no reason I could really articulate. While I was sad when Cleo died, it was a good sad, a noble sad. On that windy day years earlier, it was a maddening sad.

Would I have been whining then, had I tried to articulate what was wrong? Would some mother of a six-year-old, as I am now, have been so dismissive of how I felt? Is one’s personal happiness important in the scheme of things?


In the past decade or so, psychologists have started to study positive emotions, including happiness. Two recent books have taken some of this research and tried to put it to use.

Gregg Easterbrook’s 2003 book The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse takes a long, global view. In it, he catalogues all the ways in which life is good, especially for Westerners, on nearly every front.

Public health is improving by nearly every measure, including rising longevity and falling rates of most diseases; even many forms of cancer are in decline. Doomsday claims to the contrary, environmental trends are nearly all positive, with all forms of pollution except greenhouse gas in steady decline in the United States and the European Union. Drinking, smoking, and most forms of drug use are declining. Teen pregnancy is declining. Welfare rolls are shrinking without increase in poverty. Women, immigrants, and minority group members are acquiring ever larger slices of national pies. The divorce rate has stopped increasing. Personal freedom has never been greater. Book sales hit new records almost every year. Movie and television may at times be excruciating, but otherwise art and culture have never been more active, interesting, or diverse. Nearly all forms of death due to accidents are declining. Crime has declined so rapidly that the fall has almost been eerie. Education levels keep rising, while test scores and public-school performance show guarded improvement . . . Global democracy is rising, military dictatorship and communism are on the run. Each year, the number of nuclear warheads in the world declines. The single worst threat to the world–the Cold War–has ended, with complete victory for the West and the hand of friendship extended to former adversaries.

Oh, man, is there a lot to quibble with in Easterbrook’s assessment. But, as he points out a few times, almost no matter where you are in the social structure, this is the best time to be alive. Today’s average Americans and Europeans, he writes, live better than most royalty of history. Easterbrook invites his readers to think of their great-grandparents’ lives: Whose life would you rather live–theirs or yours?

It gives you pause. But, despite the gains the West has made, the percentage of Americans who report that they’re happy has not changed since the 1950s. The percentage who say they’re “very happy” has actually gone down from 7.5 percent in 1950 to about 6 percent today. And, Easterbrook says, “The decline of the ‘very happy’ continues, while the big action is the increase in the depressed class.” (“Depression,” he writes, “is thought not to be a physical disease; something within our society, or within our own minds, causes it.” Another idea open to debate.)

Easterbrook has some ideas as to why we haven’t gotten happier, including “choice anxiety” (too many options actually cause us stress, particularly for women), “abundance denial” (basically, it feels good to play the victim), and “collapse anxiety” (we feel that the good times can’t last). He doesn’t deny that many Westerners feel unhappy, and he would say that our happiness is important. It’s just that we’re barking up the wrong tree by complaining.

He identifies three things that Westerners can feel justified in complaining about–three things that we should work to change. First, it’s an outrage that the United States has no universal health insurance. Second, Americans should work for wages that they can actually live on. Third, we should not stand for “the greed at the top,” the morally reprehensible CEOs and other public officials who steal–and then get to keep the money. (This is an example of Warner’s “winner-take-all” society at its extreme.)

We not only need to take care of these things; we also have an obligation to help the poorer nations of the world. Suffering? Easterbrook, who’s traveled extensively in developing nations, can show you some serious suffering. For relatively little money, he argues, we can solve the world’s problems, which are vast and heartbreaking. Easterbrook begins this chapter describing how, in August 2001, the frozen body of a young Nigerian man fell from the wheel well of a jetliner as the plane landed in New York. He had stowed away in the unpressurized and unheated wheel well, that desperate to reach the United States.

In the face of this sort of tragedy, it feels incredibly indulgent to complain about anything American and middle class, anything that might fall under the umbrella of Warner’s “This Mess”–which, of course, is Easterbrook’s intention. To solve our own happiness problem, he argues, we need an attitude adjustment: “Psychological research is beginning to show that taking the positive view is in our self-interest.” Forgiveness and gratitude–mainstays of a lot of religions–will, he says, save us. “Studies [suggest] that increasing a person’s sense of thankfulness could lead to both lower stress and better ‘life outcomes,’ meaning success in career and relationships,” he writes in the chapter titled “Selfish Reasons to Become a Better Person.”

“To be happy is not an exercise in self-indulgence, rather, one of the primary objectives of life,” he writes. He says that it’s hard work to be an optimist, to practice gratitude and forgiveness, to find some meaning in life. (To Easterbrook’s credit, he manages to write about seeking spirituality and a greater meaning without swerving into religious dogma, goofy New-Age-speak, psycho-babble, or philosophical mumbo-jumbo.)

One is tempted to wonder through all this, however, whether Easterbrook would characterize any problem besides the lack of universal health care, a pitiful minimum wage, and corporate greed as legitimate–or just a whine. And while he isn’t quite a proponent of Stop Whining, Whiner, he does address head-on the issue of whining, in the form of false victimhood. “The We’re-All-Victims worldview,” he writes, “only serves to deter men and women from asserting control over their own psyches.” If you’re unhappy, you need to check yourself, he seems to be saying.

And this, in my opinion, is probably the sorest spot anyone writing about happiness can poke at. No one wants to be a caricature, the whiny American, the victim feminist, the mommy who doesn’t really want to get her shit together. It reminds me of a scene in David Foster Wallace’s short story “Good Old Neon,” in which the narrator is contemplating killing himself for being a “fraud.” He’s watching an old Cheers episode:

Lilith says, ‘If I have one more yuppie come in and start whining to me about how he can’t love, I’m going to throw up.’ This line got a huge laugh from the show’s studio audience, which indicated that they–and so by demographic extension the whole national audience at home as well–recognized what a cliché and melodramatic type of complaint the inability-to-love concept was. And, sitting there . . . I suddenly realized once again I’d managed to con myself, this time into thinking that this was a truer or more promising way to conceive of the whole problem of fraudulence.

So, on top of unhappiness, you get self-loathing. And while it’s no good to be unhappy, it’s infinitely worse to feel your unhappiness was judged and deemed unworthy of anyone’s consideration but your own.


Like Judith Warner and Gregg Easterbrook, British economist Richard Layard takes personal happiness seriously. Unlike Warner, though, Layard bases his book–Happiness: Lessons from a New Science–on more than a feeling.

Layard draws from the sciences, economics, and philosophy, particularly the work of Jeremy Bentham, the eighteenth-century philosopher who put forth the idea that we should aim to maximize happiness for the most people. Layard starts out with the same premise that Easterbrook does in The Progress Paradox: We’re richer and better off, but we’re still not happy. He then lays out the terrain of happiness as he sees it: how we measure it, why it’s important, what prevents us from getting it, how we–as individuals and as a society–can get more.

When people–like, for example, the middle-class mothers Warner interviews–say they’re unhappy, it turns out that we can believe them. “When people experience positive feelings, there is more electrical activity in the left front of the brain,” Layard writes. “[When] they experience negative feelings, there is more activity in the right front of the brain.” EEGs, MRIs and PET scans all show this. Layard also catalogues studies that show links between physical well-being and happiness.

What’s more–and he cannot stress this enough–mental health counts. Big time. “Clearly, mental health is a key part of health, but it is more than that. It is central to our overall happiness,” he writes. “For example, we might ask, What causes much more misery: depression or poverty? The answer is depression.” Needless to say, he thinks that stigma against illnesses of the mind is ridiculous and advocates for medication for those who are suffering through life instead of living it.

What prevents us from happiness? Layard is nothing if not blunt. Divorce causes unhappiness; he actually goes so far as to promote a sort of public shunning of those who would tempt a married person and to suggest that would-be parents be required to take parenting classes. A lack of community–common in mobile areas like the ones Warner’s interviewees live in–causes unhappiness. Always having someone else’s successes trumpeted before us–even (or maybe especially) fictional ones like we see on TV–causes unhappiness. Lack of job stability (the result, Layard argues, of the push for higher productivity) causes unhappiness, as does unemployment. In short, Layard has taken a look at modern life in the West–where workers are not guaranteed stable employment, where marriages are not necessarily forever, where families move wherever jobs take the breadwinners, where we tune in every night to see what we don’t have–and has seen a recipe for widespread unhappiness.

Layard, a member of Britain’s House of Lords, winds up in the same territory that Warner does, advocating for the government and businesses to do more to increase happiness on many fronts, including work, community, and mental health. He sums up the happiness of families neatly:

For the happiness of our children, we need more family-friendly practices at work, and high-quality child care, priced in relation to income. Flexible working practices are an essential investment in a happy society, as are entitlements to parental leave . . . [The] general finding of social science research is that once children are over one year old, they will flourish equally well whether both parents work or only one. So each family should feel free to make its own choice.

For all his odd-bird social conservatism, I nearly wept at the matter-of-factness of this statement.

But Layard’s biggest goal for the West is this: “We desperately need a concept of the common good. I can think of no nobler goal than to pursue the greatest happiness of all–each person counting.” Each person, I thought. The desperate Nigerian man contemplating climbing into a jet’s wheel well, the middle-class American mother grinding the minivan’s gears on the way to another baseball game, the rest of us.


So, here we are, back to the same idea: We–as a society and as a government–need to band together and get cracking in fixing what ails the world, all three writers conclude. Judith Warner says we can fix structural problems that directly affect our lives. Gregg Easterbrook says that both affecting change and finding meaning in life are necessary. Layard says it’s a paradox: the more we help others, the better we’ll feel, too.

Is mothers’ happiness a personal issue, a public one, or a combination? I don’t know. The United States hasn’t taken the family-friendly measures that Warner and Layard tell us will increase happiness. For us, it’s an untried experiment. Scandinavian countries have taken these measures, and their happiness ranks higher than ours. But France has taken these measures, too, and its happiness is actually lower than ours. It’s a complex thing, happiness.

I do know that the idea that happiness is a personal issue, and not to be attained through public means, is a deeply entrenched one. Anyone who has even a passing acquaintance with a twelve-step program knows that no one can be responsible for anyone else’s happiness.

On the other hand, I think it’s a terrible thing to say essentially: I don’t care. You’re miserable, and I don’t care. In fact, that seems like the most terrible thing in the world.

Part of the problem could be that there isn’t a consensus. We’re not all unhappy, at least not all at the same time. And there’s not good language to describe happiness or unhappiness anyway–there’s a reason that Judith Warner calls her dissatisfaction simply “This Mess.”

How are you doing?

Well, maybe your kid is at a good stage, funny and fun and not much trouble at all. Maybe you’ve miraculously gotten to the point where money-making doesn’t feel all-consuming. Maybe your social circle is one that doesn’t promote extracurricular activities and chichi schooling. Maybe it’s been a couple months since your beagle girl died, and spring has finally warmed up, and the days are getting longer, and your happiness is something you haven’t had cause to think about for a while.

And even if none of that is true, chances are good that you’ll still say: Fine.

Author’s Note: If you want family-friendly change and can’t get hyped up about happiness, I think there are other good reasons–moral, economic, health-related–to agitate for it.

Brain, Child (Summer, 2005)

About the Author: Jennifer Niesslein is a writer and editor who lives in Charlottesville, Virginia. She’s the author of Practically Perfect in Every Way and the co-founder of Brain, Child magazine, where she worked for thirteen years. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, Salon, The Nation, NPR’s “Morning Edition,” and online at Virginia Quarterly Review and The Morning News, among other places. Her website is:

Art by Gina Kelly

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This entry was written by Jennifer Niesslein

About the author: Jennifer Niesslein is a writer and editor who lives in Charlottesville, Virginia. She’s the author of Practically Perfect in Every Way and the co-founder of Brain, Child magazine, where she worked for thirteen years. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, Salon, The Nation, NPR’s “Morning Edition,” and online at Virginia Quarterly Review and The Morning News, among other places.

Jennifer Niesslein

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