The Modern Manic Mom


Other mothers look at Kellie Randle and throw up their hands as if in defeat. I feel like a slug next to her, I’ve heard more than one mom (myself included) moan. How does she do it?

Supermom, thy face is a turbo-charged, polished 36-year-old who works as a partner in downtown Sacramento’s Randle Communications. With her husband (and business partner), Jeff, Randle worked on Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s campaign, and she chaired the official State Capitol welcoming event for California’s new first lady, Maria Shriver.

Now that the governor and his wife are firmly ensconced, Randle has resumed her primary position: behind the wheel of her Toyota Sequoia-with-the-broken-door (whose repair, at the moment, has fallen to about 98th on Randle’s metastasizing to-do list), where she and her three children—Annie, 8; Jake, 7; and Jillie Kate, 5—practically live.

That’s just how it is when Mom is pulling administrative duty at the office and directing splashy political events, in addition to serving as vice president of her children’s school’s PTA, art docent in both of her older children’s classrooms and coordinator of her children’s choir.

Then there are the rest of the children’s activities. Baseball. Soccer. Ballet. Tap. Swimming. Tennis. Gymnastics. Hula dancing. Sometimes these activities coincide, scattering the family in opposite directions. Finally, there are the family community-service projects, which include distributing homemade valentines each February to residents of a local convalescent home. Randle, a former Junior Leaguer, is a big believer in charitable causes, and she hopes to instill some of that fervor in her children.

It takes a great deal of finesse, sometimes, to maintain a sense of equilibrium. “I’m always gauging my kids, and I don’t feel they’re overwhelmed,” Randle says. “The way I get around that is, instead of scheduling something every single day, I try to schedule days when we have nothing, when they can come home from school and just play. Hence, our Thursdays are insane, because we have baseball, ballet and gymnastics all at once.”

For her female friends, Randle is the standard by which each woman measures herself but no one ever quite reaches. With an organizational system that could rival that of a metropolitan library, she’s the go-to person for any kind of information a mother could want. Randle knows all the best parks, museums, classes, birthday-party entertainers and venues, crafts, books, you name it—all accessible at a moment’s notice, because she keeps notes (volumes of them—in binders) and calendars (color-coded).

Her days are governed by ponderous to-do lists, arranged in triage fashion. Errands to run. Supplies to replenish. Gifts to buy. Thank-you notes to write. People to call. Always, sooooo many people to call.
A good chunk of Randle’s life happens on the road, where she and her children eat, dress and have meaningful conversations between cell-phone calls on the way to the office or the next activity. At home, she employs a housekeeper (“I go through cleaning ladies like crazy because I am so particular and I want it done my way,” Randle says) to clean once a week, but does all the cooking (no fast food, no sugared cereal) and laundry (sometimes until 2 or 3 a.m.) herself.

“Some people say I make it seem easy,” Randle says from the driver’s seat on her way to deliver pink-frosted Dora the Explorer cupcakes and lemonade for Jillie Kate’s 5th birthday party at preschool. “But I am always very honest and say it’s not. But that’s what I choose; I’m hard-wired to be this way. I don’t have a relaxing life. Sometimes I thrive on it and sometimes I feel the stress. Things do unravel and sometimes I just freak out.”

The Pressure To Look Hot

One local woman—a 40-year-old stay-at-home mother of two—has got it goin’ on. (Think of sexy model/actress Rachel Hunter in the Fountains of Wayne video, “Stacy’s Mom.”)

The hottest thing about her? A sexy confidence that comes with believing that women can look great at any age.

Hardly an anomaly anymore—witness “yummy mummies” such as Gwyneth Paltrow, Julia Roberts and, of course, the Desperate Housewives on TV’s fictional Wisteria Lane—she and her ilk are redefining motherhood and housewifery as we know it. 
Goodbye, elastic waistbands, canvas sneakers, shapeless overalls and sensible haircuts. Hello, belly-button ring.

“It’s my midlife crisis thing, sort of my way of rewarding myself for all my hard work,” says this woman, an aerobicized, sculpted size 4, of her navel-piercing experience. “My husband always tells me, ‘You’re definitely hotter at 40 than you were at 30.’ And women at school will say, ‘Wow, what’s your routine? You look really great!’ I’ve always taken care of myself in terms of eating. I can’t tell you the last decade I had a doughnut.”

The woman, who didn’t want her name published, avoids frumpiness the way germophobe mothers fervently wish their children would avoid the kid at school with the bubbly nose.

“I wear form-fitting shirts—V-necks, mostly—and hip-huggers. Most of my jeans are tight. And I like chunky boots or heels. I definitely go for sexy comfort,” she says.

More and more moms are showing up at grocery stores and piano recitals similarly adorned—oftentimes with synthetic body parts and Botox injections between their professionally arched and tinted eyebrows—which puts pressure on other moms to follow suit or risk being considered matronly. Somewhere along the line, it became taboo for mothers to look like mothers.

Randle feels the pressure, too. She says she relies on fashionable friends to tell her what’s in style, because shopping is “one more job I don’t have time for.”

“Sometimes I see other moms and I think they look like they just have it all together. And I have to remind myself they probably just came from as much chaos as I did. Although that’s not true—there are plenty of moms that, with plenty of help, can look fabulous. But for most of us, we’re doing the best we can. You’re never skinny enough, and you’re never rich enough,” Randle says.

Getting It Right

There’s no denying the stress, the pressure, the ambivalence, the sense of not getting it right, that seem to pervade modern motherhood. Today’s moms feel pressure: the pressure to raise perfect kids, to maintain a perfect marriage and have a perfect body.

What happened to motherhood? That’s the very question Judith Warner poses in her controversial new book, Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety. According to Warner, the current generation of mothers—specifically, 30- and 40-something mothers who are, by and large, white, married, middle- and upper-middle-class and college-educated—has internalized a set of beliefs she calls “the Mommy Mystique.” (More about that in a moment.)

These mothers, whether they work or stay home, share some distinguishing characteristics: They tend to be control freaks who prize organization—even though, as Warner notes, control is not the same as power.

 Growing up, they were told they could be anything they wanted to be; the sky was the limit. They had careers before they had children; thus, they tend to approach child rearing with the same assertive, get-ahead mentality that propelled them up the corporate ladder.

Chronically stressed, they crave something to take the edge off. Some mothers chase late-afternoon meltdowns with Merlot. Unless, of course, they have too much left to do.

“My problem is, when you have a glass of wine at night, you kind of wind down and you’re done,” Randle says. “I was talking to a friend about that, and she said, ‘But Kellie, you need to be done then.’ My problem is, I’m not. If I have a glass of wine at night, I sort of don’t want to do the next 15 things on my list.”

More often than not, today’s mothers have “wonderful” husbands who are “great dads,” but they didn’t marry their best friends as they’d been led to believe they would. Warner’s book chronicles mothers’ disillusionment about their husbands around variations on the theme, “I have a wonderful husband, but . . .” Like this: I asked him to make a play date and he couldn’t do it. Or this: I went out to dinner. I set everything out. For bath time. For bedtime. I came home and they were still running around. Because the husbands just don’t “get it,” female friendships become extremely important to today’s mothers.

Says one local mom, “My husband doesn’t like to hear that I’m unhappy. He takes it personally sometimes, like, ‘What, I’m not making you happy?’ Whereas my girlfriends are more empathetic. I might just be fried and they’ll say, ‘Oh, that happens to me, too.’”

Caught in the Middle

So where did the current zeitgeist come from—the perfectionism, the control-freakishness, the hyperactivity, the competitiveness, the stress, the fear, the resentment, the guilt, the disconnect? Why do many of us, according to Warner’s book, “harbor that caught-by-the-throat feeling so many mothers have today of always doing something wrong?” (After all, our own mothers smoked and drank and were “liberated” and had flabby arms and turned us loose outdoors and didn’t seem to worry a whole lot about anything. And we turned out fine. Or did we?)

The author hastens to assert that none of this is the fault of modern mothers, that we are victims of a society whose workplaces only pay lip service to family-friendly policies, and where quality day care is affordable for only the most affluent families. Public schools are often inadequate, sending parents scurrying to supplement their children’s education with private instruction. In addition, women are still shouldering most of the housework and child care.

Warner writes, “We are living in an age of such incredible competition and insecurity—financial insecurity, job insecurity, life insecurity, generally—that it often feels as if you have to run twice as fast to stay relatively securely in place.”

Opting Out of the Perfection Trap

Although the author conducted most of her interviews on the East Coast, laid-back Sacramento is not immune to the anxiety Warner details in her book.

“I see it in baseball,” Randle says. “We’re just now getting into baseball, but we have friends with kids who are a little bit older for whom it’s not enough just to play baseball, but they have to have a private hitting coach they’re paying $200 an hour for. Are they worried that they’ll put their child at a disadvantage if they don’t do it?”

Of course, it would hardly be news to anyone that experts in child rearing view many of the current trends as worrisome. Book upon book has been written about the potential dangers of perfectionism and hyperparenting. By now, we all know that by not giving kids time to just “be,” we may be robbing them of the ability to develop imaginations and creativity. Yet we fear the alternative—what kind of losers will they be if we don’t enroll them in everything under the sun?—even more.

John Platt, a local retired marriage and family therapist and author of the book Life in the Family Zoo, warns of something else.

“There’s no time to sit down and have dinner and talk,” says Platt. “People almost don’t know how to talk face to face anymore. You look at kids at school and they’re either on their cell phones or have earphones on. We’re losing the art of conversation.”

Tori Trask, a licensed marriage and family therapist with Kaiser Permanente, agrees.“What I’ve noticed is, families are becoming strangers to each other,” she says. “Parents are excelling at trying to be the best parents they can be, but they often get so busy they forget to connect.”

About the tendency of today’s mothers to be perfectionists, Platt says, “There is nothing wrong with trying to do the most perfect job you can. Where people get screwed up is in believing that if they don’t do something perfect, there’s something wrong with them.”

Those who refuse to buy into the Mommy Mystique seem to be the most content, even though it’s virtually impossible to escape it entirely. Somehow these not-as-rare-as-you-think souls manage to buck the tide, defending their right to be their perfectly imperfect selves and to raise their children in a style that works best for them, regardless of what society thinks.

Case in point: 43-year-old Robin Ramirez of Elk Grove, a recovering Supermom of a 16-year-old daughter and a 13-year-old son who, as a young stay-at-home mom, tried to find fulfillment in cleaning every window and every floorboard of her home every single day.

“I had this idea that everything in my house—my kids, my house, my husband and myself—were all going to be perfect,” says Ramirez, who worked in corporate banking before she had children. “Absolutely, I was a control freak. I used to control what time the kids’ snack was, and what was on their snack plate. If my daughter got dirty when she was little, I had four pairs of shorts in the car so I could change her. You just run yourself into the ground when you do that. I think it comes from being in the corporate world, where you have to control what’s going on in your environment. If you want to move up the ladder, you have to be at the top of your game.”

Then, in 2000, Ramirez went back to work.“The hours were great. I was off when the kids were out of school. What more could you ask for?” she says. “What you don’t realize is, all the stuff you used to do while they were in school? Well, there’s no fairy at your house doing all that right now, lady. You’re going to go home and there’s going to be toast on the counter, beds aren’t going to be made and panties are going to be on the bathroom floor. All the housework gets packed into the weekend and then Monday comes again.”

Ramirez worked for exactly a year, then threw her pumps in the back of the closet. She says, “I’m just so glad I finally slowed down.”

Now, when you ask Ramirez about pressure, she just laughs.

“When my kids were younger, I used to say, ‘You’re both going to college. And you’re going to Yale.’ Now I tell them both, ‘Pass all your classes with Cs.’ And they get great grades.

“I think kids learn from their failures, that these are some of the greatest learning experiences,” Ramirez says. “I do not take ownership of my kids’ failures, and I don’t take ownership of their successes. It’s their journey to walk and not mine.”