I had to read it – the controversial book on Motherhood and Feminism – and now I have to tell you about it! Here’s my take on The Conflict.
So Elizabeth Badinter has a point of view and some of it I did appreciate – she drew an exceptional, if sometimes skewed, portrait of the ways in which maternalism and naturalism have impacted women’s rights, women’s roles and feminism. The historical perspective is an essential element of this discussion. Badinter argues that the return of the idealization of maternalism – in the guise of naturalism – is negatively impacting women’s freedom of choice. As I understand it: her thesis is that the pressure to be the ultimate mother (stress mother not parent) has a way of ensuring that women either devote their entire beings to their children’s upbringing from infancy to adulthood or feel eternal guilt about it.
This subjugation of women to their children is not only horrifying to Badinter in and of itself, but made more so because it originates from women. An example of patriarchy at its most powerful: when the women work to keep themselves in the submissive role.
Okay so fine – there is a line of logic here and I both appreciate the history lesson as well as her perspective. I’d argue, though, that she goes too far.
She goes too far when she spends pages 65 to 112 (of about 160 in text) attacking La Leche League. This attack seems to be part of the heart of her argument and LLL seems to represent all that is bad with maternalism. She is especially critical of their fundamentalist Christian roots, their focus on on-demand breastfeeding until the child self weans and their perspective on the role of the mother.
I have the seminal LLL book; I’ve read “the womanly art of breastfeeding” and have to say I scoffed once or twice myself. Particularly when it suggested that my child may nurse till they were seven years old. I also used it as a resource for the many helpful breastfeeding tips it contains, and I didn’t for a second feel bound to its’ suggestions. Here’s my point – we have choices.
Badinter also spends a considerable amount of time speculating on the rise in the number of women who remain childless. She notes that “insisting that the mother sacrifice the woman seems to delay her decision to have a child and possibly discourages her from having one at all.” This is an interesting theory. There has been a notable rise in the ‘Western world’ in the numbers of women who remain childless whether within a partner-relationship or single. It is a reason for panic among governments who see their countries’ aging populations and not enough young people to support the elderly. Additionally, those that are having children are generally having fewer children.
But is it the ‘tyranny of maternal duty’ that is the cause of this trend as Badinter argues? Or is it the opening up of choices, the availability of education and carriers, the evolution of birth control? Or simply the fact that women are waiting longer to have their children? Or are there environmental factors, escalating pollution that impacts our bodies’ capabilities to conceive? Or something else? There are myriad explanations and Badinter seems uninterested to the point of ignoring any that contradict her thesis: to her motherhood has become a sentence and therefore smart women are opting out.
Her solution, ever the French-woman, is opening up the possibility of part time motherhood – giving women the space to choose to bottle feed without guilt, send their children to daycare from infancy and get on with their fabulous sexy high powered lifestyles. (Oh yeah she also says a mother can’t also be sexy – I know quite a few women and men who would disagree – with multiple offspring to prove it.)
I can’t conceptualize part time motherhood– I am a mother always, I am a wife always, I am a daughter always – I don’t get to turn off parts of who I am when they are inconvenient – motherhood is not a job or an activity, it is an essential part of who I am. I do access child care and focus on things other than my child at various points in the day but I’m never not a mother. I choose to become a mother, I enjoy being a mother and spending time with my child who is hilarious and lovely and the source of so much joy in our lives (something that Badinter also seems to have a hard time imagining).
As for her attack on LLL and breastfeeding in general I have to again point out the role of choice. If you choose to breastfeed you can choose to do it on demand, or scheduled, or with supplemental formula, or with pumping, you can go to work and keep it up, you can do it for two weeks or two months or two years. Regardless you’re the parent – you decide.
There is mother’s guilt she’s right on that one, and it is powerful stuff. Our children know how to use it from birth too. I would argue, it’s a survival of the species instinct and although we can mitigate it there’s no escaping it all together.
To those who feel it is being loured over them by other mothers or used to create some unrealistic expectation of what a ‘good mother’ looks like let go of the image, let go of the competition and just be. Be there to enjoy your children when you can. Be there to enjoy your partner. Be there for yourself. Forget Badinter and LLL and anyone else who tells you what the ideal is – make your own.
Finally, at the risk of being catty, I was wondering throughout this read – what do Badinter’s 3 children make of her stance on the tyranny of motherhood that she must have endured for their sakes?? Just wondering…
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