book review: Elisabeth Badinter’s The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women

Elisabeth Badinter’s book The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women sorta kinda almost raises these deeply important questions:

  • To what extent are mothers currently experiencing feelings of guilt and external pressure regarding their parenting and life choices? Where’s that coming from? How do different populations’ experiences vary (along lines of race, class, sexual orientation, nationality, etc.)?
  • How can we create a broader range of options for mothers–and for fathers, and for families–when it comes to balancing parenting and the other parts of our lives (including work/career and sexuality)?
  • What is the relationship between feminism and mothering/motherhood/mothers? What should it be? What does feminism have to say–and do–about work-family issues?
  • What does the rhetoric of “the natural” do in contemporary parenting discourses? Where does that come from? If we want to get rid of that language and ideology, how can we move toward that, and what might replace it?
  • What is the legacy of La Lache League’s conservative beginnings? Where should we go from there?

But it asks most of them badly, and answers them in such a tone of disgust and sarcasm that it–an explicitly feminist book–often seems to be participating in a mother-bashing party. It feels like it’s fighting in rather than against the ‘mommy wars.’

This post will talk about the first two sets of questions (and a follow-up post next week will deal with the remaining three). But first, a few general complaints:

  • At a mere 160 page in huge type, The Conflict‘s analysis is surface-level at best and often downright nonsensical. Its structure feels utterly haphazard.
  • It’s heteronormative. It’s also preoccupied with a version of “the mother” who is a professional woman, high-earning, with an interesting job. It leaves a lot of people out.
  • It’s packaged/promoted oddly, at least in the United States. While the French subtitle reads “la femme et la mère,” the English is far more inflammatory. The blurbs on the back and the description on the front flap sell The Conflict as a critique of breastfeeding, cloth diapering, unmedicated childbirth, cosleeping, etc. But the book spends very little time on any of these practices besides breastfeeding (just taking little swipes at the others), meaning that it’s packaged as even more mommy-wars-ish than it really is. I guess the publishers know their US market? Heaven help us …

And now, to the questions!

To what extent are mothers currently experiencing feelings of guilt and external pressure regarding their parenting and life choices? Where’s that coming from? How do different populations’ experiences vary (along lines of race, class, sexual orientation, nationality, etc.)? Is this level of guilt/pressure, or its origins, a change from earlier historical moments?

Instead of asking these rather complex questions, Badinter largely just assumes that every contemporary mother is subject to shit-tons of pressure and feels guilt when she can’t meet externally-imposed goals. Then, generally without data, she assigns blame to people who advocate (or even just practice) stay-at-home parenting and the stuff associated with attachment parenting (though she doesn’t use that term). This is where her pot shots at cloth diapering, child-led toilet learning, unmedicated childbirth, breastfeeding, child-led weaning, and the like come into play. Given the very very high percentages of American mothers who actually use epidurals and disposable diapers (and who participate in all the other practices Badinter sees as utterly taboo), surely we need to ask whether the attachment parents are truly the majority who is oppressing all mothers and, indeed, all women.

How can we create a broader range of options for mothers–and for fathers, and for families–when it comes to balancing parenting and the other parts of our lives (including work/career and sexuality)?

1: Work: Unfortunately, Badinter leaves out fathers here: throughout the book, she assumes that all that diaper-washing not only is but must be accomplished by women. But both men and women experience work-family conflict. For a more nuanced and meaningful discussion of these matters, I recommend Joan Williams’s Reshaping the Work-Family Debate: Why Men and Class Matter; you can find my detailed review of that book here.

2: Sex: Badinter is oddly obsessed with our postpartum sex lives, which sound pretty bleak in her vision. She repeatedly and enthusiastically falls into the lazy and tiresome assumption that breastfeeding and cosleeping ruin everybody’s sex life. Just giving birth does, too, actually: “As we know, giving birth causes great changes in a woman’s body, which, for physical and psychological reasons, distance her from her sexuality” (104). Also, apparently:

nothing could be more at odds with a mother’s (or father’s) role than being a lover. [...] If the woman breastfeeds for months, even years, how are the couple to retain intimacy and sexuality? [...] A breast-feeding mother experiences pleasure, but she is not necessarily an object of desire for the father watching her. [...] So the woman-as-mother may well obliterate the woman-as-lover and endanger the couple. (145-6)

Sometimes it feels uncomfortably like Badinter is advising us not to breastfeed/cosleep/etc. so we can stay sexy and utterly available to our (necessarily male) partners … lest they cheat on and/or leave us. This does not feel like especially feminist analysis to me. Part of her evidence is that two characters in a novel split up after, um, shall we call it Breastfeeding Bed Death (105-6)?

To be continued …

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  1. Posted 16 July 2012 at 1:36 PM | Permalink

    The parenting/mothering-is-unsexy meme seems to be re-surfacing again, obviously in tension with the “women must be mothers in order to fulfill their feminine role” meme. While I’m not (and likely will never be) a mother, I think a lot about this fear of losing sexual attractiveness within the everyday and what it says about how we understand sexuality as something exotic/other to the rest of our lives. I’ve been reading a number of books about same-sex marriage recently, for example, and one of the big anti-marriage arguments put forth by queer folks themselves is that humans aren’t “wired” to be in long-term relationships, and that sexual intimacy inevitably dies by, like, year three-to-five. Put together this perception that long-term partnerships are vulnerable to sexual “death” with the perception that parenting and adult sexuality are somehow incompatible, and the picture of multi-generational family life looks incredibly bleak! Not to mention failing to jibe with the experience of many people I know.

    So I’m left wondering a) what are the origins of these narratives, and b) who are the people they’re striking a chord with, not to mention c) who benefits from perpetuating these narratives?

    • Molly
      Posted 17 July 2012 at 10:32 AM | Permalink

      Love how you’re putting the motherhood=asexual/unsexy thing in a broader perspective in this comment. I think some of it is particular: I’m reminded of my students’ research in my old post “Once she’s a mom she shouldn’t try to be sexy–her kid should come first!” But trying to understand why a breast that’s doing something other than sexytimes or being on display can’t also be a source of sexual interest & pleasure is hard for me to grasp … and maybe could be more legible in this context, in the (to me, deeply sad) idea that “sexual” is opposed to rather than a part of “the everyday.”

      I’ll ponder those questions, especially: who benefits?

  2. Posted 17 July 2012 at 12:38 AM | Permalink

    This book sounds like it would make me want to punch a hole in a wall.

    • Molly
      Posted 17 July 2012 at 10:33 AM | Permalink

      Yeah … it left me muttering a lot. Eric was happy for me to finish it, so I could stop focusing every conversation on its various unsupported and appalling claims. But it comes so close to raising meaningful questions! Alas.

  3. Erin
    Posted 17 July 2012 at 3:45 PM | Permalink

    Well, I guess some feminists think they are benefiting from this argument. A couple of years ago, I was hanging out at a mainstream-about-parenting blog when the Rosin piece hit and there was all this furor about breastfeeding being bad, especially for relationships, and for women. And I was like, so here’s the deal, feminists – bodily autonomy is a key piece of feminist agenda. My breasts are MY OWN and I can do anything I want with them. I chose to nurse with them. My boobs, my call. If I chose nursing over sex (assuming that’s a dichotomy, which it is not), then it’s still my call, no? And someone responded, wow, I never thought of thinking of lactating breasts that way. I was kind of gobsmacked. There’s this notion floated out there that if you’re breastfeeding, you only do it for the child, derive no benefit or pleasure from it, and do not participate in the decision to do at all (it’s all for the child). Whereas sex with husband is 100% consensual/self-benefitting in this view? It’s very naive.

    • Molly
      Posted 17 July 2012 at 4:53 PM | Permalink

      Thanks so much for this comment–interesting & thought-provoking experience! The truth for me is that I wouldn’t breastfeed (at least past a few months of trying to get things working better) if I didn’t enjoy it. It feels good (great, actually, like amazing), physically and emotionally. It’s also a recurring sweet moment in my relationship with my husband, although apparently the intertwining of our physical selves that has intensified through the experiences of him witnessing my pregnancies and catching our babies and being with us while we breastfeed–well, apparently all of that is impossible and a figment of my imagination.

      • Erin
        Posted 17 July 2012 at 5:25 PM | Permalink

        Yes, exactly. I love nursing. Just really love it. And it helps that I don’t get touched out the way some women I know do. It fills me with pride to know that all their little baby fat came directly from me, and what good things I was doing for them with the antibodies, etc but those are both about *me* and how *I* feel. They also love it, and it makes me feel closer to them. But again, there is self-interest in that emotional connectivity too. Maybe some feminists are too attached to the notion of motherhood as a joyless round of drudgery? And you’re right – feminists invariably imagine motherhood with absent/unavailable/jealous fathers. So strange.

  4. Leora
    Posted 23 July 2012 at 7:31 PM | Permalink

    Oh, I am so glad to read both your review and these fantastic comments. I checked Badinter’s book out from the library over the weekend, feeling as if I really ought to read it, and my stomach turns over every time I look at it. I’m a stay-at-home, breastfeeding, feminist mother in what works out to be a relatively traditional marriage, & I get sort of unbearably riled up by so much of what gets identified as feminist writing about mothers, in mainstream venues (including progressive ones). I find your review–and what Blue Milk has written about Badinter, too–so much more insightful & resonant.
    As for who benefits from the “sexual death” narrative, I have thought for a while that it is hugely important to our consumerist economies that we 1. not have stable households, and therefore have to have lots of expendable items and 2. generally be sexually insecure.

  5. Caroline
    Posted 28 February 2014 at 2:48 AM | Permalink

    So full discloser I am an RN and I was disturbed that a woman with no medical background was making claims as if some clinical studies were just done to feed an ideology that wants to restrict a woman’s freedom. Yes smoking and drinking while pregnant are risky and detrimental to the fetus. Those are facts. Sorry if that means a pregnant woman can’t do what she wants. Sometimes responsibility supersedes rights for those of us who matured into responsible adulthood. Yes breast feeding provides some protection against infections (the study she states to refute this claims it does not protect against asthma and allergies-neither of which are infections (examples of respiratory infections are flu pneumonia so on). She has no medical background people!! Please talk to a doctor before you believe all of these studies badinter slams are just crazy anti woman conspiracies. They are not. Sorry about the vitriol but this book just made me mad.

    • Molly
      Posted 28 February 2014 at 2:32 PM | Permalink

      The question of drinking during pregnancy certainly is a loaded one! People get really, really angry about it. One one hand, I pretty much loathed this book and its use of evidence, so I get where you’re coming from there. This book is not helpful!

      On the other hand, I’m not at all convinced that strong evidence exists around light drinking during pregnancy–and I’m one of the Bad Mothers you imply haven’t “matured into responsible adulthood,” as I did have occasional small drinks while pregnant. When I hear arguments about this issue, I often hear people conflate the sort of drinking I did (half a glass of wine here, a few sips of whiskey there) with binge drinking. I also hear a very low standard of evidence for controlling and judging pregnant people’s behavior. The truth is that we all do many risky things during pregnancy, and that if we avoided eating and drinking and doing everything where good scientific evidence doesn’t exist to show it’s adequately safe, we would not be able to eat/drink/do almost anything at all. So, some of this seems at least a little complicated to me. I always think about this conversation in the comments at Blue Milk and, more recently, the huge uproar around the drinking piece (a tiny part of the book) in Emily Oster’s Expecting Better. Culturally, it’s all incredibly interesting.

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