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 …