Apr/May 2012

The Mommy Trap

Heather Havrilesky

Indoctrination into the practices of modern motherhood can feel like showing up at Navy SEAL training camp without any discernible desire to, say, swim several miles through strong ocean waves fully clothed, and then proceed to trudge through the sand for fifteen miles in wet boots. Even with hormonally induced romantic notions about bonding with this small, as-yet-unseen human, it can be tough not to feel wishy-washy among the hard-core marines of motherhood. The current ideal seems to call for a total surrender to the baby’s putative desires—natural childbirth, home birthing, on-demand breast-feeding, pumping, cosleeping, baby wearing—with few willing to name an end point to these practices. Presumably, you immerse yourself in this life—pumping while you feed to maintain your milk supply, catnapping next to your baby all night, navigating the world with a small human tied to your chest like a ticking time bomb—until your sanity or your biological alliance with your partner begins to fracture.

That said, when a French feminist informs us that the toils and snares of naturalist mothering are not only unnecessary but contribute to women’s marginalization in the workplace and in society at large, it’s tough not to have mixed feelings. On the one hand, it’s absolutely true that the boot camp of modern motherhood can feel beyond oppressive. The purism of its advocates, with their idealistic notions of around-the-clock bonding and their dismissive attitudes toward day care, often feels like the neuroticism of the upper middle class splattered indiscriminately across a wide spectrum of women, many of whom have no choice but to return to work quickly.

On the other hand, do we really require a privileged French academic to tell us all this? “The best allies of men’s dominance have been, quite unwittingly, innocent infants,” writes Elisabeth Badinter, in her favored tone of one part outrage to three parts outrageousness. We can almost picture the author, sipping red wine with other photogenic idealists, surrounded by cobblestones, flanked by slanty rooftops, untouched by the compromises of contemporary womanhood.

Nonetheless, Badinter highlights some alarming trends that are rarely questioned, thanks to current attitudes about the supremacy of the maternal role. She argues that this body of folkways took hold as the natural result of a decades-long identity crisis among women and men regarding their roles at work and at home. “In the face of so much upheaval and uncertainty, we are sorely tempted to put our faith back in good old Mother Nature and denounce the ambitions of an earlier generation as deviant.” Throw in a backlash to the laissez-faire parenting of the 1970s and a burgeoning financial crisis, and you have a dramatic reversion to traditional views of family. “Among this new generation many women also had scores to settle with their feminist mothers, and they were quick to answer the siren call of the natural. If the world of work lets one down, if it fails to offer the position one deserves, if it provides neither social status nor financial independence, then why give it priority?” The irony here is painfully apparent: As economic pressures lead to women losing traction in the workplace, women feel less hesitant to trade in their undervalued jobs and middling salaries for a marginalized domestic role that at least comes with the vague hope of feeling meaningful and respected.

Other writers have outlined these economic, generational, and identity pressures, but Badinter singles out the rise of naturalism as a key force returning women to the home. “Imperceptibly, nature had gained the stature of a moral authority universally admired for its simplicity and wisdom.” As they placed industrialization and the conveniences and shortcuts of technology in the firing line, women began embracing natural childbirth and home birthing, with the pain and suffering of parturition suddenly representing a transformative rite of passage. But, as is often the case in The Conflict, just when Badinter has us in her thrall, she turns to the most extreme sources to back her claims. In this case, she cites a choice passage from journalist Pascale Pontoreau, who suggests that the screams that fill a labor ward might be “an opportunity to release years of pent-up emotion.” Pontoreau asks, “What if an epidural means those screams remain suppressed?” This is precisely the sort of whimsical invented logic used to rationalize any thoroughly unscientific trend—and treating such an absurd leap of faith as indicative of the entire movement not only feels a little unfair, but also undermines Badinter’s credibility as an author.

This is an all too frequent tic in The Conflict. Badinter seems to prefer alarmist rhetoric to broader observations on current culture—even as she delivers sharp insights about the regressive turn of modern attitudes about motherhood. In addressing the oppressive nature of today’s pro-breast-feeding movement, for example, Badinter fills nearly four full pages with quotes from the La Leche League, an advocacy group for breast-feeding that is close to a caricature of naturalist-mothering dogma. For most long-suffering mothers, La Leche comes across as the breast-feeding equivalent of a corps of fiery Baptist preachers: good for a burst of inspiration when you’re close to giving up, bad when you’re seeking any sort of balanced perspective on motherhood. But by savoring the shortsighted fervor of such extremists, Badinter erodes our faith in her ability to assess the bigger picture. Likewise, Badinter asks, “If breast-feeding is the trigger for maternal attachment, what of those who have never breast-fed, as is the case with millions of mothers? Do they love their children any less than mothers who did?”

Willfully reactionary rhetoric like this doesn’t pound home Badinter’s arguments so much as undercut them; it effectively sacrifices an otherwise carefully conceived set of observations in order to pose a sloppy question that only a confused reader could encounter as anything but an incendiary digression.

In another ill-considered flourish, Badinter devotes an entire chapter to celebrating the unique relationship of French women to mothering, explaining how French women have refused to allow motherhood to define them for centuries now. “In the seventeenth century, upper-class women handed their children over to wet nurses from the moment of birth.” By the 1700s, she reports, the use of wet nurses trickled downward, so that “from the very poorest to the richest, in large and small towns, it became general practice to send children away to wet nurses, often very far from their home.” Badinter observes that, as a result of poor hygiene and the lack of any adequate substitute for breast milk, “babies died like flies.” Curiously, she leaves the distressing spike in infant mortality unremarked, beyond asserting that while it might seem “shocking to scholars of the family and especially in public opinion,” the fact remains that “eighteenth-century French women (and English) from the highest ranks of society enjoyed the greatest freedom of any women in the world.” Badinter exults that these French mothers “were at liberty to come and go as they pleased” and “their presence and wit were considered necessary ingredients for refined society”—all without commenting on the dying babies.

Badinter’s aim may be to strip away today’s purist assumptions about the most “natural” forms of child rearing, thereby freeing women from faddish cultural beliefs that sell their lives and choices short. But she’s largely reduced to employing the inflammatory rhetoric of her stated foes, thereby contributing to the same divisive and reactionary language that she decries so vehemently.

Of course, we’ve seen this clash unfold before. Upper-middle-class women who advocate the all-consuming requirements of “natural” motherhood battle it out with upper-middle-class academics who decry women’s return to domestic enslavement. Meanwhile, regular women are left to muddle through however they can. We’re made to feel guilty about all of our choices, whether we draw lines in the sand at work or at home.

Real women recognize that the real trouble here is tangential to the La Leche League or the kooks who believe that suffering is the true path to salvation. The deeper threat is that in all of this controversy and in all of these recklessly proscriptive writings, working mothers and stay-at-home mothers alike are made to feel that we’re failing everyone—our employers, our husbands, our children, our entire gender, ourselves—with the decisions we make.

What regular women can do, though, is stand up for other regular women. One productive way to begin is by rejecting this conversation as a challenge to mothers, and reframing it as a challenge to parents in general. Instead of proclaiming women who decline the tedium of motherhood as somehow more liberated than their mothering peers, we can offer all parents the freedom to have children and have careers (or not) while their children are young. A dramatic shift in our views of what women can and should expect from their lives doesn’t pivot on indulgent rhapsodizing on the golden age of wet-nursing. Our liberation begins and ends with regular parents of all stripes asserting their right to enjoy a wide range of choices without being penalized in the workplace for making them. Only when we abandon qualitative distinctions between paternity leave and maternity leave, only when we insist that employers revise their outmoded resistance to part-time work, to leave-sharing, or to offering gay and adoptive couples the same support enjoyed by straight and biological parents, do we support parenting as an essential right. Mothers who stay at home or breast-feed their children religiously aren’t to blame for undermining the status of women; discriminatory employer policies and sexist laws are. As long as we tolerate such archaic policies and nonsensically continue to frame parenting as a woman’s problem, we’re looking backward.

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine and the author of the memoir Disaster Preparedness (Riverhead, 2010).


April 17, 2012
4:57 pm

I will pay any price and bear any burden to read anything HH writes. (Full disclosure: I am not now nor have I ever been a member of any HH fan-club or of any fan-club organized about anybody whomsoever whatsoever … whatevverrrrr.)

And if she should choose to declare for the office of President I will vote for her over any bemedalled Pentagoon or any of the sitting political class whomsoever and so forth.

The sly framing of motherhood as subjecting oneself merely to the “desires” of the infant is exposed here. I would say the ‘desperate needs of the infant’ is closer to the reality.

That “body of folkways” is a sly and cutesy minimalization of the sum total of the species’ efforts since at least the beginning of recorded history to somehow build on the reality of how Nature (or God or the Great Whatever) arranged the reproduction of this marvelous human species that, alas, desperately requires so long and so much in order to mature (even in the basic physiological sense).

Have the vanguard-elites of (at least the radical elements of) feminism actually ‘discovered’ some Utter Knowledge that reduces the prior millennia of humans to the status of witless doltery who ‘just didn’t get it’?

Thus the agitprop framing of a return to “naturalism” seeks to reduce the vast and deep existential reality of the human situation – and the situation of parents (excellent point, HH) – to some sort of conspiracy-to-oppress that was perpetrated by Parties Male a day or two just before or after that recorded history began and has been oppressing merrily away until the vanguard-elites emerged from their Chardonnay or Chai-soused consciousness-raising sessions where they set each other off like tuning-forks in a small room with their ‘stories’, on or about the Year of Grace 1972. (When the demographically desperate Dems made a play for the ‘women’s vote’ by writing a blank check to ‘knowledge’ that should have prudently been left where it belonged, at the far end of the faculty dining room, behind the plastic potted ferns.)

Ditto the attempt to explain everything away as being merely attributable to “economic issues”. I would say that without the heavy impositional thumbs of the cash-heavy Beltway elites and pols, very little of the vanguard-agenda would have ‘succeeded’ to the extent that it has.

And now that the cash is running out, the ‘revolution’ and its cadres realize that the party (if not also the Party) may be over, and they may soon be reduced to the role of old Luftwaffe pilots or U-Boat commanders in the 1960s, looking back – ach! – on ‘ze happy times’. Or – worse – they may realize that they may soon be praying as did that member of the Central Committee in Lenin’s day who one day blurted out “What happens if the people find out what we’ve REALLY done?’ (he was no doubt ruled out of order forthwith, with a gavel or a well-aimed firearm).

“Whimsical invented logic” masquerading as ‘science’ inflamed by “alarmist rhetoric” was precisely the agitprop strategy deployed by authoritarians of the Left (Lenin) or Right (Hitler and Goebbels), with which dead white European males radical-feminist cadres are truly sisters under the skin and with whom such cadres are conceptually in bed (so to speak – although ‘heterosexual sex’ is Correctly proscribed as being nothing less than horizontal collaboration with, and participation in, patriarchy).

Lastly, while “breast-feeding” may “trigger maternal attachment” I don’t think it creates that instinct. Surely Evolution – an acknowledged expert in these matters – would have taken huge and redundant pains to ensure that this complex species would have numerous built-in systems to guarantee its survival, with all the help so desperately and indispensably needed by the young in the early years. In that regard, the vanguard-cadres are now – not to put too fine a point on it – also in bed conceptually with the religious fundamentalists in denying Evolution.

“Funny how the night moves”, as the Songster saith. And as Evolution or Life might lament: “Look what they done to my song, Ma” – as the Songstress sangeth.

And I am not here denying the insights of feminism (the moderate kind kicked to the curb by the cadres).


April 18, 2012
5:41 pm

Alas, this sort of thing all too clearly illustrates what happens when an ideology masquerades as a discipline. The discipline itself lacks what a discipline most needs: a domain. Consequently, practitioners follow every rabbit down every hole. The scene is both sickening and intellectually degrading.

The author of the article however, uses the book as an opportunity to field an interesting question about how we deal with parenthood. Clearly modern people have a "problem" with parenthood: both economically and philosophically/spiritually we are ill-equipped to cope with it.

I am afraid that embracing a new rhetoric of parental rights, however, has just as little chance to work as more-of-the-same. Such a thing is not necessary. What is necessary is that parents have children in a situation wherein they are not forced to choose between financial or spiritual/emotional ruin. We don't lack for rights and rhetoric. What we lack are people who have the time, inclination, and incentive to enthusiastically embrace the raising of children.

Such a problem cannot simply be "reframed" (I search my mind for other intellectual euphemisms for trying to linguisize reality out of existence). And it is definitely, without the smallest trace of doubt, not a feminist issue.


April 19, 2012
12:00 pm

I concur with just about everything Hannibal 6400 says.

I would only say something about that last sentence in 6400’s immediately preceding comment. If I infer correctly, the gist of it is that this is not an issue feminists care to discuss. With which I would heartily agree.

If however, the accurate inference is that what has happened is not something that can be blamed on (the radical variant of) feminism, then I would have to respectfully disagree.

One need only look at – for example – seminally influential radical-feminist thinker (she thinks there is no other legitimate kind of feminism, such as ‘moderate’ or ‘liberal’ feminism) Catharine MacKinnon.

In her 1989 “Toward A Feminist Theory of the State” – flogging ideas she says she had been working on since 1971 – she takes the Family and mothering (among other things) under direct and sustained fire, claiming that both are merely ‘social constructs’ that can be deconstructed and reconstructed by a Correct government without further ado. She gives no wider or larger thought as to possible ill-consequences, and – of course – presumes the utter accuracy of her illuminations.


April 20, 2012
12:07 pm

As a fellow translator, I'd just like to point out that this book was translated from the French by Adriana Hunter.

Male Matters

April 21, 2012
11:45 am

How, exactly, is the status of women being undermined? By women's 78 cents to men's dollar?

Re: "As economic pressures lead to women losing traction in the workplace, women feel less hesitant to trade in their undervalued jobs and middling salaries for a marginalized domestic role that at least comes with the vague hope of feeling meaningful and respected."

Women are GAINING traction in the workplace.

Undervalued jobs? Undervalued by whom? Middling salaries? Then move up as countless women do all the time.

The writer sets up straw men, then blames the scenarios on men's sexism. Because of this, it is feminists who are making women feel undervalued and wanting to give up.

As for the gender wage gap:

Women's “77 cents to men's dollar” is arrived at by comparing the sexes' median incomes. It refers to the point at which 50 percent of workers earn above this figure and the other 50 below (which means, among other things, that a lot of women outearn a lot of men). It doesn't take into account the number of hours worked each week, experience, seniority, training, education or even the job description itself. It compares all women to all men, not people in the same job with the same experience. So a veteran male software designer's salary is weighed against a first-year female teacher's income.

Now consider:

No law yet has closed the gender wage gap — not the 1963 Equal Pay for Equal Work Act, not Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, not the 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act, not the 1991 amendments to Title VII, not affirmative action (which has benefited mostly white women, the group most vocal about the wage gap - http://tinyurl.com/74cooen), not diversity, not the countless state and local laws and regulations, not the horde of overseers at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and not the Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.... Nor will a "paycheck fairness" law work.

That's because pay-equity advocates continue to overlook the effects of female AND male behavior:

Despite the 40-year-old demand for women's equal pay, millions of wives still choose to have no pay at all. In fact, according to Dr. Scott Haltzman, author of "The Secrets of Happily Married Women," stay-at-home wives, including the childless who represent an estimated 10 percent, constitute a growing niche. "In the past few years,” he says in a CNN report at http://tinyurl.com/6reowj, “many women who are well educated and trained for career tracks have decided instead to stay at home.” (“Census Bureau data show that 5.6 million mothers stayed home with their children in 2005, about 1.2 million more than did so a decade earlier....” at http://tinyurl.com/qqkaka. If indeed more women are staying at home, perhaps it's because feminists and the media have told women for years that female workers are paid less than men in the same jobs — so why bother working if they're going to be penalized and humiliated for being a woman. Yet, if "greedy, profit-obsessed" employers could get away with paying women less than men for the same work, they would not hire a man – ever.)

As full-time mothers or homemakers, stay-at-home wives earn zero. How can they afford to do this while in many cases living in luxury? Because they're supported by their husband, an “employer” who pays them to stay at home.

Feminists, government, and the media ignore what this obviously implies: If millions of wives are able to accept no wages and live as well as their husbands, millions of other wives are able to:

-accept low wages
-refuse overtime and promotions
-choose jobs based on interest first, wages second — men tend to do the opposite
-take more unpaid days off
-avoid uncomfortable wage-bargaining (http://tinyurl.com/3a5nlay)
-work part-time instead of full-time (“According to a 2009 UK study for the Centre for Policy Studies, only 12 percent of the 4,690 women surveyed wanted to work full time”: http://bit.ly/ihc0tl See also an Australian report at http://tinyurl.com/862kzes)


Women are able to make these choices because they are supported — or anticipate being supported — by a husband who must earn more than if he'd chosen never to marry. (Still, even many men who shun marriage, unlike their female counterparts, feel their self worth is tied to their net worth.) This is how MEN help create the wage gap. If the roles were reversed so that men raised the children and women raised the income, men would average lower pay than women.

Afterword: The power in money is not in earning it (there is only responsibility, sweat, and stress in earning money). The power in money is in SPENDING it. And, Warren Farrell says in The Myth of Male Power at http://www.warrenfarrell.org/TheBook/index.html, "Women control consumer spending by a wide margin in virtually every consumer category." (Women's control over spending, adds Farrell, gives women control over TV programs.) "A recent research study revealed that the average woman spends eight years of her life shopping [spending] — over 300 shopping trips per year. Men, only a fraction of that." -

Excerpted from "Will the Ledbetter Fair Pay Act Help Women?" at http://malemattersusa.wordpress.com/2011/12/03/will-the-ledbetter-fair-pay-act-help-women/

By the way, the next Equal Occupational Fatality Day is in 2020. Year 2020 is how far into the future women must work to experience the same number of work-related deaths that men experienced in 2009 alone. http://mjperry.blogspot.com/2010/04/equal-occupational-fatality-death-day.html

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