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).