The Conflict

The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women by Elisabeth Badinter

In this book, Elisabeth Badinter makes a lot of academic arguments about European social policies, and the naturalistic philosophy that a lot of current parenting trends are based on, but the core of her message to me was about how the ideal of motherhood has changed in problematic ways. When I focused away from specific policy recommendations and particular criticized parenting practices, I found myself agreeing with most of Badinter’s overarching ideas.

Her central point seemed to be that we’ve created this ideal of motherhood that’s unattainable and damaging to women. Mothers are supposed to be perfectly self-sacrificing, giving up everything for their children: job, identity, sexuality, free time, outside interests. Raising a child is supposed to be an all-consuming project, if you’re doing it right. Any time a mother spends on herself is seen as time she’s stealing away from this project, wilfully subtracting from her child’s well-being, intelligence, future achievement and happiness. The woman’s role as mother more than trumps everything else in her life: it subsumes all else and becomes her entire life. Badinter calls this a kind of backlash against feminism. I am not sure that this ideology is as triumphant as she seems to think–a lot of people would probably disagree with it when it’s laid out like this–but I definitely agree with Badinter that this is not a good way for women to be expected to live. The parenting trends she focuses on–staying at home, co-sleeping, cloth-diapering, natural childbirth, and especially breast-feeding–are just particular expressions of this new ideology of motherhood.

To me, Badinter’s strongest argument against the ideology of breastfeeding was simply quoting its “Ten Commandments.” That was all she needed to do to show me that the rhetoric has become insane. I just imagined a woman reading that list when she is physically unable to breastfeed, or when her milk is drying up because she has to go back to work and can’t pump when she needs to. There is nothing in that list that would help or comfort that woman, only make her feel worse about something that is out of her control.

And, according to Badinter, there’s nothing in the research on breastfeeding that justifies such overblown rhetoric. The small advantage breast milk gives is not worth inflicting emotional pain on mothers who cannot or choose not to give that advantage to their babies. Advocates might dispute her information and research, but I’m not sure it matters. For it to be worth this much disapproval, the difference between formula- and breast-feeding would have to be huge. It would have to be visible to the naked eye. It would have to be as big as the difference between a perfect genius baby and a nutrient-starved baby with cleft palate, Downs Syndrome, and cerebral palsy, or several other equally obvious and serious conditions. And it’s just not that big a difference. Since that’s true, we shouldn’t judge mothers who formula-feed and make them feel guilty about it. I know I’ve said it already, but it’s worth saying a second and third time: this judgement is destructive and needs to stop.

In fact, I’m willing to go this far: we should never judge or inflict guilt on parents for any choice they make in raising their children that is short of abuse or neglect. Period.

I know that’s hard to do, and that we all make judgements on others all the time without even meaning to, so we’ll definitely fail when we try not to judge, especially me. But at least we can acknowledge that the knee-jerk judgements we inevitably make cannot be justified by any argument that appeals to science or responsibility or parenting philosophy. Because science is ambiguous or demonstrates only small effects, because necessity sometimes determines the way we fulfill our responsibilities, and because there is no one correct parenting philosophy. I’m ok with absolute moral relativism in parenting if it allows us to raise children without crippling ourselves and each other with guilt. The only exceptions, as I said earlier, are abuse and neglect, since we do need to judge people in courts of law for these crimes against their children.

I think Badinter would agree with this prohibition on judgement. She was focused on supporting the choice of women to work and have lives outside of motherhood, but she didn’t disparage the choice to stay at home or breastfeed or any of that. She just presented arguments about why those choices are not the only good, moral ways to parent. Some of Badinter’s supporters and detractors, however, have gone there, making the situation worse by trading insults.

Ending judgement and guilt is important not only because there are no good arguments to support them. It’s important because simple human empathy requires it. No one ever really knows what’s going on in someone else’s family life. Since you can never know the whole story, judgement is always premature and unfair, in addition to unkind and pointless. Refusing to judge each other is a necesary first step in dismantling the impossible ideal of the perfect mother that tyrranizes women far worse than biology ever could.

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8 thoughts on “The Conflict

  1. I had never read those Ten Commandments before. Pretty terrifying. Of course, I’m trying to wean now after feeling I’d made a good run of it, considering I work. Reading that it’s better to wean at 3 1/2 – 7 years is just so mentally exhausting, Really? I’d be breastfeeding all my kids at the same time!

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