This week, Elisabeth Badinter’s controversial book “The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women” (Metropolitan Books) has introduced yet another debate for the American mother: Are we oppressing ourselves?
Now, to the author herself.
Badinter agreed to field a few of my questions about the book’s premise and about the reaction to it. She sums up her provocative argument and describes how she hopes the pendulum swings for the next generation of mothers. She also shares the single most important suggestion she has for mothers today.
Below, with the assistance of French translator Linda Coverdale, is our Q&A:
Can you summarize the argument of your book?
For several decades now, industrialized nations have been seeing a change in our model of motherhood that is harmful to women. In the 1970s, all the talk was about the rights of women and their vital financial independence. The big question was how to “reconcile” one’s duties as a mother with one’s professional life. Today, for a new generation of young women, the challenge is not so much to reconcile those two facets, but to return motherhood to the heart of female life. The new imperative? To be a perfect mother who knows how to help her child reach his full potential, to raise a gifted, extraordinary radiant adult. Motherhood first, the rest second.
The problem is that ever since Dr. Spock, a mother’s responsibilities have become considerably more burdensome, shaped by the dual influence of a strong resurgence of both traditional morality and an ecological-naturalist ideology. The La Leche League and a great many experts on childhood have made it their business telling women that they must give unstintingly to their children: their milk, time and energy. They are backed up by other specialists — sociologists, critics of the consumer society, opponents of industrial and chemical products, advocates of a return to the wisdom of nature. Women are urged to reconnect with their supposedly innate reflexes as female mammals to become the good mothers their children need. This good mother gives birth without the benefit of an epidural, sleeps with her child, breast-feeds on demand, and disdains powdered milk and store-bought jars of baby food as harmful relics of reprehensible egotism.
Result: The good mother stays at home with her child for the first years of a baby’s life, which sends a woman of the 21st century back to the model of motherhood of the mid-twentieth century. The main problem with this shift is that it is gradually imposing itself on all women as a moral obligation of the first priority. Well, these “modern” practices might suit some women, but not all of them, not by a long shot. And we see that in many countries an increasing number of women — among the most educated — are rejecting motherhood, feeling unable to adequately meet demands that signal giving up all their personal ambitions and desires.
If I criticize this model of an exclusive and guilt-inducing maternity, it is because the model springs from two assumptions I find aberrant. The first is that the perfect mother is an attainable objective. The second is the belief that women are led by their hormones, just as female chimpanzees. Different women have different histories and desires that lead them to a diversity of choices in life and motherhood — a situation incompatible with one single (and utopian) ideal of the good mother.
If there were one change you could convince a modern mother to make, what would it be?
I would tell her never to abandon her financial independence. For two reasons. First, in our society, where half of all couples separate, it isn’t prudent to give up one’s job for a few years. A single mother raising her child alone is in a very difficult position, and many of them are reduced to hardship. Second, I would remind women that they now have a life expectancy of more than 80 years, while the normal activity of motherhood lasts for a decade or so. The children leave home — and then what becomes of the mother?
Your stance on breast-feeding is getting pushback, especially in the U.S. What’s your response to those who say that the problem is not breast-feeding, but the lack of public and institutional support that would make it easier on mothers?
I am not criticizing breast-feeding, only the duty to breast-feed. Even if there were more substantial “public and institutional support” to help women breast-feed, that wouldn’t change the fact that not all women necessarily want to breast-feed. And those women must be free to bottle-feed without being bullied with the idea that they are bad mothers.
For the next generation of mothers, how would you hope that the expectations and opportunities for them will change?
The present generation that is returning motherhood to the center of women’s lives is settling a score with their more or less feminist mothers. In doing so, they are adopting the practices of their grandmothers (and making those even more onerous). So it is not impossible that the next generation will follow the pattern — and return to the example of their grandmothers from the 1970s.
What do you think? Have the expectations of “modern” motherhood become oppressive to women?