Elisabeth Badinter is, without a doubt, a very smart woman. A French writer, feminist and philosopher, she has been called the heir to Simone Beauvoir and “France’s most influential intellectual.” As it happens, she is also one of that country’s wealthiest individuals, the daughter of the founder of a multinational advertising and media company, which only helps to increase her profile.
And, at the moment, that profile is very visible, and very polarizing, indeed. Her latest book, "The Conflict : How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women," which was released in France two years ago, has its American debut today. Like much of her work, it is a dissection of what she sees as an intensive, over-enmeshed trend in parenting that essentially shackles and imprisons todays mothers. Natural childbirth? Breastfeeding? Co-sleeping? Leaving the paid workforce? To her worldview these are all a return to an era when women were defined, and diminished, by their children.
She is not the first post-Feminine Mystique writer to argue that motherhood -- or, at least, certain approaches to motherhood -- come at a huge, and unacceptable, cost. Where Friedan's target was the kind of mothering that saw Mom as servant to house and home, Arlie Hochshield, in "The Second Shift" took aim at the kind that saw Mom as all that, plus a wage earner. Ann Crittenden, in turn, looked at how the value placed on the work side of the parenting scale insulted and marginalized women who did not work, in her 2001 book "The Price of Motherhood: Why The Most Important Job in the World Is Still Undervalued." Leslie Bennetts expounded on that theme five years later, with "The Feminine Mistake: Are We Giving Up Too Much?" which was a financial accounting of the cost to women who stay home. And, most recently, author Erica Jong made the American version of Badinter's argument in a Wall Street Journal essay titled "Mother Madness". "Spend every moment with your child?" the Journal's headline asked. "Make your own baby food and use cloth diapers? Erica Jong wonders how motherhood became such a prison for modern women."
Badinter's book is, in effect, the closing of this full circle. Below is a conversation I had with her about how she reached her conclusions, whether her observations might not be a little out of date, and whether she has set her sights on the right target -- defining the “conflict” of one between different visions of motherhood rather than between, say, mothers and inflexible institutions, or mothers and outdated views of the roles of men. (I sent her the questions in English, she answered them in French and they were translated by The Huffington Post.)
Do you think you were a "good mother"? Did you worry about that when they were younger?
Like all mothers, I dreamed of being a perfect mother. But like practically all mothers, I was very average. So many things I didn't really understand, so many stupid mistakes I made. Mothers -- and fathers -- are human beings limited by their history and their neuroses. Women are not females guided by infallible instincts. They have desires and ambitions that have nothing to do with their maternal role. Ultimately, it's not up to me to say whether I was a good or a mediocre mother, it's up to my children.
You speak of the "trends" in parenting, and the way mothers turn to the "gurus" of the moment. Is thinking "wrong" just because it is new?
Parents' submissiveness to gurus is not new. Remember how, half a century ago, doctors, midwives and nurses were pressuring young mothers not to breastfeed but to give the bottle, which was considered more hygienic and more rational because you were sure the baby had taken the right dose. If mothers are so susceptible to the edicts of childhood "specialists", it is precisely because they feel helpless in relation to both the baby and the specialist, who dishes out his so-called "knowledge" with authority. It is worth reminding young mothers that the message from these specialists can change drastically in the space of 30 or 40 years. Yesterday, the good mother had to give the bottle; today she has to give the breast.
Perhaps the new thinking is a logical evolution of thought, no, rather than a knee jerk reaction? The mothers of today who are, as you describe them, returning to what you call as the enslavement of mothering -- aren't they reacting less to gurus from without but rather their own childhoods watching their own mothers struggle to balance work and mothering?
This is indeed one of the reasons I examine in my book. Psychoanalysts are well aware that girls often have accounts to settle with their mothers. An overwhelming majority of the 1970s-1980s generation wanted the financial independence their mothers didn't have, at any cost. For this, they took on the double work schedule, the glass ceiling, unequal wages and stressful days. Women of the new generation may consider themselves the "victims" of those mothers. And they in turn say "I won't be like my mother." This reaction is not inconsistent with submission to the gurus. On the contrary, it complements it.
Is "intensive" parenting wrong for all women, or is the harm as you see it that few women feel free to truly choose otherwise?
"Intensive parenting" may certainly be appropriate for many women who see it as a way to give a noble meaning to their life. Indeed, to succeed in making our children well-adjusted and fulfilled adults is a great cause. But I wonder about the term "intensive". Is this really what our children need? Shouldn't we also teach them a bit of loneliness, boredom, frustration and self-sufficiency? The question is open and we won't know the answer until they grow up.
Furthermore, women who make this choice risk losing all of their independence. Besides the possibility of divorce, a husband who is ill or some other accident of life, what do these mothers have left when the children leave home?
Where do men fit into your argument? Do they have no responsibility here? Is this entirely an equation made up of women vs. the current messages about motherhood?
This is exactly what saddens me the most: the whole issue of "intensive good mother" excludes men from the care of infants. Many men see this as a fine opportunity to escape sharing the work load, some don't know the joy of sharing bottle time with their baby, and others are waiting more or less patiently for the mother of their child to turn back into their wife. But we have to recognize that for once they are not the ones initiating the new slavery of women.
I agree that women are at a disadvantage at work, and are not free to completely fulfill themselves in the workplace, if they follow the recommendations of doctors, such as breastfeeding exclusively for six months. But isn't a better solution to change the workplace? Isn't that where the problem lies?
Businesses certainly need to make improvements to help young mothers, particularly by setting up nurseries on the premises. But this problem can be solved. What is more difficult today is to get people to acknowledge that not all women want to breastfeed and no one has the right to pressure them to do so. You can be just as good a mother giving a bottle. But in some countries, this statement has become almost unspeakable.
Do you find the science in support of breast-feeding to be compelling?
No. I read dozens of studies on breastfeeding that all claim to be "scientific" but frequently contradict each other. For example, for decades we were convinced that breastfeeding protects children from asthma and allergies. But the study in 2007 by Dr Michael Kramer (McGill University, Canada, published in the British Medical Journal) on more than 13,000 children from Belarus shows otherwise. This makes me wonder whether the breastfeeding trend isn't based more on ideology than on science.
You have three children. Did you breastfeed them?
I never answer questions about my personal life.