Unlike animals, we humans have the capacity to rethink -- even radically rethink -- the way we raise our children. And we do, changing our ideas from one generation to the next, partly in response to discoveries of medicine and psychology, but perhaps more in response to ideological shifts in the value we place on children and women in society. The bellwether of these changes are the "specialists" in childcare -- the doctors, midwives, pediatric psychiatrists -- veritable gurus to young parents, who bow to their injunctions, convinced that their truths hold the key to a child's health and success. That these same gurus change theories every thirty or forty years is easy to forget, as is the fact that the model of motherhood promulgated with such authority only yesterday has been thrown out the window today.
Exhibit A: the modern, liberal, progressive mother of the twenty-first century, deeply conscientious toward the child she has chosen to have, does exactly the opposite of what her own mother did in the twentieth century. Back then, women aspired to independence, equality with their partners and the ability to balance their vocation as mothers with their personal and professional selves. The baby bottle was a tool of emancipation, and so were those little jars of processed baby food and disposable diapers, which did away with a time-consuming and unappetizing chore. These consumer products offered the mother of that era a little more time for herself and a little less fatigue. What's more, these advances had the additional benefit of letting the father take part in childcare from the moment of birth.
Increasingly, that way of mothering is under attack. The reasons for this change are various: a series of economic crises have left women disenchanted with the workplace. Daughters have reacted against the feminism of their mothers. Most of all, we have seen the return of a naturalist ideology not much different from that of Rousseau, which kept women at home for almost two centuries. Its message was simple: "Ladies, your duty and your great achievement is to make the adults of tomorrow. You need only look to the teachings of nature and devote your days and nights to the task." Under the pretext of a return to nature -- a benevolent force that provides all the guidance we need for what to do and how to do it -- women in our time are being called to the flag of natural child-raising.
We decry the materialism and consumerism that made us throw out the timeless wisdom of nature, and we dismiss their offerings as tools of maternal egotism. Today's ideal of motherhood requires that we give birth in pain, without benefit of an epidural, since this robs us of our first act as a mother. We are enjoined to nurse for six months, a year, or longer, day and night, whenever our child wishes, regardless of the mother's situation. We are advised to practice co-sleeping, at the risk of sending numerous fathers to the sofa. The good mother who wants the best for her child is urged to forswear processed baby food, which is eyed as a health hazard, and to avoid daycare as injurious to her child's healthy development. With all of its demands, the naturalist ideal of the 21st century means that it takes a woman as much time and energy to raise two children as our grandmothers spent raising four.
This ideal of the modern mother -- a mother exclusively concentrated on her child's supposed well-being -- means a big change for the condition of women. For some, this new way of life might deliver a kind of joy, letting women immerse themselves fully in the act of being a mother, but for others it is a burden, a source of anxiety and isolation. Stuck at home for a year or more, if she decides to quit her job, or furnished with a breast pump, if she goes back to work, the new mother is forced to choose between giving up her full adult identity and taking on an expanded and exhausting set of obligations, along with a strong dose of guilt.
Nature knows only one way to be a mother. This is not the case for women, who are endowed with consciousness, personal histories, desires and differing ambitions. What some do well and with pleasure, others do badly or out of duty. By failing to take account of women's diversity, by imposing a single ideal of motherhood, by pursuing the notion of a perfect mother -- one who has the exclusive responsibility of making or breaking her children -- we fall into a trap. We neglect the other business of modern women: the unfinished assault on the glass ceiling, the fight to close the salary gap, the struggle for equality at home. We overlook women's need for financial independence at a moment when one marriage in two ends in divorce.
We also fail to remember that raising a child doesn't last forever, that when children grow up we have thirty or forty years left to live. To make a child the alpha and omega of a woman's life deals a terrible blow to women's autonomy and to the equality of the sexes.
Single-minded focus on the ideal of modern motherhood has even more disastrous consequences, which we are just beginning to see. Women who choose to reject its excessive constraints now have a nuclear option. They can curb their reproduction. They can refuse to have children, as they are doing in many industrialized countries. From Japan to Germany, wherever the duties of the good mother weigh too heavily on women's freedom, the birth rate has sunk too low for the continuation of the species. In the United States, the percentage of childless women aged 15 to 44 has increased notably, according to the Census Bureau, from 42.8 in 2000 to 47.1 in 2010. Significantly, highly educated women, the class that has most embraced the expanded role and duties of the modern mother, are the same group that is proving most reluctant to procreate. Rather than producing a generation of magnificently sane children in perfect health, we might find that the new model of motherhood discourages women from having children altogether.
Women might begin to reverse the trend by rallying behind the breadth of their aspirations -- personal, maternal, and professional. We might begin by affirming that whether mothers give birth by epidural or in a hydrotherapy tub, breast-feed or mix formula, co-sleep or opt for a crib, stay at home or enroll in daycare, their children will be fine. In our developed world, both sets of children will thrive. In their effect on our children, the differences in approach are marginal. By losing sight of this truth, we lose sight of another: that the choices we make as mothers have no small bearing on our status as women.