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Melissa Fay Greene

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Why Elisabeth Badinter Is Wrong, And Motherhood Is Not A Prison

Posted: 04/24/2012 11:58 am

Elisabeth Badinter's "The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women, would have really hurt my feelings if it had been published 30 years ago. It is so accurate an attack on everything I believed as a young mother that I kept checking the book's publication date, but it is new, a 2010 bestseller in France, published today in its American edition.

Thirty years ago, when my daughter Molly was born, I was in thrall to every single thing Badinter skewers in her droll assault on what she calls "naturalism" and "motherhood fundamentalism." The slightly older friends to whom my husband and I turned for parenting advice in 1981, were, I see now, the types Badinter describes as "devotees of extreme mothering."

Natural childbirth? Yes! Heirs to the antiwar movement, the civil rights movement, and the back-to-the-land movement, my husband and I were young enough to benefit from the struggles of liberated women and hippie couples to transform the birthing experience.

Breastfeeding? Yes! I attended La Leche League meetings; the first friends I made in Rome, Georgia, where we lived in 1981, were LLL members; and I treasured the organization's just-published book, The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding. Badinter sees that very book, in its 1981 edition, as a war manual of reactionary forces, circulated by women she calls (perhaps tongue-in-cheek) the "ayatollahs of breast-feeding."

Cloth diapers? Yes! Even 30 years ago, there was concern about the mountains of disposable diapers the youngest Americans were producing. Badinter sees the ecological campaign to restore the prevalence of cloth diapers as a thinly-veiled effort to return women to household drudgery, but I saw them the way environmentalists saw them. In any case, even 30 years ago I wasn't washing them by hand in a galvanized metal wash-tub. I had a washing machine. I strung up the first laundry-line of my adult life when Molly was a baby, and I pinned up the clean diapers with wooden clothes-pins on bright breezy days in our backyard and felt like a pioneer woman.

Homemade baby food? Yes! It was the only time in my life my culinary skills were appreciated by my children. My fresh avocado-apple-scrambled-egg compote was a favorite. I owned a "juicer," too--everyone seemed to own juicers in those years--and I pulverized fresh organic carrots into juice for Molly, after she was weaned.

Family bed? My husband and I didn't discover that solution to middle-of-the-night adventures until our son Lee was born in 1988. What a revelation. In the small hours of the morning, when a newborn begins to stir and whimper, a mother can simply roll over, open her gown, and drift back to sleep with her baby. I wished we'd discovered "co-sleeping" a few years earlier.

I'm so happy this book didn't fall into my hands in 1981. If I'd listened to Badinter, I would have missed out on some of my happiest times.

Badinter's urbane attack on "naturalism," or, in America, "attachment parenting," is two-fold: a child-centered universe holds women to impossibly-high standards, scaring off some from childbearing entirely; and a child-centered universe obliges a woman to forgo all other roles, as worker, professional, artist, activist, wife, lover, friend, autonomous individual -- in deference to motherhood.

But her analysis, though amusing and insightful, overlooks entirely the modern American version of stay-at-home-motherhood, which involves iPhones, iPads, Flip cameras, Starbucks, telecommuting, Facebook, Pinterest, business cards, video baby-monitors, tweeting, blogging, blogging with podcasts, profitably blogging with commercial sponsors, attending national mommy-blogger conventions, stay-at-home fathers and stay-at-home fathers blogging.

The author assumes that her description of l'enfant roi -- the baby king -- is something new, a direct result of a new social movement and pressures on women. What's really unique in the 2012 is not the conflict Badinter identifies, but the novel ways that modern mothers of young children are finding to cope. But their creative answers to old questions fall outside the purview of Badinter's argument.

Like every woman on earth who has tried to do serious work while raising unserious children -- and in time my equation would include nine children and four non-fiction books -- I recognize all the hurdles identified by Badinter. Tending to ridiculous children makes every rational pursuit difficult.

Breast-feeding on demand? Still, yes! But I grew sleep-deprived to the point of hallucination. When I blinked my eyes, strange images congregated behind my eyelids. I seem to recall a woodland scene involving a unicorn, and rabbits. These dream-molecules came to me as I staggered around the house -- wearing one sock, bra-less, mis-buttoned, and uncombed -- in the mid-afternoons of earliest motherhood, completely unhinged. Outmoded eyeglasses sat aslant on my nose because I couldn't figure out where to put the baby while inserting my contact lenses. Was I supposed to just lay her on the floor of the bathroom? That didn't seem healthy. Worst of all as a new mother, I couldn't begin to figure out how to push ahead with the writing career I'd been trying to launch before Molly's birth. If the baby was awake, I was holding her. When the baby slept, I collapsed nearby.

By 1986, when Molly was five and Seth was two, and we had moved southeast to Atlanta, my work-week followed the preschool schedule called "Two Day Twos." It should have been called "Let's See You Try to Get Anything Done, Much Less Have a Career, in Six Hours A Week." Pursue a career? Forget it. There were days when there was scarcely time to do more than just sit in the car in the preschool parking lot and weep. More than once, in desperation, I conducted telephone interviews with a baby in my lap, awake and nursing. I once showed up at an interview with my children's bright-red Fisher-Price tape recorder with fat yellow buttons; I tossed out the Raffi tape, inserted a blank one, and commenced the conversation. I once interviewed an author and discovered (after the fact) that both flaps of my nursing bra were down. But that author happened to be the late, great Erma Bombeck. If you can't do that with Erma Bombeck, who can you do it with?

So, yes, I understand the concerns outlined in "The Conflict" very well. I have a muscle-deep, bone-weary understanding of them. Badinter traces the arc of my own life and struggle: l'enfant roi versus the career. She vividly describes a conundrum not yet solved anywhere in the world. Succeeding waves of feminists, human rights activists, and liberal politicians have tackled the issues swirling around the question, Who will raise the children? Yet every generation discovers the persistence of a worldwide gender gap in education, workload, professional attainment, social position, political authority, healthcare access, and wages.

To differ just a bit, let me suggest that we reframe the tired trope of The Mommy Wars. Rather than envision it as women against women, home values versus workplace values, or stay-at-home mothers and their idealized notions of their best selves versus working mothers and their idealized versions of their best selves, shall we not acknowledge that both types of women live within every mother? Every mother wants to love and nurture a healthy child, but she also wants, needs, and is entitled to an income, a decent standard of living, dignified work, intellectual challenges, modern healthcare and the respect of others.

Few women have the economic freedom to stay home full-time for the eighteen years of a beloved child's childhood. Many can't afford to stay home even six weeks without maternity leave. Others, who failed to successfully launch a career before the birth of a child, can't find a way to affordably enter the job market; they stay home because childcare costs exceed what they could earn. [A 2010 study by two Census Bureau sociologists found that--perhaps counter-intuitively--most stay-at-home mothers are not affluent highly-educated women, but are women without high school degrees, a majority of them Hispanic.]

Most mothers are doing the best they can. They swing-shift, job-share, freelance, temp, telecommute, fill in, work part-time, babysit for others, substitute, carpool, invent and consult. Young American mothers today, to an incredible degree, are discovering how to generate income from home, online. Millions of women see the rearing of children as the richest, most meaningful work they will ever do. But even the Most Extreme Devotees of Mothering live in the real world; they, too, must buy groceries and gas, pay rent or a mortgage, and pay back student loans. Some will make do with the old car, the small house, the clothes from the consignment shop, if it will allow them to stay home with their children another year. Like everyone in this recession-hit world, most hope that someday, when they re-enter the job market, they will find work equivalent to their skills and talents.

To choose -- whether for weeks, months, or years -- l'idéologie du naturalisme, attachment parenting, is not to forgo all ambition. It is not to create a retro scene that, as Badinter writes, "sexist men can celebrate" nor is it to grimly and with a sense of biological destiny take up a life of "masochism and sacrifice." It is to enter into the world of the baby and young child with passion and creativity for as long as a mother finds it enriching and necessary and for as long as she and her partner, if she has one, can afford it. The high energy and joy of my early years of mothering were highlights of my life. It wasn't a trade-off. I wasn't choosing the rearing of happy children over the desire for a career. I always wanted both.

 
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