My best friend Jonathan lives in France, where for a number of months the book Le Conflit ('The Conflict') has been topping the bestseller lists. When he sent it to me, I read the title so quickly I thought it referred to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- a topic dear to me in my previous journalistic incarnation.
Instead, the book from Paris talked about a completely different conflict: the one which, according to philosopher Elisabeth Badinter, exists today between the figure of the mother and that of the woman (the complete title is Le Conflit: La Femme et la Mere, Editions Flammarion).
Badinter insists that women finally freed themselves of the oppression of men, only to find themselves shackled by their children. She insists that a mother remains above all a woman, and then (secondarily) a mother. And then, as she'd declared in the 1980s, she insists that a woman is not a chimpanzee who looks after her young through instinct, but rather a person that looks after her children either through a sense of duty, or through the love felt for her children. Or she does not look after them at all (and she thinks that's fine, too.)
The author comes out all guns blazing regarding:
- The existence of a maternal instinct (Badinter insinuates that social pressure is what convinces women to have babies, not an instinct that she deems fictitious).
- The tendency to define women uniquely through motherhood.
- La Leche League's ideology (she calls their consultants "Ayatollahs of breastfeeding" and insists children grow up just as healthy and smart on powdered milk).
- The tyranny of the perfect mother (too many expectations, constrictions and obligations are putting women off having kids).
- The 'back to nature' movement (home-made baby food, washable diapers, no smoking or drinking during pregnancy or nursing etc).
- Young mothers who are trampling on the achievements of the feminists during the 1980s by returning to being mere housewives.
I find her views astounding, not least because I don't see mothers who choose to bring up their own children as women who are throwing away the feminists' hard-won rights.
On the contrary: feminism gave us crucial choices. Nowadays, a woman can choose to have a career while sending her children to daycare/leaving them with grandparents/hiring a nanny. Or to have a career and have a stay-at-home husband. Or she can decide to suspend her career in order to be with her kids.
As a woman who was able to graduate from university and follow an ambitious career path for 15 years before deciding to have children and choosing to suspend my work as a television correspondent, I am infinitely grateful to the feminists for their battles.
However, I certainly don't feel shackled by my child.
But back to the philosopher's theories. Can we really see an innocent and helpless baby as a tyrant? Can we really compare a needy newborn to a man that bans his wife from voting or working outside the home because he considers her inferior?
And, of course when a woman has a baby she becomes something different. She becomes responsible for a miniature human being; she becomes part of a two-person team that will have to take care of another life for at least another 18 years. How can this revolution in a woman's life be considered less important than her career? How can she not change her priorities?
As far as the pressure to be the Perfect Mama is concerned, I cannot fathom how most of us (men and women) constantly fight to be the best at school, at college or at university, to be the best in whatever career we choose, but then try not to be the best mom (or dad).
The desire and the motivation to do the best for one's children is paramount. If we then fail in the endeavor (as with exams or careers) at least we know we've given it our best shot.
There. That, I think, is the crux of this blog. I have the impression many parents find that doing the best for their kids is a burden. They give their best on the job, but not at home. They make immense efforts for their bosses, but not for their babies.
And that's exactly where the conflict mentioned in the title of Badinter's book comes in: women grow up in today's egocentric society and are then asked to give that up in order to find fulfillment in the name of motherhood. They are diametrically opposed imperatives, she says. And she's right.
But, instead of criticizing the egoism of our society, or perhaps even encouraging those who are not prepared to give 100 per cent to their children NOT to have them and to channel their energy elsewhere ... she's asking children to bite the bullet.
And to accept that they will be brought up by selfish mothers.