03.29.10

The Book for Angry Moms

A controversial new book has divided France with its claims that women's lives are being ruined over ridiculous expectations for raising children. Eric Pape on Elisabeth Badinter's polemic against motherhood.

Beware, fertile women: Tyranny looms. Forget the coarse macho oppressor of the past; today’s tyrant is sly, enveloping you with sweet, discreet coercion. This modern autocrat suckles from your own breast and buries you beneath a mountain of sullied nappies. Yes, the great new oppressor of women—according to the impassioned screed of a popular French author—is that warm, pudgy little creature in the crib. “The baby,” writes polemic philosopher Elisabeth Badinter, “is the best ally of masculine domination.”

Badinter’s recently released screed has divided feminists, angered ecologists, annoyed health experts, and become a bestseller in France. The book may have an academic title— Le Conflit, la femme et la mère ( Conflict, Woman and Mother)—but it might as well be called: New Mom, Your Life Is Over! She rails against the sanctification of motherhood, over-the-top environmental-sensitivity, and return-to-nature trends in contemporary child rearing that relegate the modern mother to the level of a "female chimpanzee." A mother of three, Badinter argues that the progressive demands on motherhood take away a woman’s physical freedoms, smothers her social life, and usurps her sexuality, among other laments—all in the name of being a “good” mother. And despite mom's best intentions, she will never quite be good enough.

“We have passed from the troublesome child to the child-king.”

book-cover---le-conflit
Le conflit. by Elisabeth Badinter. Flammarion. 256 p. €17.10 ()

In the book, as well as in her extensive French media interviews to support it, Badinter takes particular aim at the societal coronation of an emperor-child who undermines his mother’s career forever after. The administrators of the infant’s absolutist control of Mum are apparently an unholy alliance of ostensible do-gooders, including child behavioralists, absurdly cautious health experts, pandering politicians, radical environmentalists, and La Leche League (an international network of devout breast-feeding activists). To Badinter, they are adherents of a new form of maternal “political correctness.”

The trail of sin among mothers is now made up of powdered milk and baby food jars (rather than home-cooked organics), and of course pain-killing epidurals during birth—yes, you must feel the joyful pain that medicine spent centuries learning to alleviate. Disposabiles—which is to say, unnatural things that have increasingly freed up mothers’ time in recent decades—can’t just be made biodegradable, they should be replaced by things that suck up the last seconds of Mom’s day.

But Badinter’s greatest overarching beef seems to be how Nouveau Motherhood ties women down professionally, and there the tyranny is largely driven by breasts. In French history, there have been periods of time when mothers faced intense pressure to breastfeed, but the feminist movement and the powdered milk industry in the '70s collectively stigmatized nursing on an array of social, health, and hygienic grounds. For Badinter’s generation of self-described feminists, this remains a signature issue, and the return to breast-feeding is strengthening the glass ceiling.

She argues that Western European women, who tend to benefit from multi-month or even yearlong maternity leaves, are actually being held back by legislation that pretends to help them. How’s that? The insatiable little leech’s 24-hour access to Momma’s mammary product means more time away from the career path, a gradually rising salary, and promotions. Worse, some “good” mothers only return to part-time work, or stay home full time. In some cases, Mom ends up as a mobile milk fountain that agile 3, 4, or 5 year olds walk up to and drink from whenever thirsty. (In Germany, die Mutter has been known to graduate from a promising career to welfare to stay with her children.)

In many ways, Badinter is really attacking the globalization of mothering values—some of which were shaped through a de facto consensus by experts and aspirational parents in progressive-minded enclaves of the United States. (The La Leche League began in Chicago a half century ago.) For Badinter, such values have mixed with and evolved in relation to European nanny-state supports, with the end result a threat to feminist gains that made women more comfortable in pushing for their personal ambitions.

Critics—and there are many—say that Badinter (who is the heiress to one of France’s wealthiest families) takes her arguments to extremes to stir societal debates. “She is very good,” says Jeanne Fagnani, the French author of A Job and Children: Small Arbitrations and Big Dilemmas, “at getting people’s attention.” Fagnani told The Daily Beast that solutions should come from better responsibility-sharing among parents, as well as workplace protections against penalizing women for being mothers, but such responses aren’t nearly up to Badinter’s impassioned polemics.

While Badinter has repeatedly argued that she is fighting a women’s rights “regression,” her arguments sound retrograde to many younger women—she’s been called an “archeo-feminist,” and a faux feminist. (A prominent Green politician hinted at both when she noted on French radio recently that washing cloth diapers in a machine now is far from the backbreaking task that it was decades ago—when Badinter was bringing up her children.)

In the end, Badinter can also be seen as trying to protect (and strengthen) the version of feminine modernity that her generation helped to define in France, and which she partly credits for helping to make her country into the only European Union nation in which the population is replacing itself. Yes, she notes that French culture has long had an underlying parental philosophy in which parents incorporate a child into their life; not vice versa. But she also points out that the right combination of pro-working women policies (fairly generous maternity leave is accompanied by a guaranteed post-pregnancy return to a job and an elaborate subsidized daycare system) mean that French women haven’t felt like they had to choose between having a child or a career. They reproduce, Badinter says, because they can unload their kids at daycare and with shared nannies, and then get back to their own lives. If that balance is threatened, she warns, fertile French demoiselles may instead follow the path of their barren European counterparts.

Whether or not you agree with Badinter, those who have long watched her note the striking emphasis on the passivity of mothers in her new vision. “Badinter has always denounced the portrayal of women as victims; this book seems to contradict that,” says Fagnani, who adds: “Today’s women are no victims.”

So when Badinter, in a lengthy interview with France’s Nouvel Observateur magazine in February, warned that, “We have passed from the troublesome child to the child-king,” she has surely put her finger on something worth considering. She just doesn’t seem to have figured out who the real kingmaker is.

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Eric Pape has reported on Europe and the Mediterranean region for Newsweek since 2003. He is co-author of the graphic novel Shake Girl, which was inspired by one of his articles.  He is based in Paris. Follow him at twitter.com/ericpape