Vive la Mère

The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women  By Elisabeth Badinter, Metropolitan Books, 224 pages, $25.00

Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting  By Pamela Druckerman, Penguin Press, 304 pages, $25.95


Don’t smoke or drink while pregnant. Breast-feed for a year, if possible (it almost never is). Buy organic. Read to your little one every day. Don’t work full time unless you have to, line up the right schools, and if you can’t manage everything on this list, try not to wreck your kids’ fragile psyches with the guilt unleashed by your failure.

The current advice to mothers makes child-rearing sound as fun as a sentence to Leavenworth. In the inevitable reaction, books attacking the escalating demands on mothers have become a cottage industry over the past ten years. Elisabeth Badinter, France’s preeminent woman intellectual, has responded to the rise of what she calls motherhood fundamentalism with a cri de coeur denouncing the insidious pressures on young mamans.

Badinter, a retired professor at the École Polytechnique (one of France’s prestigious grandes écoles), and the author of three decades of feminist best-sellers, charges that mothers today are under an “assault of naturalism” that is pushing them to return to the status of lactating mammals, tethered to their young. A scholar of the 18th-century French Enlightenment, she sees in the current backlash the hidden hand of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who urged the worldly women of his day to renounce frippery and return to the bosom of the nursery, so to speak.

The tyranny of the baby has replaced patriarchy, Badinter warns, and breastfeeding is bébé’s principal weapon. Badinter denounces La Leche League, founded in 1956 by a small group of traditional American Catholic women and now a worldwide organization supporting women in their efforts to breast-feed. Decrying the league and its allies’ attempts to paint bottle-feeding as harmful to infants even in developed countries, Badinter has told Der Spiegel that she decided to write The Conflict in 1998 when the French government began to enforce a European Union directive banning advertisements for powdered milk and ending the distribution of free formula samples in maternity wards. She fails to mention in the book that Nestlé, a major manufacturer of infant formula, is a client of a leading advertising firm whose board she chairs (her father founded the company).

Badinter is tackling here a profound dilemma: how to reconcile the increasingly burdensome responsibilities of parenting with the pursuit of one’s own personal fulfillment. “In a civilization that puts the self first, motherhood is indeed a challenge, even a contradiction,” she writes. But Badinter fails to grapple with the conflict inside women themselves and with what we might call the paradox of selflessness. Sacrificing one’s own interests for the sake of others can be a deep source of fulfillment. (As the late Texas Governor Ann Richards once said, “Why should your life be just about you?”) Instead of exploring that paradox, and the painful internal conflicts it can create, Badinter externalizes the forces trying to push women back into domesticity. She blames the ecological movement for hassling mothers as if additives in baby food and toxic diapers do not exist. She blasts claims for breast-feeding as excessive as if proven health benefits do not exist. She attacks “difference feminism” of the past 30 years as if differences between men and women—in biology, upbringing, and preferences-—do not exist.

Especially egregious is her dismissal of 40 years of research on early child development showing beyond a reasonable doubt that children who are treated with sensitivity, enjoy unconditional affection from their first caregivers, and are spoken and read to frequently turn out to have better lives than their peers who lack such advantages. These are inconvenient truths for advocates of female equality and freedom. Mothers need help from husbands, communities, and politicians in finding ways to make modern motherhood less of an either-or proposition. What we don’t need is a slapdash, hastily written polemic that equates all of the new demands on parents with reactionary propaganda.

In fact, far from being brainwashed back into the home, young women are reacting to the contradictions of modern motherhood in an entirely rational way. In all developed countries, they are having children later, having fewer children, or not having children at all. In the most persuasive part of her book, Badinter points out that in countries where the demands of motherhood are the most exacting, “women who cannot fulfill the expectations pinned on them are increasingly likely to turn their backs on motherhood.” The result is a rising incidence of childlessness most pronounced in English-speaking countries, Italy, and Germany. Precise data on childlessness does not exist for Japan, but it has one of the lowest fertility rates in the world. Recently industrialized countries such as Singapore and Thailand are heading in the same direction.

The trend is most striking among Europe’s educated women. Fully 38.5 percent of the most highly qualified women in relatively conservative Germany, including the current chancellor, remain childless. It seems clear that where the model of the “good” self--sacrificing mother is strongest, many women who have other opportunities for a full life are opting out of childrearing. Badinter calls this phenomenon “wombs on strike.” She notes that in countries where motherhood is just one aspect of a woman’s fuller identity, fewer women forgo children, and their lives are richer for it.

Her prime example is France, where the birthrate is the highest of all 27 European countries: Only 10 percent to 11 percent of women remain childless. Badinter is convinced that Frenchwomen more readily become mothers because they don’t see motherhood as the be-all and end-all of existence. Frenchwomen have by far the lowest rate of breast-feeding in Europe. They have the highest rate of full-time professional activity, particularly after the birth of their first child. American observers have also been struck by the fact that Frenchwomen seem to be utterly unburdened by guilt for sending little Jules and Juliette off to a crèche or école maternelle at a tender age. In her amusing and perceptive Bringing Up Bébé, Pamela Druckerman, an American writer and former Wall Street Journal reporter raising three children in Paris, marvels at her French peers’ ability to have a life and an identity separate from their children. Not for them the nagging guilt that they should be “staying at home” or the harried, kids-obsessed parenting of so many American mothers.

Badinter traces this French exceptionalism back to history and culture. Since at least the 18th century, women with any social status were expected to be wives first, hostesses second, and domestic exemplars last. Aristocrats traditionally farmed their infants out to wet nurses, a frequently fatal practice that came to be emulated by the aspiring bourgeoisie. Once returned home, the baby was handed to a governess and then, at age eight or nine, sent away to a boarding school or convent. It was in part this history that inspired Badinter’s controversial 1980 best-seller, L’amour en plus, a social history of maternal behavior that denied the existence of an immutable maternal instinct.

There is an alternative, more convincing explanation for contemporary Frenchwomen’s readiness to embrace motherhood, however. It has to do with the country’s extraordinary array of policies that support the work of raising children. French mothers are simply less burdened by the job. French men and women working full time have shorter hours than almost anyone else in Europe, enabling parents to have another life. There is a national system of nursery schools, open at no cost to every child age three and up. Higher education is free; the health-care system is possibly the best in the world and available to all at a reasonable cost. Family subsidies are generous enough to keep child-poverty rates among the lowest in Europe. Whenever I lecture at American universities on the comparative international costs of motherhood, some student invariably raises her hand and asks what she would have to do to qualify as a resident of France. It should be added that despite the current economic crisis, these pro-natal policies are still supported by both the left and right in France.

Today, the feminist struggle in France has less to do with the burdens of motherhood than with ending workplace discrimination, including sexual harassment on the job and the glass ceiling barring women from the higher echelons of government and business. Last year’s Dominique Strauss-Kahn affair made French women aware that they had been tolerating too much for too long in the name of “seduction,” and thousands went out to demonstrate against sexual predation in the workplace. Badinter, who is a close friend of Strauss-Kahn’s wife, was not among them. Although The Conflict was a best-seller in France, tellingly, several younger feminists have said to reporter Jane Kramer of The New Yorker that they haven’t even read the book.

There are no easy answers to the dilemmas that confront the not-quite-liberated, not-quite-equal women of today. Free to be average mothers, as Badinter avers, Frenchwomen do seem to find it easier to take on the role. D.W. Winnicott, the great mid-20th-century English child psychologist, offered a similar insight. It is really OK to be “good enough,” he counseled guilt-ridden British and American mothers. That is still good advice. 

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