Bringing Up Baby

How modern motherhood undermines the status of women
May 1, 2012

Book Review:

The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women; by Elisabeth Badinter, Metropolitan Books/Holt, NY, 2012, hardcover, 224 pages, $25.00.

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Elisabeth Badinter, a leftist scholar and a grandmother who was active in France's women's movement in the 1960s-1970s, is concerned about the current status of women. She quotes statistics showing that, although women in Western democracies have secured equal rights under the law, the wage gap, the glass ceiling, and the unequally shared burden of domestic work prevent them from having true equality.

In Mother Love, Myth or Reality? (1981), the first of her works on women's social history, Badinter assembled historical evidence that maternal instinct is not innate, but culturally learned.

In The Conflict, she finds that her generation's dream of women's equality in the workplace and at home has been stalled. Why? First, economic crises and unemployment have made many women wonder if motherhood might be "more gratifying than a poorly paid job that might disappear overnight." Meanwhile, the fields of ecology, behaviourial sciences, and biologism combined to teach that "natural" equals "good," leading to a glorification of woman's biological experience.

Motherhood is celebrated as "women's true destiny, the condition for their happiness and the source of their power." The definition of good motherhood was vastly expanded and domestic duties increased to fulfill "children's genuine or assumed needs."

As young mothers, Badinter and her contemporaries avoided the "natural" pain of childbirth by having epidurals. Some had the occasional drink or cigarette. Many bottle-fed their babies so their spouses could share in the nurturing. They used what child care was available and advocated for more.

The new generation of women, however, sees motherhood as the "crucial experience of womanhood, the basis on which women [are] equipped to build a fairer, more humane world... A new feminism emerged, foregrounding every aspect of women's biological experience." By excluding women who are not mothers, this maternalism prevents a united front among women.

Badinter asserts that "motherhood and the virtues it presupposes are not a given." Though some hoped that, through maternal influence upon society, "a world damaged by men might once again flourish," so far we have neither matriarchy nor sexual equality, but a regression in women's status.

Baby now rules Mother, says Badinter: "At the point that Western women finally rid themselves of patriarchy, they acquired a new master in the home." Women's increased responsibility for young children has proved just as restrictive, if not more so, than sexism at home or at work.

To Badinter, the "tyranny of maternal duty" is exemplified by the La Leche League, which claims that children are biologically meant to be weaned somewhere between the ages of three-and-a-half and seven. Badinter cites medical journal articles which undercut some widely accepted assumptions about the advantages of breast feeding for children. As well, she contends that breast feeding and co-sleeping exclude the father from the "mother-child couple" and often destroy the adults' relationship. Also, if a woman stays home until her child is three, she can "bid farewell to her professional ambitions. If she has a second child, "we can safely say that Mommy has come home for good."

Despite the current glorification of motherhood, birth-rates in Western industrial countries are not increasing, and governments worry. Even in countries with generous maternity leave, child care for infants and pre-schoolers, and flexible working hours, the birth-rate of 2.1 children per couple, for population replacement, is not attained by most European countries. Are women quietly rebelling against today's demanding ideal of motherhood? Some postpone having children; others risk societal disapproval and have none. The "aggressive censure of childlessness," says Badinter, may indicate widespread parental disenchantment seeking a target.

The answer to increasing birth-rates may lie in the focus of family policies. German family policies offer benefits to mothers who remain at home, while France's policies have a dual benefits system which gives women a choice. French women can stop work for six months when they have their first child, but the government also provides access to child care. France's birth-rate of 2.0 is close to the 2.1 needed for population replacement, while Germany's is only 1.3.

Also, says Badinter, "French society acknowledged a long time ago that the mother need not be the only party responsible for her child... Just as eighteenth century society readily accepted sending babies to wet nurses, so twenty-first century society considers bottle feeding and child care to be perfectly legitimate."

In France, she says proudly, women are first and foremost individuals and members of society, and secondly, mothers.

Anticipating the accusations that her views are passé, Badinter says that today's maternalism is, in part, the predictable reaction of a new generation against the achievements of an older one. Her concern is that women's status as full participants in society will regress before the pendulum swings back again. Her readable, humorous style, combined with solid, interdisciplinary research, should encourage sexagenarians everywhere.

(Ruth Latta, an Ottawa-based writer, is the co-author of Grace MacInnis: A Woman to Remember, and author of They Tried: The Story of the Canadian Youth Congress.)