Book Reviews

Mère Knows Best

Is the American mother really a slave to her child? Is breast-feeding really anti-feminist? The newest salvos in the Mommy Wars, French edition.

By Sarah Blustain

Tagged FeminismMotherhood

The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women By Elisabeth Badinter • Metropolitan Books • 2012 • 224 pages • $25

Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting By Pamela Druckerman • Penguin Press • 2012 • 304 pages • $25.95

Elisabeth Badinter is showing her age. For decades the philosopher and grande dame of French feminism has been aiming her flaming arrows at any and all who attack the fully liberated woman. Like all good feminists, she has targeted the age-old demands of distaff duty—serving one’s husband, one’s children, and the home. But what sets her apart is the particular fury she directs at any claim that such tradition is natural and therefore necessary; appeals to nature, to her, are only vile means of subjugating women, and of convincing them that there is no other way to live their lives. Conservative forces may insist that a woman’s place is in the home, but their argument gains public potency when they assert that women are, biologically speaking, made to be the weaker sex, keepers of the hearth, and, above all, mothers first. Badinter’s first book, L’amour en plus (published in English as Mother Love), a history of maternal affection published in 1981, set out to prove that motherly love as a natural emotion was nothing but a myth.

Three decades later—and to Badinter’s unmitigated horror—the Ideal Mother is back, helicoptering over her precious one in the schoolyard, hiring tutors in reading, math, and Mandarin, wiping junior’s nose, and kissing his booboos for more years than is seemly. And so Badinter returns to her old project, reviving her attack on motherly love in The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women, which has sold over 200,000 copies in France and was released in the United States this April.

Carried aloft by the granddaughters of the feminist revolution, the Ideal Mother is leading women all over the developed world to put motherhood before womanhood, Badinter argues, and to serve with unbounded energy “the despotism of an insatiable child.” She sees the monsters of the backlash around every corner: environmentalism and sociobiology, unmedicated childbirth and breast-feeding. The woman whom one poll in 2010 found was France’s “most influential intellectual” just wants it to stop.

But Badinter’s vision of women’s liberation borders on parody. Her exemplar is the Infinitely Liberated Mother, who thrived during the social revolutions of the sixties and seventies—a time “characterized by the women’s clarion call of ‘Me first!’ ” as the philosophe puts it with equal parts nostalgia and awe. “It was a call aimed primarily at men, but also at their children. Mothers told their personal stories, they were encouraged to express themselves on the great taboo subject of maternal ambivalence…[Those voices] stripped motherhood of its sanctity, gave new life to women’s desires, and banished feelings of guilt from the silent sufferers who found no reward in childrearing.”

There may have been a time when this sort of attack against the confines of family life seemed appealing. But those times are not ours. Leave your husband! Dump the kids! Burn (or trash) your bra!—these were the vocalizations of women’s extreme frustration. But in the end most women didn’t want to be childless, spouseless, or bra-less. Infinite Liberation turned out to be less a goal than a revolutionary exercise.

Certainly a Frenchwoman should be the first to acknowledge that the myths and slogans of any revolution (“Me first!”) are blunt instruments that serve a hortatory purpose. But they do not reflect the more complex political and personal reality most of us live in. Rather than updating her thinking or introducing nuance, Badinter writes chapter after chapter of gross and outdated generalizations made harder to swallow by her smug French exceptionalism. In The Conflict, she reminds me—and yes, in saying this I admit to serving my own tours of maternal duty—of nobody so much as Statler and Waldorf, the two old guys in The Muppet Show who sit aloft in the balcony, criticizing everyone else and laughing only at their own jokes.

Badinter’s argument about the origins of the Infinitely Liberated Mother begins in the eighteenth century—hardly the obvious center of feminist revolution. Except, of course, in France. For it was there, according to research Badinter revives from her earlier work, that aristocratic women began to “practice the art of child-free living.” Breast-feeding was considered “as ridiculous as it was disgusting,” and having babies around was, generally speaking, a nuisance: “As well as being an obstacle to her sex life, a young child got in the way of a woman’s social life,” she writes in one of her many love letters to the French system. As a result, upper-crust families shipped their babies off to wet nurses almost from birth (to be followed by governesses, and then, by the age of eight or nine, boarding schools). Others, emulating the aristocracy, followed suit. As a result, “In the Age of Enlightenment, it seems, a woman’s duties as a mother were negligible.”

Fast-forward 250 years, and the lucky women of France are still enjoying this legacy. While the rest of the Western world devolves into what Badinter believes is conservative super-mommying, French women reject breast-feeding, return to work almost immediately after giving birth, and make sure to elevate their conjugal relationships over their parental ones. (Statistics show that 75 percent of American women spend some time breast-feeding, compared with just more than 50 percent of French women. Indeed, in data available from the European Union, French women were the least likely to initiate breast-feeding after birth, compared with nearly 100 percent of women in much of Scandinavia; by three months after birth, only about 15 percent of French women were still at it.) “There is a fairly direct line of descent,” Badinter writes in a chapter called “French Women: A Special Case,” “from the unworthy mother of the eighteenth century to the mediocre mother of today, which is full of implication for the historic social status of French women.” In the author’s lexicon, “unworthy” and “mediocre” are words of highest praise.

It’s easy to understand the appeal of this liberated woman. I can see her through Badinter’s eyes, a Joan of Arc-type figure, powerful, astride a horse, unencumbered by children, subservient to no man, yet fully a woman, hair flying behind her like Delacroix’s Liberté. Like Badinter, journalist Pamela Druckerman—an American ex-pat raising her three children in Paris—fell head over heels in love with her, offering up the narrative version of Badinter’s French exceptionalism in her book Bringing Up Bébé. Druckerman’s awestruck exploration of just how French women are so able to free themselves from their children took off immediately after its publication earlier this year. Her lighthearted romp through the streets of Paris pushing a double stroller—her first daughter was followed by twin boys—finds French women every bit as refreshingly “hedonistic” as Badinter says they are.

And oh, how the French do it so much better—mostly by applying a benign sort of laissez-faire to their children. Thanks to this “neglect,” their babies regularly sleep through the night at two months old, while bedraggled Druckerman and her husband struggle through repeated wake-ups, bleary-eyed and bickering. The French mommies at the playground lounge on the grass and chat obliviously as their children play, while Druckerman feels obligated to spend her hours saying “Wheee!” every time her child comes down the slide. And those same French mothers make sure to take their coffee with no milk in order to return to their pre-baby weight within minutes of delivering. Day care is subsidized and fabulous (four-course meals opening with a salad course of endive or tomates à la vinaigrette and including a cheese course, for the preschool bunch); mothers return to work; and dinners with children are a delight as the little ones behave like mini-adults at the table. And come bedtime? Well, they put their toys out of the common spaces of the house, go to their rooms, shut the door, and play until they are ready to put themselves to bed; meanwhile, “le couple” finds time for romance, or at least a little adult conversation. Though Druckerman’s account is filled with distortions and generalizations—de rigueur in best-selling Mommy-War texts—her insightful embrace makes French parenting sound like a pleasant alternative to our kid-first culture.

It’s the “old [French] tradition: The woman before the mother,” Badinter writes, her analysis an explanatory text to Druckerman’s tale. And as if to prove her nation’s superiority, she trots out a single fact: While birth rates are falling throughout the developed world—the rate of women without children ranges from 18 to 26 percent elsewhere in Europe and the United States—French women are happily bearing fruit, knowing that they are not subject to every whim of the “insatiable child.” Among the French, only 10 to 11 percent of all women have no children—that maternal neglect and government-subsidized child care Druckerman admires no doubt playing significant roles.

To Badinter, this is all evidence of French women’s “historic social status”—a fairly laughable assertion in light of the Dominique Strauss-Kahn arrest, which French leaders dismissed as a travesty against a powerful man. While Badinter’s husband, Robert, a former justice minister, cried foul against the American justice system, Elisabeth remained silent, until, months later, she also stepped forward in Strauss-Kahn’s defense. If she was aware of the sexism of her country’s antiquated political culture, she was not interested in that particular set of complaints. (No surprise: Her 2003 book Fausse Route, published in English three years later as Dead End Feminism, condemned the women’s movement for its cultish embrace of victimhood.) Rather, in the ideology she sets out in The Conflict, she set her sights on three quite different alleged enemies of women’s freedom: ecology, with its embrace of everything natural; behavioral sciences, which draws on animal patterns to suggest natural sources of human behavior; and essentialist feminism, which insists that women are different from men, and that a changed world must accommodate those differences. All three are tied together by their “natural” components. Combined, these disciplines reinforce the idea that women deserve to be what they have always been: the second sex.

Badinter’s attacks on these menaces are irritating, in part because Badinter relishes the extremity of her positions. In a profile in The New Yorker last year, she laughed about a critic who said she operated “like heavy artillery.” “I get a great deal of pleasure in expressing ideas that way,” she told the magazine. “I love to throw out a contrary point of view, and I do it with, perhaps, a certain lack of subtlety…In this one sense, I am not a philosophe but an ideologue.” She exaggerates, she said, “to make [women] stop and think.” And the reader who rails against her is merely taking the bait she has laid.

Still, a little railing is in order. Badinter’s positions are irrational, poorly substantiated, and ridiculous. She derides anything related to nature, which to her is merely a manmade notion intended to hold women down. The entire field of ecology, she fumes, gave nature “the stature of moral authority” that humans then had to serve. As a result, ecologically minded societies, and women in those societies in particular, have come to attack everything “artificial,” including “Caesareans, episiotomies, and inductions being done excessively purely to suit obstetricians.” But there is good evidence that artificial interventions in fact are being done excessively and do harm women. It is clearer than ever, for instance, that high C-section rates do not benefit women: The World Health Organization’s women’s health division has found that C-sections improve women’s overall health up to a level of about 15 percent of all births. But when a country’s rate goes higher than this—in the United States, it has reached around 34 percent—we are seeing unnecessary surgeries, with a range of negative consequences, including a rise in premature births and neonatal and maternal complications. As for those episiotomies she so blithely slips in there: These vaginal incisions were done as a matter of course when Badinter was having her children, but even the medical establishment has been forced to acknowledge that doing so routinely to women giving birth led to no benefits and only undue suffering.

In the same anti-ecology section, she rolls her eyes at the “recent discovery of a chemical substance, bisphenol A (BPA)…which is suspected of disrupting hormonal development, causing cancer (breast and prostate), and increasing the risks of diabetes and cardiovascular disease.” In the face of this research, and of the presence of BPA in most plastic baby bottles (and nearly all canned food), she is worried only about the Infinitely Liberated Mother. “Of course any true mother will throw [BPA-contaminated bottles] out,” she writes, dripping with contempt—as if the (largely unregulated) corporate entities that brought us these damaging “conveniences” are somehow women’s real friends. Immediately on the heels of this perfidy, she tells us that for the first 30 months of life, a baby produces two tons of disposable diapers that will take up to five centuries to degrade, and that the number of these diapers used each year in France alone causes the “destruction of 5.6 million trees.” In today’s world, such ecological impact does—and should—affect the way we think about our consumer choices. But to Badinter, for mothers even to consider such impacts just plays into the hands of the mommy police, waiting for any excuse to force women into the back-breaking, status-degrading labor of washing cloth diapers. Luckily, she writes, France has so far resisted this impulse, “mercifully” rejecting a proposed tax on disposable diapers. “But there is no knowing whether our concern with biodegradability and recycling will eventually defeat our reluctance” to accept the menacing ecological alternative, she warns. It’s easy to imagine where her blinkered vision of liberation leads: to the woman of the future, completely liberated, drowning in a sea of undegraded diapers.

Most vile of all to Badinter is breast-feeding, to which she devotes a significant portion of her book. She recounts in explicit detail the supposed conspiracy of La Leche League and a cabal of international, medical, and governmental bodies to literally tie women to their babies. Everything bad follows from that: co-sleeping (“so the woman-as-mother may well obliterate the woman-as-lover”), overinvestment in the well-being of the child, lack of energy directed toward one’s work and one’s personal life, and a belief that mothers “owe [children] everything!” It’s true that devotion to exclusive breast-feeding can be difficult, and that it can interfere with a woman’s ability to work professionally. But it is beyond absurd to suggest that this element of women’s biology is somehow the enemy of women’s well-being. Modern feminists have fought for ways to make work and breast-feeding compatible, acknowledging the need for change without denying nature. But to Badinter, this is only evil nature at work again.

Her fury escalates as she goes. “The irony…is that it was precisely at the point that Western women finally rid themselves of patriarchy that they acquired a new master in the home,” she writes. “Sexist men can celebrate: we will not see the end of their reign any time soon. They have won a war without taking up arms, and without having said a word. The champions of maternalism took care of it all.”

It is difficult—in a season when women in Texas are being forced to see a sonogram before choosing an abortion, and when Republican presidential candidates can stay viable while debating the morality of birth control—to remain sanguine about women’s progress against traditional roles and the biological mandates that maintained them. It is equally difficult, in a media culture whose basic unit of currency is hyperbole, to see clearly how much has changed. The Mommy Wars may exist, but mostly in the minds of politicians, or on the ledgers of media companies putting out books and magazines. As ever, what sells is extreme: Caitlin Flanagan’s prim serve-your-husband claptrap (summary: women ought to drop everything to serve their families), The New York Times’s flawed but instantly popular “Opt-Out Revolution” (summary: women are dropping everything to serve their families), or Judith Warner’s best-selling assertion of modern motherhood’s Perfect Madness (summary: women, having dropped out of everything else, are driving themselves crazy with motherhood).

The pendulum between progress and regress in women’s liberation may be swinging, but its arc is not as wide as it once was. We are not going back to status quo ante (nor are we swinging back to “Me first!” Badinter notwithstanding). Simply put, the facts do not support Badinter’s anxieties: In many ways, the fight against nature as destiny is one we have already won. Ninety-nine percent of women in the United States use birth control at some point in their lives. Though 75 percent of American women may initiate breast-feeding, we are also going to work in record numbers, overtaking men as household breadwinners, according to recent reports.

It is not the fight against nature that matters now, but frankly, the fight against exhaustion. Most American women work, and most have children, and most juggle the two in a variety of creative ways. In our time, progress in women’s empowerment is a more subtle endeavor than it was three or four decades ago: It encompasses a wide variety of women’s experiences, and aims not at freedom from children and family, but an ability to balance the various elements in one’s life. This is true among college-educated women, who are the most likely to marry before becoming parents, and who have the luxury of debating how to find a “work-life balance.” But it is also deeply relevant to non-college-educated women: As The New York Times reported earlier this year, among women under 30, more than half of all babies are born to single moms, on whom the pressures to parent and support a household are particularly intense.

The litany of public policies that could help (quality child care on the French model, decent family leave, gender balance in child care) has been repeated ad tedium. And in difficult economic times, such a discussion is all but moot. Instead, we’ve got Elisabeth Badinter railing against environmentalism, and Rick Santorum’s benefactor, Foster Friess, telling us to put an aspirin between our knees. Hyperbole sells but it doesn’t help. Luckily, the pendulum is unperturbed by these gusts of hot air.

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Sarah Blustain is a senior editor at Newsweek magazine. Her writing has appeared in The New Republic, Women's Review of Books, Mother Jones, The American Prospect, and other publications.

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