Elisabeth Badinter & modern motherhood

I read this week’s New Yorker piece yesterday on the French feminist Elisabeth Badinter. The full article is unfortunately not available online but there is a summary of it here:
There is quite a bit in the article about her feelings about women and Islam (for example, she is in favor of the niqab ban) but a lot of it relates to her new book about modern day motherhood.

Badinter is convinced that young Frenchwomen have been undermining their hard-won claims to equality. She believes that, in the name of “difference,” young women are falling victim to sociobiological fictions that reduce them to the status of female mammals, programmed to the “higher claims” of womb and breast.

She herself has 3 children, by the way – she is quoted in the New Yorker as saying they all arrived very quickly (I think within 3.5 years) partly because her husband was quite a bit older. She is now a grandma of 3 who takes the grandchildren away every other weekend to their country home. She is quite wealthy.

Here she is being interviewed in Der Spiegel –

Badinter: We are currently living through a troubling phase in our development, a relapse to times long past. In French, we call this phenomenon “l’enfant roi,” or “the child is king.” According to this view, the interests of the mother are clearly less important than those of the child; they are secondary. And that, in turn, brings with it the desire to have the perfect child. Many of today’s young mothers believe that if they’re going to make the effort to stay at home and completely dedicate themselves to their children, they want them to be perfect, too: perfectly raised, intelligent, balanced, in harmony with nature. I honestly wonder how this affects children in the long term.

SPIEGEL: You’re particularly opposed to breastfeeding, which women are gently pressured to do.

Badinter: Gently pressured? Sure, with the help of a massive guilt trip! “You don’t want to breastfeed? But, Madame, don’t you want the very best for your baby?”

The New Yorker article commented that breastfeeding rates at 3 months in France were by far the lowest in Europe, I believe it was 30% vs. (for example) Norway’s 90%. French women work full time at a very high rate, however they have twice as many children as several other European countries. France has a very good child care system.

SPIEGEL: Has the model of their mothers really made women happy?

Badinter: Though it certainly wasn’t perfect, it was a huge leap forward. We could have kids and work — and no one made us feel bad about it. I think that’s one of the big differences between French and German women. French women have always been women first and foremost, and only then mothers. Shortly after giving birth they don’t just stay at home with their child; they go out, and they go back to work quickly. They want to return to their lives and be a part of society, and they also have to be a woman again, to be seductive — that’s what French men expect. It’s not just an upper-crust phenomenon, either. It’s in our genes. Even in the 17th and 18th century, women had a life apart from the children — a communal life, a social life, a love life.

The above quote made me wonder how much of this has to do with the role of women specifically in France. Evidently in the book one of the things she is opposed to is the family bed. The importance of sexuality to adult womanhood and the fact that she thinks it is less possible among women who are living more for their children is one of the reasons I think she is opposed to the newer model of motherhood.

Badinter: I can tell you something else I’ve learned over the years by looking out my window and watching mothers walking through the Jardin du Luxembourg park: I’ve spent hours watching their empty faces and their God-how-I-hate-all-of-this expressions. These women sit bored by the side of the sandpit looking to the left and the right, while their children play alone in the sand. Why can’t women admit that it can be unbearable to have to spend the whole day with a small child? That doesn’t automatically make you a bad mother.

SPIEGEL: So, what is a “good” mother, then?

Badinter: The French ethnologist Claude Lévi-Strauss said that you should always maintain the right distance between two cultures. I believe that a good mother is someone who manages to keep a certain distance between herself and her child — not too close, not too far away — to give it what it needs, to not smother it, to not be constantly absent or constantly present. She has to be something in between. But, unfortunately, that’s extremely rare.

The book appears to be coming out in English in January. The French version was reviewed earlier this year in several places.

The Daily Beast

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.

The New York Times

“Women’s lives have grown more difficult in the last 20 years,” Ms. Badinter said in an interview. “Professional life is ever harder, ever more stressful and unattractive, and on the other hand, there is an accumulation of new moral duties weighing on women.”

In “Le Conflit: la femme et la mère” (“Conflict: The Woman and the Mother”), she contends that the politics of the last 40 years have produced three trends that have affected the concept of motherhood, and, consequently, women’s independence. First is what she sums up as “ecology” and the desire to return to simpler times; second, a behavioral science based on ethology, the study of animal behavior; and last, an “essentialist” feminism, which praises breast-feeding and the experience of natural childbirth, while disparaging drugs and artificial hormones, like epidurals and birth control pills.

All three trends, Ms. Badinter writes, “boast about bringing happiness and wisdom to women, mothers, family, society and all of humankind.” But they also create enormous guilt in a woman who can’t live up to a false ideal. “The specter of the bad mother imposes itself on her even more cruelly insofar as she has unconsciously internalized the ideal of the good mother,” she writes.

The Guardian

Thanks to a new coalition of ecologists, breastfeeding advocates and behavioural specialists, she argued, young women are facing increasing pressure to be perfect mothers who adhere to strict guidelines for how to care for their babies.

If this “regressive” movement takes hold, French feminism could be set back decades, she argued.

“The majority of French women [now] reconcile maternity with professional life. Many of them work full-time when they have a child. They are resisting the model of the perfect mother, but for how long?” Badinter said in an interview with Libération newspaper. “I get the impression that we may now be at a turning point.”

Ms. Magazine asks, “Will Elisabeth Badinter’s new book rile Oprah mommies?”

She does, however, hold fast to the philosophical tradition of Simone de Beauvoir, arguing that a woman’s identity must be determined outside of motherhood or, as she writes “a woman first and mothers second.” Badinter is primarily interested in deconstructing “essentialist feminism” which, she suggests, “boasts about bringing happiness and wisdom” to mothers and families but subverts feminism and holds mothers to a false ideal (one can never actually be a perfect mother)

Badinter suggests that the culture of masochism and female sacrifice to maternity is at unforeseen levels in America, where the ideology is fueled. One only needs to look at the case of Ayelet Waldman for an example.  Waldman, some of you might remember, was booed on Oprah and demonized by mothers across the country for daring to suggest that she loves her husband more than her children.

Jezebel has a jokey take on it all as well, with perhaps unsurprisingly the most positive review of her out there that I ran across. She’s good at getting press, that’s for sure.

I like to listen to podcasts while I run and last week I was listening to the Slate Double X gabfest. The July 14 one discusses In Spite of Everything, which is a Gen X divorce memoir. Evidently the author is a child of divorce herself and I think maybe her husband is too. In the podcast one of the women commented that she thought in the 1970s divorce was treated more casually than it is today and that she thought there is something of a backlash against that for modern day married people. I believe she also related this to modern day parenting: that women today take parenting much more seriously than women did 30 years ago. I thought this was similar to Elisabeth Badinter’s contentions about the idea of maternal perfection, as well. She comments in that Spiegel interview,

What we’re currently experiencing is daughters taking revenge on their mothers. I didn’t want to be like my mother, either — that is, sitting at home waiting for daddy to get there, hoping that he’d give me some money. I wanted to be independent. The current generation of young women is made up of the daughters of the feminists of the 1970s. They don’t want to be like their mothers — torn between their job and their family, constantly stressed, constantly tired. They think it must be much more satisfying to devote themselves entirely to their children.

I think she has a point that the culture of maternal perfection and subjugation to the children does have an impact in that it is the ideal in American mothering culture at the moment and is difficult to live up to. The fact that it doesn’t seem to be nearly as much a part of MotherTalkers as it does on some other parenting blogs is one reason I prefer being here where people are pretty live and let live. (Ms. was a bit snide in calling them “Oprah mommies.”)

I’m not so much on board with Badinter’s idea that you have to work in order to be a fully actualized woman – I work (part time) but I think it is kind of an old fashioned idea that women have to work. The 1970s feminists had a real backlash from women couldn’t work to all women should work and my hope is that nowadays we have somewhat gotten to more of a balance where every family can decide for themselves what is the right work situation for the mother and hopefully the father as well. I like working and having that adult and more intellectual challenge, but I also like having time for my home and my family, so that’s what works best for us. I’m sure other families have worked out a situation that is best for them as well. I don’t agree with the one size fits all prescription.

So – what are your thoughts?