The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women

In her latest feminist missive, Elisabeth Badinter seems determined to conceal a number of extremely important points with wandering discussion; layers of dry, sarcastic vitriol (particularly directed at La Leche League); sweeping generalizations; and an almost tangential conclusion.  Her message: thanks to changes in feminist theory and the vaunting of all things natural, a new “high ideal of motherhood” as full-time and all-embracing (i.e., the belief “that a good mother takes constant care of her children round the clock and cannot pursue personal fulfillment at the same time”) leaves women with “two options: exclusive motherhood or remaining childless,” and that we will see more women choosing the latter.  In several respects, I can’t say that I agree.

Why do I recommend the book nonetheless?  First, it’s mercifully short.  Second, she delivers aforementioned golden nuggets like, “[i]n a civilization that puts the self first, motherhood is a challenge, even a contradiction.  Desires that are considered legitimate for a childless woman no longer are once she becomes a mother.”  True.  “The irony of this history 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.”  Well put.  Third, I like the global perspective.  Finally and most importantly, I can take strands of her thoughts and weave them into material that’s more relevant for me, discarding the scraps.

Badinter’s bottom line observation – that mothers these days are held to a new unrealistic ideal (taking primary responsibility for domestic chores as well as their children’s basic physical needs, education, stimulation, and future psychological well-being) – is astute and forceful.  And she provides every one of us with an extraordinarily valuable touchstone when she writes that “a mother cannot allow herself to be consumed by her baby to the point of destroying her desires as a woman.”  My primary problem with Badinter’s book is that she doesn’t stop there or offer ideas to reform “vocational motherhood,” instead suggesting the employment route (along with bottle feeding and utilizing child care) and opting out of motherhood entirely as our sole means of salvation.  In so doing, she unnecessarily narrows the “desires” mothers relinquish down to one: professional ambition.

In my opinion, the key to stay-at-home mothers escaping their “new master[s]” is not necessarily work.  One can refuse to “give her child everything” by consciously and consistently making time for her social life, sexuality, vanity, and intellectual curiosity.  She can be “both mother and woman” simply by changing her approach to the first role.  At least that’s what I’ve done lately, refusing to feel contrite about skipping infant enrichment opportunities, asking my two toddlers to play independently for chunks of time throughout the day, and hiring college students to babysit (or arranging child care swaps with other moms) for a few hours a week so that I can read, shower, drink, socialize, spend time with my husband, and write book reviews.  How do I skirt the guilt at not being able to do it all single-handedly?  In part, thanks to the support Badinter provides.

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