Issue #25, Summer 2012

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.

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.

Issue #25, Summer 2012
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Ted Schrey Montreal:

Actually I was interested only in seeing if I got the captcha puzzle right. All the other faux problems couldn't possibly interest me less.

Jun 12, 2012, 10:31 PM
Hugo de Toronja:

The obvious paradox Ms Badinter presents is that the French are almost always exquisitely, and defiantly, aware that French ways are so utterly dependent upon the particularisms of France and French culture that French ways are impossible to export to nations which are, lamentably, not French.

And yet Ms Badinter offers her musings as some sort of model for international feminism, as if they were something which reasonable right-thinking egalitarians around the globe ought recognize as an inarguably cogent and practicable outline for motherhood and parenting.

For this reason alone Ms Badinter comes across as a freakishly out-of-touch loon, weirdly indifferent to how her thoughts and words resonate in the various contexts in which she's deliberately made them available.

Lord knows the Swedes aren't offering their pre-schoolers anything approaching what Ms Badinter might define as a nominally acceptable "cheese course."

Why doesn't she rant and carry on about that sort glaring transgression?

It'd be far more amusing and far more legitimately in keeping with the particular formation of Ms Badinter's sensibilities.

Jun 13, 2012, 12:06 AM

I very much disagree with the reviewer. Elizabeth Badinter is right that the regressive models of motherhood have returned to the detriment of feminists and working women. I am amazed by her courage in publishing her books. Badinter is a courageous intellectual.

Jun 13, 2012, 4:15 AM

Chacun a son goute

Jun 13, 2012, 6:47 AM
Frank Riposte:

This woman is a lunatic.

Jun 13, 2012, 9:26 AM

Freaky bitch.

Jun 13, 2012, 2:43 PM

"It is equally difficult, in a media culture whose basic unit of currency is hyperbole, to see clearly how much has changed." Why can't more discussion reflect the overuse of this rhetorical device (hyperbole)?

Jun 13, 2012, 3:12 PM
Jon Monroe:

What a waste of intelligence: flattering selfish egotism over and over, year after year. What a small thing to spend one's life and best efforts on.

Jun 13, 2012, 4:34 PM

I'm a man and I'm childless. When my brother and sister-in-law became pregnant they left the States and came back to Canada to take advantage of the free health care (both have Canadian citizenship); and ended up moving in with me as I'm single and have a large new house.
When my niece was born I would walk the halls at night with her, change her diapers and feed her every chance I could get.
Spending my days taking care of her was a million times more enjoyable and fulfilling than trudging off to work.
Even four years later I enjoy every minute I have with her, in a way that differs from all other platonic and familial relationships I've ever had, and must have some sort of biological origin.

I can only think that M.Badinter is some kind of mental deficient. Aspergers and psychopathy masquerading as an intellectual.

Jun 13, 2012, 6:59 PM
R Lewis:

Schoenborn: what made you refer to Aspergers and psychopathy in the same sentence. And to relate them to Badinter? You do a disservice to everyone with your offhanded use of such terms and rash generalizations

Jun 13, 2012, 8:24 PM
R Lewis:

Schoenborn: what made you refer to Aspergers and psychopathy in the same sentence. And to relate them to Badinter? You do a disservice to everyone with your offhanded use of such terms and rash generalizations

Jun 13, 2012, 8:27 PM
Berel Dov Lerner:

Is "helicopter parenting" a strictly feminist issue? Aren't men expected to become "helicopter fathers" as well?

Jun 14, 2012, 12:58 AM

I'm an adopted mom. If I didn't give up a lot for my daughter what would make me a mother since I did not give birth?

On the same hand I overdid my involvement and have a quite indifferent and insensitive 27 year old. There are no general answers. None.

Jun 14, 2012, 1:38 AM

@E.Schoenborn google Tom Sawyer painting a fence.

Unfair to include the DSK fiasco in this as Ms Badinter was a witness at their wedding. Hardly an impartial intellectual take on the issue.

French people do not treat their children with 'benign neglect'. Francoise Dolto would have been the person who's thinking most influenced 'my' attitude towards babies/toddlers and the relationship is one of utmost respect. The 'goo goo gah gah whee' business insults both adult and child.

That said I didn't feel any need to follow the prescribed 'throw the baby in the child minders and get on with life' scenario and practically attachment parented two children in rapid succession. And I STILL find modern anglo saxon parenting nauseatingly overblown, clingy, and neurotic.

I couldn't agree more @Wendy you didn't do anything wrong, you know that. Raising a child is not like baking a cake - follow step by step instructions and get perfect results is just not feasible.

Jun 14, 2012, 5:34 AM
N Smith:

It is a shame that Sarah Blustain has purposely put such a negative spin on her review of Badinter's work. Because of this, men, and women, who will never actually read or consider closely such important feminist, counter-hegemonic theories are calling Badinter insane and a "bitch" (see comments to this article). It is people such as Badinter, who are brave enough to voice opinions against the status quo, who cause the positive changes throughout history. And they are always derided by the masses in their time.

Jun 14, 2012, 1:46 PM

No one likes being told that some behavior or other is suggested by our knowledge of nature... unless, of course, that behavior is something like immunizing yourself or sterilizing our hospitals, etc. How dare those arrogant scientists suggest that I should take my blood pressure medication just because they've studied nature!

Jun 14, 2012, 2:04 PM
Will Peterson:

I came away from France thinking the French are wonderful people, France is beautiful, but the French culture drives anyone to distraction. Ms. Badinter is just more proof of those thoughts, it's tough to care for someone when they are out on a tear. In this case, the French are just trying to survive!

Jun 15, 2012, 11:26 AM

I agree with NSmith that Blustain could have pointed to a few more positive aspects of Badinter's work. Badinter might be arguing using extremes to prove her point, but that doesn't mean her views have no validity to them whatsoever. for example, I have personnaly witnessed how children are treated as royalty these days, as parents cater to their every desire, sometimes to the detriment of the couple. It is doing a disservice to the child if you lose yourself in the process of raising it. And mothers naturally (Badinter would shiver at the use of the word) end up giving-up more than fathers if they chose to breastfeed - however blaming nature for giving us breasts is downright silly. The trick is to find a balance between making sure children are nourished, loved and disciplined while not letting them take-over. Parents should bring children into their lives, not the other way around.

Jun 15, 2012, 11:41 AM
San Francisco Prof:

It isn't "motherly love," that EB doesn't understand, it's human love itself. John Ruskin once remarked that Utilitarianism, which also reduced humans to self-interest, was like a system of gymnastics which ignored the human spine. Just grant that, he said, and you could prove that humans could be rolled into balls, twisted in spirals. An interesting system but hard to apply in the real world since spines are real. So is love.

Jun 15, 2012, 3:31 PM

My observation of French mothering - comparing it with other familiar countries (UK, USA,Norway) - is that is it simply less neurotic, less concerned to match some norm.

I can imagine two French friends who are mothers both dismissing Badinter as loopy and wrong, but from two very different perspectives: one of about Badinter's age would predictably want to get into a hectic feminist philosophical punch-up with Badinter about how she had failed to learn - the other would make a face at Badinter's loopiness then go outside to have a cigarette (going outside to smoke is her one major concession to mimsy notions of motherhood).

The underlying problem here is perhaps that Anglo-Saxons believe too far readily that their own way of doing things is both universal and perfect. (It is not. Even to imagine so is incredibly arrogant.) Then to get nervous and twitchy about trying to match each new norm - Spock, Dragon mother, whatever next? There must be a publishing niche somewhere for the Albanian Chatelaine's Guide to Perfect Motherhood.

Jun 16, 2012, 3:52 PM

this article is ready for the NYTimes -- slip in some irrelevant "right wing" bashing -- No Republicans are not against birth control -- just on your demand that I have to pay for it!

Jun 17, 2012, 2:09 AM

The writer is so exaggeratedly blithe towards breastfeeding. She is so gauche in that she is not aware of the sole purpose of breastfeeding, which is to provide antibiotics to child, which lasts eternally (There's no substitute for such subtle phenomena).>

Jun 18, 2012, 10:12 AM

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