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.
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.”
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