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.
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).
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