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 pendulum between progress and regress in women’s liberation may be swinging, but its arc is not as wide as it once was. We are not going back to status quo ante (nor are we swinging back to “Me first!” Badinter notwithstanding). Simply put, the facts do not support Badinter’s anxieties: In many ways, the fight against nature as destiny is one we have already won. Ninety-nine percent of women in the United States use birth control at some point in their lives. Though 75 percent of American women may initiate breast-feeding, we are also going to work in record numbers, overtaking men as household breadwinners, according to recent reports.
It is not the fight against nature that matters now, but frankly, the fight against exhaustion. Most American women work, and most have children, and most juggle the two in a variety of creative ways. In our time, progress in women’s empowerment is a more subtle endeavor than it was three or four decades ago: It encompasses a wide variety of women’s experiences, and aims not at freedom from children and family, but an ability to balance the various elements in one’s life. This is true among college-educated women, who are the most likely to marry before becoming parents, and who have the luxury of debating how to find a “work-life balance.” But it is also deeply relevant to non-college-educated women: As The New York Times reported earlier this year, among women under 30, more than half of all babies are born to single moms, on whom the pressures to parent and support a household are particularly intense.
The litany of public policies that could help (quality child care on the French model, decent family leave, gender balance in child care) has been repeated ad tedium. And in difficult economic times, such a discussion is all but moot. Instead, we’ve got Elisabeth Badinter railing against environmentalism, and Rick Santorum’s benefactor, Foster Friess, telling us to put an aspirin between our knees. Hyperbole sells but it doesn’t help. Luckily, the pendulum is unperturbed by these gusts of hot air.
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