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.
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).
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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