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.

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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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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