The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women by Elisabeth Badinter

Every once in awhile I try to read a book that I know will challenge me because I feel like that is good for everyone to do but this book has surprisingly been more of a difficult read than I was expecting. 

Not because it is difficult to understand, but because this author is really annoying me. 

The book is The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women by Elisabeth Badinter. While I will acknowledge that there is a lot of stuff about modern motherhood that is not good for women, it is more of a technical problem to me than a fundamental one. Meaning, I think there is too much emphasis placed on “helicopter parenting,” or that women don’t allow themselves to retain enough of themselves after they have children, and I will even concede that many women do undermine themselves by having children when they probably shouldn’t because it is socially acceptable. 

However, Badinter’s thesis is that there is not only too much emphasis placed on angelic motherhood but that motherhood itself and a child are fundamentally at odds with female liberation. She even includes in her book (because she sees it as an example of how pervasive sexism in motherhood is) a BEAUTIFUL quote from Bruno Bettleheim, child psychologist, when he declined to write an intro for her previous book: 

“I’ve spent my whole life working with children whose lives have been destroyed because their mothers hated them…Which demonstrates that there is no maternal instinct. Of course there isn’t, otherwise there wouldn’t have been so many of them needing my services— and there are many many mothers who reject their children…this (book) will only serve to free these women from their feelings of guilt, the only means that some children are saved from destruction, suicide, anorexia, etc. I don’t want to give my name to supporting the last buttress that protects a lot of unhappy children from destruction.” 
Women have been taught that culture and society are the enemy. They always have been there to repress women and control them. Culture and society always equal suppression and limiting women’s rights. But isn’t there some basic role that society was created to provide? Doesn’t society, and the demands that we place on women as mother…women who are raising the future occupants of our society…have some say into pressuring and guilting people into doing the kinds of behaviors that lead to a successful society?  (Here is a REALLY great paper from Duke on that subject. Seriously, please read it!) Granted, many of these care giving roles can be provided for by other family members, especially fathers, but even as Badinter decries suppressive motherhood, she also devalues male roles by only mentioning them in secondary positions: “(Women) seek out a partner who is desirable as the father of their children.”

And this is the paradoxical crux of the feminist argument towards anti-motherhood; Children are the primary responsibility of women and only women have the ability to chose when they are born, and how they are subsequently raised. However, we do not have to be subjugated by male superiority into providing those offspring with what they need to be fulfilled and resent others in society trying to enforce rights for children that depend on our actions.

Motherhood is a necessary position of compromised freedoms. You cannot be a mother without acknowledging that at some point you are biologically and legally chained to another human being for 18+ years and as the caretaker of another person you have legal obligations that must be fulfilled beyond basic food and shelter. Badinter deeply resents what she sees as a ecological motherhood that is prevalent in modern society, based mostly on scientific and psychological research which she says provides biased conclusions based on loose results. She complains of Hrdy, the primatologist, that while Hrdy concedes that mother instinct does not exist and historically women have behaved against perceived ideas of maternal instinct she still promotes ideas about a primal bonding and uniting of desires between mothers and children (If you haven’t read Hrdy before do it now. Go on). However, in her criticism, Badinter forgets that most women do feel fundamental connections and even transformations after “bonding” with their child and that this desire to please experienced by both mother and child is what has lead to the endurance of our species. Badinter rightly points out that not all mothers breastfeed and are still able to mother, which is true, but even in the act of bottle-feeding, or playing, parents are able to bond with their babies. Those who do not bond properly with their children absolutely have problems being adequate parents, which is what Badinter is questioning. 
Is the burden to be the one a child is exclusively attached to unfairly thrust on a woman? Absolutely, but when women take on the responsibility of motherhood it is impossible to not have to compromise your own freedoms and desires to accommodate another human living in such close proximity and in such an extraordinary state of dependence, and I think that it is definitely, to some extent, the responsibility of society to help and hold mothers accountable (at least in a vague, societal pressure way) for children’s well being. This kind of rhetoric is what gives feminist a bad name as arrogant, selfish, and self-centered. All women want to pursue their own lives, separate from their children or husband, and all women at some point have thoughts about wavering love, but that doesn’t mean that they haven’t so tightly bonded with their child that they would be willing to sacrifice what they can.

As Edna says in The Awakening, “I would give up the unessential; I would give up my money, I would give up my life for my children; but I wouldn’t give myself.” 

Women will never really give up who they are for their children no matter how much they love them because they cannot. But they do give what they can because that is what is required to be a mother.  I think on the issue of conflicting parental responsibilities and desires Louis C.K. is way more on base than Badinter when he says in his stand-up,
“Every honest parent will tell you they live with an ambivalence. And it’s torture. You look at your beautiful child’s face and you have two feelings at the same time. I love my daughter in a profound way. I cry at the drop of a hat when I think about her. This kid has made me love her so much that it has made me able to love other people.I can love people who are dead that I didn’t love properly. Her love for me makes my love transcend time and travel through space. She is an amazing creature of pure love and beauty and I intensely regret every decision that led to her birth.”

Regretting your children, or questioning your ability to parent does not, and never has, any impact on your parenting, as long as you don’t allow it to. The greater problem is telling people this questioning is legitimate, important, and free from feelings of guilt.

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