Mother Natures: On Elisabeth Badinter

Mother Natures: On Elisabeth Badinter

In The Conflict, the French intellectual takes American mothering to task.


When a close friend of mine heard that I was writing something about motherhood, he—a resolutely feminist “he”—told me candidly that books on the subject provoked a kind of “sigh” in his “soul.” As much as I wanted to dismiss his response as the prejudice of someone who has neither a child nor the anatomy to give birth to one, I confess that his words might as well have been mine. Books about motherhood so often turn out to be books about mothering—which is to say, manuals on how to do it or memoirs on how it was done, with barely a sense of a world outside the home, or even Berkeley or Park Slope. On special occasions, China or France or the !Kung San of the Kalahari Desert might come up for consideration, but then the discussion will still revolve around breast-feeding and sleep-training techniques, while bigger questions of politics and culture are brushed aside.

No doubt being a new parent can be so discombobulating that what many mothers may want most is a book that’s immediately useful, whether by way of advice or commiseration. In Raising America (2003), Ann Hulbert’s history of American parenting manuals, she notes that child rearing is an “American fixation, especially since the start of the twentieth century and particularly among the middle class.” The market for expert guidance thrives on parental anxiety and uncertainty—and because mothers have traditionally shouldered most of the child-rearing duties, that anxiety and uncertainty has generally belonged to them. Hulbert traces how advice has oscillated between strictness and permissiveness, with the fashion for one emerging in reaction to the other. Even Dr. Spock, often portrayed as the original guru for indulgent parents (in the 1960s, conservatives pilloried him for having nurtured a generation of student protesters), wasn’t entirely consistent throughout the numerous incarnations of Baby and Child Care; in the second edition, he discussed the dangers of letting a child rule the roost and encouraged mothers to assert more control.

What distinguishes the American tradition of “parental guidance” from those of other cultures is precisely the lack of a firm tradition, which is perhaps why child-rearing manuals—which offer clear prescriptions to the exhausted and confused—tend to flourish here. Many Americans live in a different city from their parents, if not a different state; with one or two siblings, often close in age, they may have had little to no experience with infants while they were growing up; and for those who are the children of immigrants, the ways in which their parents were raised might reflect the historical and cultural practices of another country—practices the children believe impractical or undesirable. In other words, the usual methods of transmitting child-rearing practices from generation to generation are less prevalent here. Add to this the cacophony of expert voices and passing fads, and you get a population of American mothers who have been exhorted to do one thing as well as its exact opposite.

This extreme variability shows how parenting books reflect cultural tensions that affect mothers and non-mothers alike. Motherhood is intimately connected to assumptions about mothers and fathers, about women and men, families in general and society at large. Feminists have been saying this for a while now—Betty Friedan in the 1960s, with The Feminine Mystique; Adrienne Rich in the ’70s, with Of Woman Born. Even Simone de Beauvoir, who never had children and was disgusted by the “curse” of reproduction, devoted a good part of The Second Sex to examining motherhood and the sentimentalization of the “Good Mother” that affects all women, whether or not they happen to have children. She first made this case in 1949; American readers were introduced to the book in 1953. (Alfred A. Knopf had apparently bought the translation rights to Le deuxième sexe under the mistaken impression that it was a highbrow sex manual—but still.) So when the discussion of contemporary motherhood is defined by terms like “lifestyle choices” and “mommy wars” (oh, those silly mommies!), the implication is that our culture has accommodated itself so fully to women’s desires and ambitions, in all their variety, that the decisions a woman faces are as easy and consequential as whether to buy a certain pair of shoes. Her experience might be of interest to others in the market for women’s shoes, but why should anybody else care?

* * *

Many of the most prominent books on motherhood, despite the earnest attention paid to every pea dropped on the floor, feed into this assumption. When “Tiger Mother” Amy Chua writes about her determination to raise her children “the Chinese way” (which seems to consist mostly of rigid expectations and ritual humiliations), her extreme parenting style appears to be just that—a style that has little to do with anything other than Amy Chua’s personal preferences. Ayelet Waldman, she of I-love-my-husband-more-than-my-children fame, begins her book Bad Mother with a feminist argument that goes something like this: the Good Mother/Bad Mother binary is part of a patriarchal agenda to distract Americans from the lack of government support for women and children, so we fixate on the tragedy of a mother drowning her kids while George W. Bush vetoes a law that would have extended health insurance to 4 million children. But Waldman introduces this feminist argument only to dismiss it, pointing out that women are often the ones condemning other women; the rest of the book is devoted to personal anecdotes. That patriarchy might shape the beliefs of women as well as men seems not to have occurred to her, and though she insists upon her ostensible maternal badness, she nevertheless slips in copious evidence that she is in fact a very Good Mother—seventy-two heroic months of breast-feeding her four children, for instance, who are subsequently fed organic food and milk. Perhaps, then, it shouldn’t be surprising that she skips the subject of false consciousness.

The motherhood book du jour, Bringing Up Bébé by Pamela Druckerman, offers not a cross-cultural study of American and French parenting (Druckerman is an American living in Paris), but rather a wide-eyed celebration of France’s well-mannered children and skinny, chic moms. When she observes that “France trumps the United States on nearly every measure of maternal and infant health,” Druckerman isn’t referring to France’s established system of universal healthcare or the staggering levels of childhood poverty in the United States; she’s referring to her discovery that pregnant Frenchwomen continue to enjoy their steak tartare and smelly cheeses.

Clearly some class-specific dynamics are at work here. In Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Chua, a professor at Yale Law School who is married to another professor at Yale Law School, recalls taking a group of eighth graders to eat shrimp cocktail at the St. Regis in New York City, whose restaurant “charged by the piece.” (Her eldest daughter, Sophia, had just given a piano recital at Carnegie Hall.) Waldman, a former lawyer turned writer who is married to the novelist Michael Chabon, wrestles not with the cost of hiring someone to clean her house, but with her guilt “for being able to afford” it. Concerns about money figure briefly in Druckerman’s account, when she gives birth to twins and hires around-the-clock babysitters to help her during those first few insane months. But those money worries are short-lived: she learns that, as the parent of multiples, her twins have priority at the neighborhood crèche, which charges families on a sliding scale. By the time her children are 2, they will be eligible for the école maternelle, the free, all-day preschool that allocates a space for every child in Paris.

Whenever Druckerman approaches a political or economic point, she comes to an abrupt halt and retreats. “The fact that the French state provides and subsidizes child care certainly makes life easier for French mothers,” she writes. “But when I get back to France, I’m struck by how French mothers make their own lives a lot easier too.” That “But” is doing a lot of work in her twisting train of thought; Druckerman then shunts the conversation back to national conventions like the rules that govern mealtimes and sleep schedules, without entertaining the possibility that there might be a connection between how French society provides support for mothers and how French mothers see themselves.

Despite Druckerman’s admiration for the French, Bringing Up Bébé is American to its core—a self-help parenting manual smuggled under the guise of something else. The book contains elements of memoir and journalism, but Druckerman never delves deeply enough into either to give much insight into herself or her situation. When, for example, she enrolls her 1-year-old daughter at the crèche, she is burdened by guilt despite knowing that the toddlers are fed sumptuous four-course lunches (appetizers might include “hearts of palm and tomato salad”) and are tended to by “the Rhodes Scholars of baby care.” Yet she gives little indication that she’s ever wondered why her guilt is so insistent, why it flourishes in the most ideal circumstances, which makes the memoir part of the book seem thin and unreflective.

The journalism in Bringing Up Bébé doesn’t fare much better. Druckerman, previously a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, takes in the “French wisdom” as though she were an eager student uncovering timeless truths, with little more than a passing glance at the society that sustains the parenting practices she so admires. Instead, we are treated to a litany of all the good habits that French children have mastered: French children snack only once during the day, at 4 pm; French children eat everything and don’t throw their food; French children sleep through the night by the age of 3 months; French children play quietly by themselves while their parents have uninterrupted conversations about the irreducible contingencies of life (or so I presume based on Druckerman’s survey of French children’s books, which show how “life is ambiguous and complicated” via their Sisyphean storylines). French mothers achieve all of this with a firm Non and C’est moi qui décide, a technique that Druckerman is keen to adopt: “I gradually feel my ‘nos’ coming from a more convincing place. They’re not louder, but they’re more self-assured…. I widen my eyes and try to look disapproving.” There’s something of the novice’s cookbook to Bringing Up Bébé: take a formless mass of uncooked dough, roll it with a firm hand into shape, et voilà! The results will be superb!

* * *

The obvious rejoinder to all this chatter would be to tell mothers to trust themselves, to heed their gut feelings, and in fact many of the traditional experts do make much of biological maternal instincts, even if they still write books telling mothers just what those instincts are. “Trust yourself,” Dr. Spock instructed his anxious readers in Baby and Child Care. “You know more than you think you do…. Don’t be afraid to trust your own common sense. Bringing up your child won’t be a complicated job if you take it easy and trust your own instincts.” Still, his readers were having enough trouble with their instincts and common sense that he lived to publish seven editions of the book.

Some doctors have presented instinct itself as yet another thing for mothers to worry over. As Dr. William Sears, a contemporary advocate of what is called “attachment parenting” (breast-feeding on demand, late weaning, co-sleeping, baby-wearing), writes: “All parents, especially mothers, have a built-in intuitive system with which they listen and respond to the cues of their baby.” His advice, he insists, is intended only to help mothers and babies live in “biological harmony.” But watch out—that harmony can be disrupted by anything from “a difficult birth experience” to the mother returning to work. Gradually, “a distance develops between mother and baby,” he writes with uh-oh italics, describing a fictional career woman who “feels fulfilled by her job” and selfishly returns to it full time. “The attachment was not developed at a time when both mother and baby needed it, and they are now playing the difficult game of catch-up.”

For many women who feel ambivalent about giving themselves over entirely to stay-at-home-momdom, as well as for those who simply cannot afford to, maternal instinct so conceived—selfless, innate—is a tricky concept, often a source of guilt rather than guidance. In Bad Mother, Ayelet Waldman presents a manifesto “to rebel, to embrace the very identity we are afraid of, to loudly proclaim ourselves bad moms…. We vociferously resist and resent the glorification of the self-abnegating mother.” Meanwhile, in Paris, Druckerman is astonished to find that French women are not expected to cede their entire identity to motherhood; the mothers she meets are encouraged to return to full-time work, to bottle-feed, to never wear sweatpants. Amy Chua might spend an extraordinary amount of time and resources getting her children to play their instruments and earn straight A’s, but the Tiger Mother’s ruthless rejection of their hand-drawn birthday cards (“not good enough”) and her authoritarian enforcement methods (at one point she picks up her defiant 3-year-old and shoves her outside into the icy New Haven winter) come across as rather removed from the maternal, at least insofar as that term is typically understood.

None of these authors really probe the issue of maternal instinct, but they nevertheless struggle with the assumptions behind it, whether wittingly or not. (Admittedly, the word “struggle” might not apply to Chua, who doesn’t seem to second-guess herself much—she’s willing to call her daughter “garbage” without any self-recriminations—which makes her Battle Hymn weirdly fascinating.) Such books have been bestsellers because they position themselves in resistance to what they deem the prevailing parental trends, trends that rely on a particular notion of what a mother should be. Waldman sneers at “the self-effacing, self-sacrificing, soft-spoken, cheerful, infinitely patient Good Mother,” but her resentment, as well as her insistence that she might be “bad” (though only in a good way), show how haunted she is by that ideal. “My kids are not allowed to watch TV during the week,” she informs us, “but on weekends even the little ones veg out to The Simpsons.” This bad mother is not exactly Child Services material.

* * *

The Good Mother ideal is examined by the French feminist Elisabeth Badinter in her latest book, The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women. Badinter, a 68-year-old mother of three grown children, is utterly uninterested in writing about the personal experience of mothering. Last year she was voted “the most influential intellectual” in France, and she seems never to have wallowed in maternal guilt, choosing to dissect it instead with chilly precision.

In 1980 she wrote L’Amour en plus, a history of mother love, in which she described how maternal “selfishness and indifference” were the norm until Rousseau and the Romantics put the “reign of the child king” at the center of European family life. The book opens with some startling police statistics from 1780. Out of 21,000 infants born in Paris that year, more than 19,000 were dispatched to wet nurses in the countryside, where—if they were lucky enough to survive the treacherous journey—they would be tightly swaddled and left to stew in their excrement for hours; hung up on a nail by their swaddling bands to keep them out of reach of barnyard animals; and fed a diet of pap when the wet nurse had trouble with her milk supply. More than half of those children died before the age of 2.

Historians have commonly argued that such displays of maternal indifference were due to the crushing levels of infant mortality in the eighteenth century: a mother would stop herself from becoming too attached to an infant who might die. Badinter, however, takes her cue from medical historians such as Edward Shorter and reverses the lines of causality: “It was not so much because children died like flies that mothers showed so little interest in them,” she writes in L’Amour en plus, “but rather because the mothers showed so little interest that the children died in such great numbers.” The 10 percent of children who stayed at home to be breast-fed by their mothers or by live-in wet nurses were about twice as likely to live. To believe that high mortality rates were the cause rather than the result of maternal indifference is, for Badinter, a sentimental fantasy that “prevents us from condemning” mothers and keeps our mythology of mother love heart-warming and pristine.

Such sang-froid wends its way through The Conflict, which includes the same ghastly statistics, but here Badinter brings them up at the end, after devoting most of the book to denouncing what she calls “ecological motherhood,” which is essentially the attachment parenting promoted by Dr. Sears: breast-feeding, cloth diapering, co-sleeping. “Eco-biological prejudices” and “the vilification of chemicals” have “put motherhood squarely back at the heart of women’s lives” by making childcare an all-consuming activity that only a mother can do. Badinter reserves a special disdain for breast-feeding, which physically ties a mother to her child; in L’Amour en plus, she called it “a strange phenomenon, occurring at a time when infant mortality is at its lowest and when there have never been better substitutes for mother’s milk,” and in The Conflict she targets La Leche League and other “ayatollahs of breast-feeding” for putting “the child before the woman.”

American readers may find something recognizable in the extreme parenting Badinter describes, though her tone—impersonal, bombastic, judgmental and prone to sweeping generalizations—will undoubtedly elicit some complaints about the French-intellectual pretentiousness of it all. And she directs all of this heavy artillery at motherhood, no less, which Americans rarely discuss in such cerebral terms—a further gulf between Badinter’s culture and ours. She offhandedly refers to a survey asking “Why have a child?” that appeared in a French magazine called Philosophie. Try to imagine an American magazine called Philosophy. Then try to imagine Philosophy conducting a survey on parenting. Neither can I.

Badinter has written a polemic against a kind of hyperintensive mothering that has found more favor here in the United States than it has in France—where, for instance, breast-feeding rates at six months are so negligible that they aren’t even registered in the data she provides. Badinter cites a general willingness among French women and men to view motherhood as one element among many in a woman’s life. In her last chapter, “French Women: A Special Case,” she condenses the scholarship of L’Amour en plus into fifteen terse pages, which include the bit about the eighteenth-century French babies who “died like flies.” If Badinter laments this fact, she doesn’t show it. She writes only that the numbers of dead babies were “rooted in women’s desire to define a broader role for themselves and emancipate their lives from exclusive motherhood.” This seems to me a curious way to make her case. Isn’t she stoking the anti-feminist dogma that women’s freedom is paid for by the lives of their children?

Badinter’s rhetoric sounds a bit tone-deaf to my soft North American ears, but she is writing in a tradition that reveres dialectics and decisiveness. Badinter’s feminism owes much to Simone de Beauvoir and the existentialist contempt for anything that would tether human existence too closely to the animal kingdom. “One is not born, but rather becomes, woman,” Beauvoir declared in The Second Sex. “No biological, psychical or economic destiny defines the figure that the human female takes on in society.” Badinter’s distaste for “ecological motherhood” is consistent with that premise. She criticizes the feminist anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, who observes in her book Mother Nature (1999) that mothers have always contended with competing demands, juggling the desire to nurture their children with their own ambitions. (According to Hrdy, even infanticide among langur monkeys does not constitute “random acts of violence,” but rather adaptive behavior.) At first I was puzzled by Badinter’s hostility to Hrdy’s argument, which doesn’t seem to me incompatible with Badinter’s own. But it soon became clear that Badinter thinks Hrdy—who broaches the subject of hormones in mother-infant bonding—doesn’t go far enough. “Even though Hrdy recognizes the influence of historical, social, and economic factors, she maintains that none of these considerations invalidate the notion of maternal instinct,” Badinter sniffs. The word “invalidate,” with its resolute either/or-ness, is especially revealing: that Hrdy dares to include mention of biology in a discussion of motherhood is something Badinter finds terribly offensive. Beware, she writes, of those who “remind us of our mammal natures.”

* * *

For those women whose life experience hasn’t felt so disembodied and Cartesian, Badinter’s pronouncements may seem less persuasive than alienating—which is a shame, because The Conflict provides some relief from the deluge of books that treat motherhood as an all-consuming arts-and-crafts project that takes place solely in the privacy of one’s home. Reading Badinter’s book alongside Druckerman’s is illuminating, if only to see how Druckerman takes French culture and history and wrests from them a set of childcare tips. Badinter’s books are listed in her bibliography, but it’s unclear just what exactly Druckerman learned from them: Rousseau, whose Émile encouraged mothers to breast-feed their babies and let their little bons sauvages “run barefoot in all seasons,” figures as a hero in Bringing Up Bébé, whereas in The Conflict he is held in contempt as a guilt-mongering anti-feminist villain.

The Conflict is ultimately a book about a backlash. “Ecological motherhood” became an ideal in the 1970s, when women were making significant gains in the workforce and in public life; as an ideology, this extreme version of the Good Mother is very good at making women feel bad, unless, of course, they stay at home. But even stay-at-home mothers must contend with the fact that mothering, no matter how it is sentimentalized as “the most important job in the world,” is culturally and economically devalued. This affects all women, not just the rich mothers whose anxieties are so easily derided.

Nowhere is this ideological function more glaring than in the United States, where the Good Mother ideal has made for cheap and convenient social policy; by insisting that a child’s psychological health requires only the constant presence of a Good Mother, we allow the actual needs of women and children to be ignored. In her excellent 2001 book The Price of Motherhood, Ann Crittenden notes that motherhood is an American woman’s biggest risk factor for poverty in old age. Not single-motherhood, but motherhood. Just as the psychological welfare of the child is assumed to be the responsibility of the mother, the economic welfare of mothers and children are assumed to be the responsibility of the father—an assumption that is codified in the vast apparatus of American laws, which exacts “a heavy financial penalty on anyone who chooses to spend any serious amount of time with children.” Roughly half of American mothers with children under the age of 18 stay at home or work part time. They don’t earn Social Security credits for their thousands of hours of unpaid work. They don’t have access to high-quality, affordable daycare, because—outside of the military—high-quality, affordable daycare doesn’t exist in this country. They “forgo status, income, advancement, and independence.” These women are in an extraordinarily precarious position if relations with the father of their children sour. (That is, if they have such a relationship. On the subject of single mothers, Druckerman, Chua, Waldman and Badinter have conspicuously little to say; all of these authors are married to husbands who appear to provide another income as well as moral support—albeit mostly passive—for their wives to mother as much or as little as they want.) To which many people might say “tough,” or a cruder version thereof. Their condescension would only prove Crittenden right.

As much as Badinter adds to any serious discussion of a subject too rarely treated with much seriousness, her rhetorical strategy also devalues motherhood. Where the authors of other books often get mired in detailing the everyday experience of mothering at the expense of the bigger picture, Badinter is so fixated on her grand case that she makes actual mothering sound ridiculous; one might almost wonder if she believes a child wouldn’t be just as well served by a formula-feeding machine. “I see ambiguity and I want to pierce through it,” Badinter told The New Yorker last year. “I am a fanatic of clarity.” But motherhood is an experience that is full of ambiguity and ambivalence, and pretending otherwise, even for the sake of argument, will make The Conflict dismissible by anyone who feels excluded from Badinter’s arid categories of thought. The late Adrienne Rich, whose Of Woman Born is still one of the best books on motherhood, takes maternal ambivalence as her starting point, describing “the murderous alternation between bitter resentment and raw-edged nerves, and blissful gratification and tenderness.” That tenderness is too often taken for granted, but to deny its existence is a different sort of wishful thinking. The last thing we need is another set of rigid expectations to conform to, another ideal. Mothers have enough to care for as it is.

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