The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women

Are Children the New Masters in the Home?
What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
April 24 2012 6:55 AM

The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women

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Attachment parenting seems awfully joyless to me.

Mother breastfeeding baby in nursery.
The inability or unwillingness to breast-feed remains a font of unfathomable desperation and self-abuse among American mothers

Photograph by iStockphoto.

In tribute to the more intimate tone of your blog, mamapundit, I will open with a personal story: The other day I got a call from a friend who had just had a baby. Before she said it I could tell by the dire tone of her voice what was wrong. The baby was failing to latch on and her doctors were suggesting she supplement with formula. She was worried her husband suspected she wasn’t trying hard enough to breast-feed. I was tempted to comfort her with some line from Elisabeth Badinter’s polemic against “natural” parenting, The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women. But unfortunately French feminists don’t tend to write in an American girlfriend-y kind of tone, so I just gave her a loose summary instead.

Hanna Rosin Hanna Rosin

Hanna Rosin is the founder of DoubleX and a writer for the Atlantic. She is also the author of The End of Men. Follow her on Twitter.

In the couple of years since I wrote my own case against breast-feeding, I have gotten hundreds of emails from mothers in a similar panic looking for comfort. I am generally prepared for their disappointment and frustration. But their depths of despair always take me by surprise. The inability or unwillingness to breast-feed remains a font of unfathomable desperation and self-abuse among American mothers. My poor friend who called was stuck in loops about disappointing her baby and her husband and her mother-in-law and really, three weeks into new motherhood that is all un peu trop.

Badinter places the guilt over breast-feeding into a larger cultural and historical context. Modern women have given themselves over to the cult of what she calls “ecological parenting.” It’s not just breast-feeding on demand, but the fad for doulas and natural childbirth and our horror of epidurals and formula. Many of us do not fall for all these trends, and we may even make fun of them, but they are in fact our current ideals—the markers of perfect motherhood. “Beware the woman who takes even a small glass of champagne at a birthday party,” Badinter writes, hinting at the sinister modern framing of motherhood as a constant trade-off between the needs of the child and the selfish desires of the mother.

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Katie, I have read enough of your own writing to know what you might say about this argument. I am guessing you’ll say that Badinter is painting an exaggeratedly oppressive picture of motherhood and purposely omitting the wonder and joy. I thought something similar when I read, in Claire Dederer’s recent novel Poser, her description of a north Seattle mom for whom “breast-feeding was simply the first item in a long, abstruse to-do list: Cook organic baby food, buy expensive wooden toys, create an enriching home environment, sleep with your child in your bed, ensure that your house was toxin free, use cloth diapers, carry your child in a sling, dress your child in organic fibers.”

But then I visited north Seattle last year. I was with my husband and three children and another family with three children so we spent some amount of time at playgrounds. Seattle has first-class playgrounds set against wondrous backdrops of mountains or sea. In any number of them I saw some version of this tableau: A mother, blind to her beautiful surroundings, instead chasing her toddler with some organic snack. In one case it was actually homemade marmalade and crackers made from hand-ground wheat. I remembered this scene when I came across one particular line from Badinter’s book that I cannot get out of my head: “It was precisely at the point that Western women finally rid themselves of the patriarchy that they acquired a new master in the home”—the master being “l’enfant roi,” for whom only the homemade marmalade will suffice.

I am on my third child now, so I have the luxury of a little anthropological distance. And from this distance I lately see the extremely strained and self-conscious nature of so-called “natural” parenting. The noise in our parenting culture about organic this or that somehow meshes with the constant noise about safety. The same people scrutinizing snack labels for corn syrup are also running their fingers over the blade of the safety scissors two or three times. (And really, children’s scissors are so blunt these days we should be worried that they will never actually learn to cut anything.)

There is something so forbidding about it, so joyless and yes, unnatural. We are so focused on a vision of a particular kind of perfect child that we fail to see the actual creature mucking about in his or her natural habitat.   

Anyway, please disabuse me of my cranky notions.

Hanna

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