The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women

The Conflict Is Just Another Tired Salvo on a Familiar Topic
What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
April 24 2012 8:15 AM

The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women

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Badinter’s book is just another tired salvo on a familiar topic.

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Elisabeth Badinter, author of The Conflict, in Paris in 2007

Photo by Eric Piermont/AFP/Getty Images

Hanna,

First of all, thank you so much for inviting me to have this discussion with you. I’m a longtime fan of your smart writing. And I’d also like to apologize for taking several days to get this first response back to you; as I mentioned over on my own blog Saturday morning, the youngest of my five children, 1-year-old Georgia, was being very clingy this weekend—she was getting sick, as it turned out—and that made it tough for me to get any writing done beyond a quick blog post or two sent from my iPhone.

I will admit to being somewhat frustrated by the fact that I was prevented by Georgia’s whining from sitting down at my desk so that I could pound out some actual work, given that I have several freelance projects underway at the moment. But that just didn’t happen. Of course, in Elisabeth Badinter’s worldview, Georgia wasn’t just whining and refusing to allow anyone but me to hold her all weekend—she was, instead, “undermining my status.”

Sound absurd? Well, having just read Badinter’s book, I don’t think my simplistic interpretation of “clingy baby + busy working mother who can’t get work done = enslavement” is really that far off the mark. And let me tell you, that almost cartoonish depiction of “feminist theory” left me both bemused and baffled when I finished the last page.

Long before I read the book, I had paid attention to the not-insignificant level of bloggerati and pundit chatter about it over the past 18 months. I really was looking forward to finally reading it—not because I thought I would necessarily agree with Badinter’s arguments, but because I (mistakenly, it turns out) assumed that any book garnering that kind of media attention would offer up some truly fresh thinking around issues of feminism and motherhood. I hoped the author would make her case so convincingly that even if I ultimately ended up disagreeing with her, I would enjoy having my brain muscles flexed by a supersmart and well-crafted thesis.

Unfortunately, I found Badinter’s book profoundly disappointing. From my perspective, Badinter has virtually nothing new to say. It’s just the same old same old but with a different high-dollar publicist booking the author’s TV spots.

Over the past decade, I have read multiple fundamentally similar incarnations of this same pseudofeminist-slash-academic meme: that what Badinter calls “ecological parenting” is creating paralyzing, widespread guilt in American women. (As an aside, ecological parenting—Badinter’s turn of phrase for what others call “natural parenting,” “attachment parenting,” and so on—is arguably the most original thing she offers up in the book.)  From Judith Warner’s Perfect Madness to Ann Hulbert’s Raising America, along with Erica Jong’s much-discussed (including by me) essay in the Wall Street Journal less than two years ago, this premise has simply been done to death.

I wonder: Does this subgenre of mass-audience feminist theory actually generate such spectacular book sales that publishers just can’t quit it? Or are women like you and me, who happen to have a platform and audience, perpetuating an echo chamber concerning Badinter’s book and all the others very much like it as we discuss and discuss? I would argue that there are far more substantive and real issues that we can and should be talking about with regard to feminism and motherhood. If you or I or anyone else believes for one minute that the number of American mothers who feel “undermined” because of that time overeager La Leche League ladies harassed them is greater than the number of American mothers who are consumed with worry over how they will find and afford childcare, or a job with health insurance, well, then, we are living in la-la land. Or possibly, as is apparently the case for Badinter, in a multimillion-dollar estate somewhere in France.

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