The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women

A French PR Billionaire Is Lecturing Me. Who’s Undermining Whom?
What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
April 25 2012 7:15 AM

The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women

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A French PR billionaire is telling me I’m raising my children wrong. Who’s undermining whom?

Safe Sleep Awareness ad.
Safe sleep awareness ad.

Courtesy City of Milwaukee Health Department.

Hanna,

As the working mother of five kids—the youngest of whom was up all night alternately vomiting on me or crying feverishly—I am right there with you on wanting more sleep. And what I have learned through 20 years of parenting trial-and-error is that I end up getting far more sleep on a week-to-week basis if the baby or toddler sleeps with me rather than in another room or in a separate crib. That may not be the case for every mother, but it is for me, and for many other women I talk to at my office or at the playground.

However, my nighttime parenting habits are currently under aggressive attack from the experts, with everyone from pediatricians to the U.S. government now terrorizing mothers around the issue of co-sleeping. In Milwaukee, the public health department recently released an ad campaign warning mothers that co-sleeping with a baby is as dangerous as putting the baby to bed with a butcher knife. And it’s just this kind of widespread, anti-family-bed messaging that underlines one of my primary problems with Badinter’s book: She’s tilting at windmills.

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Elisabeth Badinter builds her case in The Conflict on the fundamental premise that American women are being held back and undermined by stifling, crippling pressure to adopt what she describes as “naturalist” parenting practices, such as co-sleeping and breast-feeding, when in fact the objective evidence simply doesn’t bear this out. As I just noted, if American women are being bullied around co-sleeping, the message they are getting isn’t that they should feel guilty if they don’t let the baby sleep with them—it’s that they might as well just give their babies kitchen knives instead of stuffed animals at bedtime, should they be irresponsible enough to even consider it.

I’ll grant you that there are some issue-specific Internet message boards, mommy blogs, and mommy-and-me playgroups out there that strongly advocate for co-sleeping, and Badinter relies on these types of minor players to support her majorly sweeping arguments, citing media like “Alternamoms.com” as evidence of the widespread parental shaming of American mothers. However, this represents poor scholarship on Badinter’s part, because seriously, these sorts of small-time, topical online communities and media sources are simply a response to the dominant messaging from real power sources in our culture. In reality, the mainstream medical establishment and government make me—a busy working mother who finds she is better rested because we have a family bed—feel guilty. So just who is undermining whom?

"The Conflict"

As for Badinter’s views on breast-feeding, I think that it’s important to note that her position on this issue is ethically suspect from the get-go. Elisabeth Badinter isn’t simply an incendiary and stylish French feminist theorist. She also personally holds controlling interest in Publicis, one of the world’s most powerful and profitable PR and advertising firms. As it happens, Publicis is the agency of record for Nestlé , the huge multinational corporation that makes and sells a wide variety of infant formula products all over the globe, and which is arguably best known for its lengthy and ongoing history of flagrant violations of the World Health Organization’s International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes. Considering that Badinter styles herself as an honest-to-God academic—a serious one with serious credentials—it’s troubling, to say the least, that she doesn’t seem to feel the need to proactively disclose the obvious conflicts posed by her millions in income from Nestlé ’s PR firm.

On breast-feeding, Badinter once again builds her case on a premise that simply isn’t supported by objective evidence. Her argument is that because American women are being unduly pressured to breast-feed their babies, they are becoming “enslaved” by the “little masters,” as Badinter describes nursing children, which in turn undermines the status of American women in general, leading to many negative social and economic outcomes.

Unfortunately for Badinter’s thesis, if American women are, in fact, being subjected to crushing, guilt-inducing nursing shame, it doesn’t appear to be working too well. While breast-feeding rates in the U.S. have edged up overall in recent years, and are indeed crazy high in certain highly specific subpopulations of American women (Park Slope-dwellers, residents of Portlandia), the overall breast-feeding numbers in the United States tell a quite different story. Most American women do not breastfeed exclusively for more than a month or two, and most stop before their babies are 6 months old. Among certain populations of American mothers, breast-feeding is almost nonexistent past the first week or two postpartum.  Given that, by the numbers, not very many American women at all seem to be “enslaved” by breast-feeding in the way Badinter claims, how is it that breast-feeding is “undermining our status”? As we sometimes say here in Tennessee (no, really, we do), that dog don’t hunt.

I circle back to the fact that Badinter’s book and all the others like it are distracting us from addressing the real issues that, unlike co-sleeping and breast-feeding, truly do undermine the social and economic status of American mothers: issues like the inability to find and pay for quality childcare and the lack of paid maternity leave. I can tell you right now that the days I feel most enslaved by motherhood are those when my childcare falls through and I’m left scrambling to fulfill my job obligations. I am guessing, however, that given her personal wealth, childcare gaps weren’t much of an issue for Elisabeth Badinter back when her three children were young.

Katie Allison Granju blogs at Mamapundit and  is a featured contributor to Babble Voices.