Are Children an Excuse to Avoid the Messy Demands of Romance?

A column about life, culture, and politics.
April 19 2012 11:03 AM

Slaves to the Child

A review of Elisabeth Badinter’s The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women

(Continued from Page 1)

In discussing the disheartening toll babies take on relationships, Badinter writes, “a mother cannot allow herself to be consumed by her baby to the point of destroying her desires as a woman.” It occurs to me that in some sense, many of the mothers she is talking about are using their children as an escape from the imperatives of romantic life. This elevation and fetishization of the child over the parent’s private life is perhaps not always the cause of unhappiness, but some sort of escape from the pressure to be happy, some flight from the demands of romantic connection.  If the child is overwhelmingly central to family life, in all of the much-discussed, anti-romantic ways, then you are delivered from the demands of true intimacy, at least for a while; it’s a reprieve from the expectation of romantic happiness, which can of course be exhausting.

Likewise, of course, children deliver us from the pressure of our ambition, the shadows of our failures. I often think of Geoff Dyer’s brutal, bravura passage in Out of Sheer Rage. In describing his decision not to have children, he writes, “People need to feel that they have been thwarted by circumstances from pursuing the life which, had they led it, they would not have wanted; whereas the life they really want is a compound of all those thwarting circumstances. … That’s why children are so convenient: you have children because you are struggling to get by as an artist—which is actually what being an artist means—or failing to get on with your career. Then you can persuade yourself that children had prevented you from having this career that had never looked like working out. …” And it actually goes on, and I’ll continue to quote it because in its bleakness and cynicism it really carries a certain insight, an insight that dovetails nicely with Badinter’s condemnation of certain attitudes toward motherhood.  He writes:

 After a couple of years of parenthood people become incapable of saying what they want to do in terms of what they want to do. Their preferences can only be articulated in terms of a hierarchy of obligations, even though it is by fulfilling these obligations (visiting their in-laws, being forced to stay in and babysit) that they scale the summit of their desires. The self-evasion does not stop there: at some level they are ashamed because they realize that these desires are so paltry as to barely even merit the name of desires and so these feeble desires have to take on the guise of an obligation.


The dark idea here again is that children are the best excuse in the world not to pursue happiness, not to live fully or take risks or attempt the work one loves. The compromises we make are justified, elevated, and transfigured by the fact of children, and this can be a relief. And Dyer’s point is interesting in that it is not that children transform vibrant, ambitious, desiring people into juice-box-carrying automatons, but rather that the juice-box carrying offers a socially acceptable escape from all that troublesome vibrancy.

But these speculations aside, Badinter’s impressive imperative to own one’s own life, to take rigorous and energetic responsibility, to cast off the silly or cowardly or frivolously domestic ways, seems very appealing, and refreshing and brisk. One wishes at the end not to displease or disappoint her, to live up to her lofty ideals, to really try to inhabit her enobling vision, though one’s 2-year-old, the little enfant roi, is calling for a cookie.




Crying Rape

False rape accusations exist, and they are a serious problem.

Scotland Learns That Breaking Up a Country Is Hard to Do

Are You Attending the People’s Climate March? Nine Reasons You Should.

The Music Industry Is Ignoring Some of the Best Black Women Singing R&B

How Will You Carry Around Your Huge New iPhone? Apple Pants!

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.


The Other Huxtable Effect

Thirty years ago, The Cosby Show gave us one of TV’s great feminists.

There’s a Way to Keep Ex-Cons Out of Prison That Pays for Itself. Why Don’t More States Use It?

Colorado Is Ground Zero for the Fight Over Female Voters

Sept. 19 2014 11:33 AM An Up-Close Look at the U.S.–Mexico Border
  News & Politics
Sept. 19 2014 1:38 PM The Gaffe Police Are Back to Make Politics Glib and Boring
Sept. 19 2014 12:09 PM How Accelerators Have Changed Startup Funding
Inside Higher Ed
Sept. 19 2014 1:34 PM Empty Seats, Fewer Donors? College football isn’t attracting the audience it used to.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM Why Men Never Remember Anything
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 1:39 PM Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman,” New York Times. Neither Are Her Characters.
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 12:38 PM Forward, March! Nine leading climate scientists urge you to attend the People’s Climate March.
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 19 2014 12:13 PM The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola  The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.