Slaves to the Child
A review of Elisabeth Badinter’s The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women
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.
Katie Roiphe, professor at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University, is the author most recently of Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Marriages, and the forthcoming In Praise of Messy Lives.