Slaves to the Child
A review of Elisabeth Badinter’s The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women
Photograph by Eric Feferber
If you have ever experienced a dark hour of the soul in the middle of a dinner party, where the men seemed to be talking about something intriguing at the end of the table, while you were deeply immersed in a women’s conversation about how to transition from the bottle to the sippy cup, the French feminist Elisabeth Badinter’s rousing indictment of our child-centric culture, The Conflict, is bound to offer some consolation.
Her very French, rather severe, and fascinating book does not pander to readability in the way an American cultural analysis would, but she raises important points about the dangers of what she calls “L’enfant Roi” or the child-is-king culture, to the hard won gains of feminism. She describes the blow to our freedom, to work, to expansive ideas of self delivered by rigid standards of what motherhood should be. She discusses and attacks among other things: La Leche League and the pressure to breast-feed, the fad for natural birth, for total abstinence from alcohol during pregnancy, and the stigmatization of women who decide not to have children.
In Jane Kramer’s excellent New Yorker profile, Badinter calls herself a “fanatic of clarity”; and at times her commitment to clarity, her desire to over-resolve or over-pin down can be a bit constricting. (I prefer in my feminist tomes, what Elizabeth Hardwick referred to as Simone de Beauvoir’s “brilliant confusion,”that is, the willingness to tolerate enlivening conflicts and complexities.) But Badinter’s arguments are provocative and rigorous: She explains the phenomena that we are currently struggling with, the phenomena that lead us to rabidly consume and debate books about Chinese mothering or French mothering, in an effort to rethink or recast or correct our current mode of parenting.
Badinter attributes the current enslavement to our somewhat oppressive styles of child rearing, to the fact that women with feminist mothers in the 1970s onward have rebelled against their experience of being abandoned or somehow insufficiently mothered by their working mothers. She writes that these daughters thought to themselves: “In pursuit of your independence, you sacrificed me as well. You didn’t give me enough love, enough care, enough time …The truth is, I was not your top priority and you were not a good mother. I won’t do the same with my children.” This seems possibly true to me, as a sort of larger, underpinning psychology, but there must be more to it as well.
Why are we raising our children in this way? Why have we created this oppressive culture for ourselves? (And of course for those of us not exactly raising our children this way, we are raising them in the shadow of this way: thinking about it, worrying about it, or flagrantly disregarding it with some consciousness of recklessness, some demoralizing whiff of potential failure.) But why has the dominant ideology of child-rearing veered so radically toward responsibility, sacrifice?
While I was mulling over this question, I was reading the back of some fancy granola that happens to be in my house and it says: “Happiness isn’t found on a clothing tag. We’ve looked! We find happiness in making healthy choices, getting outside and keeping fit—choices that make us feel better, inside and out.” This idea of enlightenment through health, this lively preoccupation or concern with what is healthy over, say, what is fun or vivid or pleasurable is a larger turn that affects our ideas of motherhood. Doing something unhealthy, or creating an unhealthy environment for a child is currently so taboo that we are tyrannized by the fear of it: We are almost unable to think in other terms.
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.