Last week, the English version of French feminist Elisabeth Badinter's book The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women was released. The Internet has been abuzz with discussion of her book. While the book raises many issues that could be explored, I want to examine her assertion that it is no longer men who are oppressing women, it is modern motherhood.
A Conflict Between Woman and Mother
In The Conflict, Badinter talks about the potential conflict between motherhood and a woman's quest for personal fulfillment. She notes:
Now that motherhood is no longer the only source of affirmation for a woman, the desire to have children might conflict with other desires. A woman with an interesting job who hopes to build a career - although such women are a minority - cannot fail to consider such questions as whether a child would harm her professionally. How would she manage to combine a demanding job with raising a child? What effect would that undertaking have on her relationship with her partner? How would she need to reorganize her home life? Will she still be able to enjoy her advantages and, more important, how much of her freedom would she have to relinquish?
The basis of the book is that despite advances in opportunities for women, motherhood and the ever-increasing expectations that come with it, are undermining the status of women. As a feminist, attachment parenting style mother and career-oriented white collar professional, I don't deny the importance of the questions raised in this quote, but I do take issue with the way she exclusively assigns them to women.
Not the Baby, Still the Men
In The Conflict, Chapter Four is called 'The Baby's Dominion'. Badinter concisely sums up her argument in the first two paragraphs [emphasis mine]:
The irony of this history is that it was precisely at the point that Western women finally rid themselves of patriarchy that they acquired a new master in the home. Women had achieved financial independence as well as control over whether they had children or not: they had no reason, it seemed, to continue to confront men's power.
Yet, thirty years later, there is no denying that male domination persists. Men's general resistance to the model of equality is indisputable, but this alone does not explain women's situation today. Their increased responsibility for babies and young children has proved just as restrictive, if not more so, than sexism in the home or in the workplace. A woman might be able to turn her back on her boss or her husband, but she can hardly walk away from her baby. The tyranny of maternal duty is not new, but it has become considerably more pronounced with the rise of naturalism, and it has thus far produced neither a matriarchy nor sexual equality, but rather a regression in women's status. We have agreed to this regression in the home in the name of moral superiority, the love we bear for our children, and some ideal notion of child rearing, all of which are proving far more effective than external constraints. As everyone knows, there is nothing quite like voluntary servitude. And men have not had to lift a finger to accomplish this fall. The best allies of men's dominance have been, quite unwittingly, innocent infants.
I could probably footnote and deconstruct each sentence in that passage, but I want to focus on her assertion that for once it isn't the men who are oppressing women, because she's wrong. It is still the men who are oppressing women. Parenting is not something solely in the mother's domain. Sure, there are things that are more easily and more naturally taken on by the woman (pregnancy, giving birth, breastfeeding). But with the amount of work that goes into raising a child, certainly there are equivalently hard or selfless tasks that a father can take on?
Did Badinter Give Up on the Revolution in Fatherhood?
In Badinter's other book, XY: On Masculine Identity, that she wrote two decades ago, she writes about the "conditions of the revolution in fatherhood":
The revolution in fatherhood, barely perceptible today, ought to cause great upheavels for generations to come and most notably lead to a new masculinity, more diversified and subtler. But it presupposes more democratic relations between members of a couple than those that we know today and is dependent on more than the good will of individuals.
She then talks about two models of equally shared parenting, one where parents split all tasks equally and one where the work, overall, is split equally with each parent tending to different tasks. Like me, Badinter prefers the latter model:
There is an economical use of time, access to the child by both its parents, and greater parental solidarity than in the traditional mode, thus strengthening the couple without threatening it. What is more, the children seem more secure and less anxious [than in the case where they don't know which parent is responsible for what].
Finally, she goes on to talk about the need to change what we perceive as masculine virtues:
It is time to tell our sons that Terminator, far from being a superman, is a miserable parody. Even more important, it is also high time to sing the praises of masculine virtues that are not acquired either passively or easily but that find expression in effort and struggle. These virtues are self-control, the desire to surpass oneself, a love of risk and challenge, and resistance to oppression, among others. They are the conditions for creation, but also for dignity. They belong to every human being in the same way as the feminine virtues.
Badinter ends The Conflict with a chapter specifically on the situation in France, where breastfeeding rates are significantly lower than in other countries, where women go back to work quickly, and where fathers don't contribute much.
There is no moral or social pressure bearing on a woman to be a full-time mother, not even in the first year after birth. French society acknowledged a long time ago that the mother need not be the only party responsible for her child.
Although they are constantly admonished to take on their fair share of parental and householder chores, French fathers continue to contribute very little in this area. But in their place, the state shares responsibility for the baby's well-being and upbringing. And because the state's duty toward the mother and the child is universally accepted, that public opinion tends to be far more scathing about the state's shortcomings than about any failure on the part of the mother, or especially, the father.
So, writing from the perspective of French society (and in particular, a class of French society that would have had all the help necessary in raising children and completing household chores), Badinter sees trends towards more involved parenting as necessarily oppressing women. Rather than seeing greater involvement of men as the solution (or the lack thereof as the problem), she seemingly brushes that aside and advocates for women to be just as uninvolved with their children as most French fathers are.
Let's take another look at that paragraph from The Conflict that I quoted at the start. What if we replaced "woman" with "man", "she" with "he", and adjusted a few other key elements to ensure accuracy, while still posing the same questions?
Now that a career is no longer the only source of affirmation for a man, the desire to have children might conflict with other desires. A man with an interesting job who hopes to build a career - especially because such men are in the majority - cannot fail to consider such questions as whether a child would harm him professionally. How would he manage to combine a demanding job with raising a child? What effect would that undertaking have on his relationship with his partner? How would he need to reorganize his home life? Will he still be able to enjoy his advantages and, more important, how much of his freedom would he have to relinquish?
Do those questions sound ridiculous now that the roles are reversed? They probably do, because our society does assume that women will be the ones who sacrifice the most when children enter the picture. But in a society free of patriarchy and hegemonic masculinity the questions shouldn't sound ridiculous.
- Why aren't more men taking years off of their career to stay home with their children if that is something the family values?
- Why aren't more men questioning whether it is still reasonable to head out to the golf course every Saturday morning?
- Why aren't more men asking what changes they might need to make to better balance their career and their family life?
Badinter says that breastfeeding and other forms of "intensive mothering" are problematic because it forces women into servitude and denies men "bottle time". I disagree. I think we should advocate for "intensive fathering" to complement that "intensive mothering". If men are wearing their babies, cuddling with them, playing with them, changing and washing diapers, taking them for walks, teaching them things, and later introducing them to interesting foods, the fact that he supported exclusive breastfeeding of the infant for the first six months shouldn't be equated with his exclusion or her oppression. If fathers are doing all of that, it also gives mothers the opportunity to find the balance they need and to meet their own needs.
Choosing a parenting style shouldn't be something the mother does alone. She should have control over her body (and therefore have the final say on issues like breastfeeding), but decisions about how to parent the child should be something that both parents make together and that both of them invest equally in. There are certainly mothers who choose very intensive parenting styles and take everything on their own shoulders. But I don't think the answer to that problem is to suggest that certain parenting styles (like attachment parenting) are wrong.
The solution is to ensure that fathers are equal partners in parenting, so that mothers are not the only ones to suffer physically, professionally and personally from the demands of parenting. Being a parent is incredibly fulfilling, but it also involves challenges. In my opinion, both the rewards and the sacrifices stemming from the decision to procreate should be shared equally by both parents.
More Reading on Badinter
There are so many problems with the arguments raised in Badinter's book, that it is impossible for me to cover them all in one blog post. But other people are discussing this too.
- Take a look at the conversation between Hanna Rosin and Katie Allison Granju on Slate, which explores some of the issues around attachment parenting as raised in Badinter's book and which also exposes Badinter's undisclosed ties not just to Nestle, but also the rest of the infant formula industry.
- Read the features on the Huffington Post, including Lisa Belkin's interview with Badinter, Badinter's own post, and Melissa Fay Greene's response.
- Take a look at the Blue Milk post on The Conflict, but more importantly scroll to the bottom to find links to her other posts about Badinter, including Oppressed by Breastfeeding and Feminism and attachment parenting and why they've more in common than in conflict.
I would love to hear your thoughts on this. On the one hand, I support the right of each family to make decisions for themselves in terms of how to balance the parenting workload between parents. On the other hand, however, I think that dismantling the patriarchy necessarily requires more men to take time off work to either be a stay-at-home dad or at least be the one rushing out the door to grab the kids from daycare on a more regular basis.
How can we encourage greater equality across society while still valuing and recognizing the ability of each family to determine what roles make sense to them?