Saturday, June 9, 2012

Motherhood: The French Way and the Threat of Motherhood Fundamentalism

While there is no specified wrong way or right way to approach motherhood, there is a definite French way, and according to Elisabeth Badinter, it is under siege by motherhood fundamentalists. Badinter is an influential French intellectual who has written extensively on issues related to feminism and French society. For those who are interested, Jane Kramer has written a profile of her in the New Yorker: Against Nature: Elisabeth Badinter’s Contrarian Feminism. Kramer tells us that at least one publication designated her as the "most influential intellectual." Such a ranking provides one with rock-star status in France.

The topic here is a review of the English translation of Badinter’s latest book which appears in the New York Review of Books and is authored by Diane Johnson: Mothers Beware! Badinter titled her work Le Conflit: La Femme et la Mère. In English it emerged as The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women. A more explicit title seems appropriate for English speakers who may not yet be aware of the conflict—perhaps because we rarely pay attention to our intellectuals, or are even aware of their existence.

Badinter became famous for a book she wrote that was translated into English as Mother Love: Myth and Reality (1981). Johnson summarizes the thesis of that text as

"....[she] contends that the maternal instinct is not innate but a learned cultural response, at least in France."

That statement is worthy of extended discussion on its own merits, but here it serves merely to provide context for Badinter’s views as expressed in the latest book. She was moved to produce that work by

"....the fear that young Frenchwomen have been sacrificing their hard-won claims to social equality by falling for attempts to convince them that they have no higher calling or more satisfying accomplishment than motherhood."

Badinter argues that

" forces—parents and in-laws, psychologists, doctors, the Church, crusaders, society in general—are redoubling their attempts to make women feel guilty if they choose careers over motherhood, or if they go back to work after they do have children, or if they use day care, or don’t breast-feed the children they have. Badinter further argues that these social pressures to return to an age-old view of women’s proper place are a reaction, mostly but not entirely from male institutions, to recent feminist struggles for such things as child-care centers for women with careers—struggles that have been effective in France, which has some of the most women- and children-friendly social policies in Europe."

The "French way" of motherhood has characteristics that are in direct conflict with the wave of motherhood fundamentalism. One variation, attachment parenting, emphasizes breastfeeding (years in duration), close and continual contact between mother and child, mothers and infants sleeping in the same bed, and the rule that infants should never be allowed to cry. Attachment parenting was discussed and disposed of in Maternalist Fundamentalism: Attachment Parenting.

The French women apparently have little interest in spending 24 hours a day with their children and even less interest in breastfeeding.

"Where frequency of nursing is concerned, the French are at the bottom of the chart (only the Irish are worse), having resisted it, according to Badinter, in the name of freedom: ‘French mothers balk at playing the role expected of them, and successive governments over the last thirty years have dragged their feet in bringing the country into line with the WHO requirements’ that see breast-feeding as desirable. She says this proudly of her countrywomen and is fearful they may be softening on the issue."

Badinter has a really dim view of breastfeeding.

"One particular issue has seized Badinter’s attention: "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." She means the breast-fed baby, symbol of women’s oppression."

As for creating well-behaved children, the "French way" seems to work well by using a strategic approach to crying children. Pamela Druckerman has written a well-received book: Bringing Up Bébé: One American mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting. From it, Johnson provides this explanation:

"I hesitate to reveal one of her major conclusions without saying "spoiler alert," lest people think they don’t need to read the rest: French babies sleep through the night, and French children don’t throw food, because their parents train them to wait for the things they want, even just for five minutes for a hungry infant ("the Pause"), longer for older children, always with an explanation of why the adult can’t instantly gratify the kid’s wishes. She compares this to American parenting theories that teach that infants will feel rejected if they experience an instant of frustration."

Badinter says the threat to the French way, and the threat to women everywhere, arises from the renewed effort by men to take back control of the fertility of women. There are many reasons why men developed a need to control their women and the offspring they might produce; all involve the notion that women are valuable property—too valuable to be let out of control.

"....there are many signs that the nostalgic antifeminism Badinter sees approaching in France is already well installed in the US. Nearly a thousand bills have been proposed and sometimes passed in Congress and state legislatures, since 2011 alone, against the inclusion of contraception in health plans, mandating intrusive vaginal ultrasounds before abortion, requiring counseling and other medical measures designed to discourage having one, repealing other protections for women, and redefining rape and personhood."

Johnson indicates Rick Santorum as an example of how far motherhood fundamentalists are willing to go in order to control a woman’s fertility.

"....on one occasion the Santorums, rather than terminate a pregnancy when it was known that it would not result in a baby that could live and might kill Mrs. Santorum, chose to endanger her life, hardly a choice most Americans would make, but one he did not hesitate to say he would impose on other American families."

Johnson concludes that the trends that are only on the horizon for Badinter and her Frenchwomen, are already bearing down on women in the US.

"Until recently, I would have said breast-feeding in most American circles was something of a settled issue, and had lost its heavy significance; for Americans, I thought, breast-feeding is more or less a preferred option whose benefits of convenience and health are rarely disputed and failure to do it carried no opprobrium—women either do or don’t nurse their babies depending on a constellation of factors—job, pediatrician, local custom, and so on without incurring reproach if it isn’t possible. But now that conservative legislators and priests have shown themselves eager to interfere with women’s most intimate medical issues, a climate of guilt and dissent has been reintroduced."

"....the idea that only motherhood determines a woman’s status in society is a sinister and regressive one that religious and fundamentalist forces are concerned to promote, not only in our country."

Johnson’s wish:

"Perhaps the most seriously useful decision society could make might be that men—politicians or priests and possibly doctors—would not have the power to decide on things particular to women, beyond their own roles of fertilization and cooperative child-rearing."

We owe much to the French. We should be thankful to Badinter for alerting us to problems that we might not be taking seriously enough. But that bit about crying and teaching children to wait for what they want—why couldn’t they have shared that with us years ago?

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