There’s a Lot of Teeth Gnashing in Elisabeth Badinter’s ‘The Conflict’

Women in western culture may enjoy more options than ever before, but make no mistake: we’re still stuck firmly between a psychological rock and a hard place. Or, at least, that’s what Elisabeth Badinter argues in The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women. Released two years ago in France, the book is now available in the United States, promising to stir up debate with its provocative claims.

The noted French author, philosopher, and feminist says women are wedged between conflicting ideals of female excellence — that of the “ideal mother” (the stay-at-home mom who gives her child everything) and of the “ideal woman” (the independent, money-motivated career woman who puts personal fulfillment first). Whatever choices we make, Badinter argues, we’re always influenced by society’s expectations — whether we’re resisting or embracing them, consciously or not. Ultimately, regardless of our choices, we can’t be perfect in both roles, and those who attempt to negotiate the ideals come up short in at least one area; either denying their child precious contact or draining funds during maternity leave.

Meanwhile, women who shun motherhood altogether might be viewed as sad, barren people, selfish businesswomen, or eccentrics — like the weird aunt with, say, a felt-craft Etsy shop instead of a baby to love. And full-time mothers don’t fare much better; they get the side-eye from peers, judged for giving up their autonomy, laying their credentials to waste, and making themselves financially dependent, maybe all for the prizes of luxury strollers, Baby Gap gift cards, and society’s golden stamp of approval. Given those conflicting (and unflattering) options, it’s possible, indeed, that women feel stuck.

If there’s one major argument to be made against The Conflict, though, it’s that from personal experience, many might not find the available options so impossible to negotiate. Or, they may be willing to negotiate them without striving to meet lofty ideals. From my own perspective — working as a freelance writer in my cozy vintage apartment — I can imagine raising a child while poring over books and clacking away on my laptop, although I’m not yet a mother (which Badinter might argue renders my opinion moot).

Still, the point is that some jobs (especially those done from home) seem compatible with motherhood. Regardless, Badinter offers a barrage of select facts, figures, and survey stats showing that women with the most education are postponing childbirth, if they decide to have children at all, and this phenomenon is worth exploring. Are young women shunning motherhood to avoid falling short of perfection?

Because of the contradictory ideals, among other factors, Badinter argues that women have become increasingly ambivalent about motherhood, resulting in the following: “a decline in the per capita birthrate; a rise in the average age of first-time mothers; an increase in the number of women in the job market; and a diversification of women’s lifestyles with the emergence, in many countries, of couples and single women without children” (17). While some of that sounds good — I’m all for women in the job market and “diversification of lifestyles” — there are downsides to fewer women (and particularly fewer educated women) having children. Badinter argues, “No country can afford to ignore changes in its birthrate. In the long term, a nation’s pension payments, power, and very survival are at stake” (135). The indecision is potentially problematic.

To explain the evolution of motherhood ambivalence, Badinter takes readers back to the 1973 fuel crisis and economic reversal, when women — “who were immediately affected by unemployment and the disappearance of job security” (30) — opted to return to the home and to traditional parenting roles. Like men, who also “felt disillusioned and resentful toward companies that could dispose of them at will, according to the whims of the market” (sound familiar?), women seemed to find a convenient reason to return home and find fulfillment through cultivating life. The economic downturn hurt the most vulnerable workers first (read: those with the least education and power), and that, in most cases, included women. Hence, the ladies returned to the home.

With all that, the author argues, motherhood began to again be viewed as a vocation, since it was “valued as more reliable and gratifying than a poorly paid job that might disappear overnight” (3). This opened the door for women to again “take on three-quarters of the domestic work,” which began to effect identities and encourage a return to traditional maternal roles. The push back to maternal roles was coupled with a return to “naturalism” and the shunning of all things chemical and potentially unhealthy: birth control pills, epidurals, and even (and especially!) baby formula.

The arguments against formula are notably surprising, passionate, and convincing (although less charming than Tina Fey’s in Bossypants): the push in favor of breast-feeding ensured mothers would raise children mostly alone; after all, their husbands couldn’t breast-feed their babies, right? Nature dictated that it was women’s work. There was nothing to debate.

Throughout, Badinter’s rich sociology of motherhood is relentlessly quote-heavy, fact-based, and foot-noted, lending her some credibility (even if she’s occasionally citing fiction and her own books), but it does disrupt the style plenty; a spoonful of sugar would’ve been appreciated by this reader, since you get more readers with honey than footnotes, although arguably some gracefulness was simply lost in translation.

More than style hitches, though, it’s the extremism in The Conflict that’s tough to swallow. Radical statements about what’s “always” and “never” true appear aside repeated claims that doctors and society can make parents feel guilty. Can anyone really be made to feel guilty? Sure, says Badinter: “The new naturalism has the ability to generate feelings of guilt that can drive changes in attitudes” (61). This seems to undermine women’s power to think freely and shrug off the false binaries heaped our direction; I’m not convinced that mothers are all doomed to cognitive dissonance.

The book’s portrait of modern motherhood occasionally tips from grim to even paranoid, talking about new mothers trapped under the “surveillance” of doctors and nurses, forced to breastfeed against their will because mother’s milk may be healthier for babies (80). (The science behind that claim, Badinter tells us, is disputed.) When she discusses how Le Leche League gained the support of the WHO and UNICEF, the text feels just shy of proposing a conspiracy theory (83).

The author also repeatedly reminds us that motherhood thoroughly robs women of their freedom — never mind the slippery nature of words like “freedom” (because really, don’t laws, jobs, marriage, and social mores all restrict us?). From the time of conception, a mother’s liberty is thwarted, as is shown by the “radical condemnation” of drinking alcohol while pregnant (65). She quotes warnings from the French National Institute of Prevention and Health Education (INPES) and then mocks, “Beware the women who takes even a small glass of champagne at a birthday party.” This is since INPES recommends against the alcohol while pregnant and “this recommendation applies to all incidences of drinking, regular, occasional, or celebratory” (66). Badinter agrees with French writer Eliette Abecassis’s claim that the restriction hits “with the force of a guillotine,” saying, “Here, pregnancy signals the end of pleasure, freedom, and the carefree life of non-mothers”(67).

This, to me, is a lot of teeth-gnashing over what really amounts to a high risk/low rewards gamble: in the best case scenario, the pregnant mother gets a nice champagne buzz, and in the worst, a child could be born with birth defects. I wouldn’t love those odds for an investment portfolio, let alone a person’s well being. Then again, I don’t have children, so by Badinter’s standards, I might here be accused of propagating the myth of the “ideal mother” who doesn’t booze and smoke while pregnant.

The argument in The Conflict is essentially that since motherhood is such a sacrifice — abstaining from drinking, sacrificing friendships and a healthy sex life, giving up work hours — that many women today are just skipping the hassle. And that doesn’t bode well for society. Mothers were (and are) being told that they owe their children everything, which is understandably a turn-off to young, prospective mothers: “The gift of life is transformed into an infinite debt toward a child that neither God nor nature insists you have, and one who is bound to remind you at some point that he or she never asked to be born,” Badinter writes (13).

But can’t that claim be turned on its head? Can’t parents just as easily claim their children owe them everything because the parents created life? Or better yet, can’t families just forget this nonsense about debt and entitlement altogether? If anything, family members should give and take, offering a balance of freedom and sanctuary; balance is vital in everything, family included. At any rate, it seems that women can very well have children without gluing themselves to their babies 24/7. I trust that many great figures grew from perfectly imperfect, independent mothers.

Are women forgoing motherhood because they’re afraid they’ll fall short of the ideal of the “good mother”? Badinter makes an occasionally convincing if myopic case for that, but frankly, I hope not. (Incidentally, she doesn’t broach the subject of same-sex couples having children, but then, that wouldn’t help her claims; two women raising a child avoids the problem gender inequality in the home, and anyway, openly gay and bisexual women have probably given up silly notions of societal ideals.)

That concept of women shunning motherhood just to avoid criticism undermines women’s power to resist societal pressure to find their own happy medium. Really, if I avoided every activity I might not execute perfectly, I would literally become paralyzed; I would never accomplish anything, ever. Badinter ends The Conflict inconclusively with an ominous question about the continuation of the species, but I would have preferred something more hopeful from the obviously very sharp-minded philosopher: something encouraging us to keep going, to consider life and the continuation of it, because it will go on, imperfectly but persistently. Or, if that’s too trite and idealistic, further insight into the economy’s effect on parenthood would have illuminating.

Because if there’s one thing that seems to be on everyone’s minds in America, it’s money — or lack of it. Job security for the middle class is hard to come by, college tuition is soaring, unpaid internships are the new entry-level jobs for college grads (many of whom are shackled with student loan debt), home-ownership feels increasingly risky. And raising a child is expensive! The economic downturn in the ‘70s may have affected women more harshly, but according to Pew research, the Great Recession (December 2007 to June 2009) hurt men more than women in America. With all the economic uncertainty we face today, it’s no wonder educated young people are postponing parenthood for now, but I’m not convinced it’s just a feminist issue.

RATING 5 / 10