Mamma First: Considering 2013’s Critique of Child-rearing, ‘The Conflict’

On French scholar Élisabeth Badinter's critical deconstruction of the maternal expectations that create a backlash against women's rights.

Which is it: breast is best or fed is best? Exclusive breastfeeding is not optional, so use bottles so other’s can feed the child? Co-sleeping creates bonding opportunities or increases the likelihood of SIDS? Children should go to daycare for socialization or children should stay with parents? These are just the preliminary questions new parents, but especially new mothers endure once they face maternal culture. Élisabeth Badinter’s The Conflict: How Overzealous Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women demonstrates contemporary maternal narratives as harmful reaffirmations of the dominant ideologies that oppress women. Badinter deconstructs the current attitudes on maternal identity and suggests the expectations placed on women “whether she is married or in a relationship, a mother is expected to put her baby before the father” (101) and herself.

Badinter begins by examining the connection between the availability of contraception, attitudes toward motherhood, and as importantly — the choice to live child-free. Using an impressive range of data from global studies juxtaposed to sociocultural conditions, Badinter demonstrates that many women are given more choice these days, yet oftentimes this choice is a mimesis. As social, political, and economic norms shift so do “the ideologies of motherhood and the pressure exerted on women to conform to fashionable models of the good mother” (26). As a result, women are pressured to fit within a specific ideal, then they’re riddled with guilt and shame when they don’t want to or can’t conform.

Some of these ideals are influenced by maternal naturalism, a philosophy drawing from ethology and feminism ideology. Naturalism “claim[ed] to provide happiness and wisdom to women, mother’s families, and society” (33) by embracing a return to nature. Badinter argues this seemingly progressive ethos is actually quite dangerous. For example, when choosing a birthing method, a woman’s suffering becomes the first markers of a good mother — one who can set aside her own discomfort and pain. Naturalism also supports breastfeeding on demand, skin-to-skin contact, co-sleeping and baby wearing as surefire ways to ignite maternal instinct. As a result, a woman loses her individual identity and is forced to submit to overzealous notions of motherhood while any personal or professional contact is sacrificed.

To Badinter it’s clear that when faced with this conflict that most women are setup to fall short while others choose to avoid motherhood completely. She forces readers to question if the concept of natural is objective (it isn’t) and if the scientific studies supporting this philosophy are inclusive (they’re not). Yet these ideologies are further supported by organizations such as the La Leche League, which Badinter points out reiterates these expectations as “biblical in form and tone” (73). The specter of the bad mother is insistent and ubiquitous.

Badinter takes an intersectional approach to her study. She examines several sociocultural and economic factors that contribute to the overzealous motherhood conflict but falls short on including a conversation on race. Race and religion as factors contributing to women’s notion of motherhood are necessary. Additionally, mental health factors such as postpartum anxiety or depression influence how a new mother constructs her identity but are excluded from Badinter’s study.

Badinter raises the vital question of “how to negotiate a work family balance” (109). Since she’s a French scholar, the majority of her case studies fall on the European model. This shows US readers how pre- and post-natal care, in addition to parental leave options, are pathologically underserved in America. Other nations have long since achieved a more progressive work life balance. Even though it far eclipses the the American model, Badinter finds issues with the current discussion of parental leave. She’s right. Current policies in addition to harmful social norms are not enough to even begin to alleviate “the onerous responsibilities placed on mothers” (112).

I admit that I was slightly jealous of the parental leave policies she critiques. This forced me to question why I’m complacent with contemporary US parental and natal care. I realized I’ve accepted the dominant norms about motherhood and have failed to question this oppressive paradigm. So thank you, Elisabeth Badinter, for reminding me there’s still work to be done and this is no time for apathy. The Conflict: How Overzealous Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women is a critical meditation on the maternal expectations that create a backlash against women’s rights and agency.

RATING 8 / 10