Elisabeth Badinter is a French creation: a feminist philosopher, her Intellectual cred cannot be questioned. A friend wanted to read her new book, The Conflict, and you know what? I was surprised I’d never heard of it or her. Not that I’m up on my contemporary French intellectuals (except for the true media-whores who you can’t escape. Bernard-Henri Levy, I’m talking to you).
I decided to read the original French text for good practice and while I waited for the book to be delivered from Amazon I read up on Badinter. I read the profile in the New Yorker, the Wikipedia page and got the skinny from E, my French cultural attaché.
The book arrived and I was relieved it was so skinny and I dug in. No problem with the French language. And then I realized that this book, written by an aging feminist is a letter to me, and the generation just behind me who is entering motherhood. It’s about what we’ve inherited and where we’re headed from here.
What we inherited is choice. Freedom. We choose if, when who to marry. We choose if and when to have children. We choose our education, our careers. Freedom means we control much more of our lives than in any other period in history.
Badinter writes about the revelation of female ambivalence towards motherhood. She has a point to make – that maternal instinct is not real, in a biological sense. The ambivalence is born out of the choice – the birth rate drops in societies where the woman has control and spends her time doing other things.
A terrible thing, freedom. We become obligated. The child that we have by choice is different – we feel responsible in a different way, it seems, and the other choices we then make (where to give birth? Breast or bottle?, etc. in an avalanche) are somehow become a direct expression of our values and identity. She records sociological surveys that display the heterogenous group that are women: Those who choose career over children, those that choose children over career and the vast majority of us who by choice (and other social & financial pressures) try to do it all.
Badinter reminded me that career, for the educated, is largely a matter of choice as well, and that for her at least, women are meant to be happy at work, happy to be able to work and escape the lack-of-choice role of housewife. She does not disparage the woman who chooses this role over others; the importance is that it’s chosen freely.
I wrestled with this a little. I liked the research and a sense of my inheritance. There was an omission though. Because the book is about mothering, there was no room to write about the ambivalence I know so many people feel about their careers. We work, it’s true, because we are educated and want and / or need the financial benefits it brings. But we are not happy. We wish for other work, more fulfilling work and certainly we wish that the conflict between our roles and identities fade. However, no answers are forthcoming. We soldier on.
Part of the book is controversial. Badinter lights into what she calls a ‘naturalist’ movement, also part of the inheritance. She traces the roots to the 60s as a backlash from post-WWII industrialization. Environmentalism and ecology were born then in their modern states. So we get a growing renunciation of things manufactured and a desire in our mistrust towards things ‘whole’ and ‘natural.’ She saves her greatest vitriol for La Leche League and the war against the bottle.
I’ll state right here that I’m one of those people. I had my ergobaby, I breastfed, I made my own (organic) babyfood. I agonized over “green” diapers (but didn’t do cloth), we chose a nanny that cooked all the food instead of buying pre-made meals. I also mixed breast and bottle once my kids were at the nanny, each at 5 months. I bought my share of pre-made (organic!) baby foods. With the second kid I filled the landfill with pampers. The extra work – making food, shopping at the natural food store, the occasional stares and the awful, awful pumping at work – mostly made me happy. Doing the work made me feel closer to my children, especially in the early days. But she’s right about the trade-off. Do go the full-natural way means that a regular work-life is nearly impossible. And of course it mostly falls on the mother, as she laments.
Having said all that, I’m not at all offended. The contrary, I think she’s on to something. It’s good the have the sacred cows rattled and to think about the consequences of the choices. I still stick as much as possible to whole foods (and not the supermarket chain, but the actual cooking of whole foods) for my family. We tried to build, as much as possible, an energy-efficient home. Still, I would be fool not to recognize the compromises, and if choice, and freedom of choice is something that we inherited then I can not put myself in a position to judge those mothers who choose bottle feeding over breast for perfectly good reasons that are none of my business, or that pack their kids’ lunches with ready to go foods so that they can spend an extra 10 minutes with them or whatever other reason that is also none of my business.