Book Review: 'The Conflict,' by Elisabeth Badinter
The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women
By Elisabeth Badinter
Metropolitan Books; 224pp; $25
We now know, thanks to a revealing PBS/AOL interview, that Sheryl Sandberg is a devoted mother. The chief operating officer of Facebook didn’t go so far as to quit her job after her children were born, but she leaves work every day at 5:30 p.m. to race home to have dinner with them. While she was working at Google, she pumped breast milk during conference calls; if anyone asked what the strange whirring sound in the background was, she would say it was a jackhammer outside her window.
These arrangements, along with the impulses that drive many women to refuse epidurals during labor, choose cloth diapers over disposables, and leave their high-powered jobs to stay home with their kids, are part of an insidious trend toward “naturalism” in child rearing that is sending women back to the 1950s, according to Elisabeth Badinter, author of The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women. “Over the last three decades, almost without our noticing, there has been a revolution in our idea of motherhood,” Badinter writes. “This revolution was silent, prompting no outcry or debate, even though its goal was momentous: to put motherhood squarely back at the heart of women’s lives.” The list of culprits Badinter sees behind this dark transformation includes doulas, feminists, pediatricians, midwives, critics of day care, anyone responsible for the “radical condemnation” of alcohol and cigarettes during pregnancy, and, most important, the mothers who buy into it all.
Women are overburdened and consumed with unrealistic expectations of maternal perfection, to their own personal and professional detriment, Badinter argues convincingly. In some circles, babies are expected to be strapped onto their parents’ bosoms for the first six months of life, fed organic, homemade baby food, and taught Mandarin as they toddle around in their diapers. Anything artificial, processed, or automated is rejected as bad, even if it would make life dramatically easier. Almost all the additional labor required to adhere to these impossible new standards falls on the shoulders of women. It’s a major force behind the so-called Opt-Out Revolution that was widely discussed a few years back, a symptom of the disease Badinter writes about that had women fleeing law firms and consulting shops in droves to become stay-at-home moms.
Badinter probably never had to face the parenting dilemmas that women with 70-hour-a-week jobs do. Although she has three children, now grown, she also happens to be the daughter of the founder of the Publicis media conglomerate and its largest single shareholder, making her one of the wealthiest people in France. It’s from this privileged perch that she has fashioned herself into an intellectual superstar in her home country, weighing in on policy debates ranging from gender quotas in government to the burqa ban. The Conflict, published in France in 2010, was a bestseller there.
Badinter traces the current worship of all things natural to the 1973 oil crisis and the end of the flush post-World War II period. That was when, in the throes of an economic meltdown, many women were ejected from the workplace and began to reevaluate their accomplishments. “If the world of work lets one down, if it fails to offer the position one deserves, if it provides neither social status nor financial independence, then why give it priority?” Badinter writes, imagining what was going through their heads. Capitalism itself was falling under a critical spotlight. People began worrying about pollution and chemicals in their food. Young women who had been brought up to believe that work and career should define them “were receptive to the new order of the day: children first.” Badinter believes this new “maternalism” is as effective at holding women back, career-wise, as sexism ever was.
From there it was a quick slide into the current fixation with natural childbirth and attachment parenting, and Badinter’s greatest obsession: breast-feeding. She devotes a huge portion of her book to railing against the practice, blaming it for almost every problem women face today. The La Leche League might as well be the Taliban. (She refers to them as “ayatollahs.”) Badinter shares many charts to bolster her view and attempts to portray prevailing medical opinion about the health benefits of breast-feeding as being tainted by politics. Throughout, she employs what can be a maddening writing style, pouring so much data and research into the text that it’s difficult to follow her line of thought. Which isn’t to say she doesn’t have a point: Breast-feeding tethers women to their babies, and those who don’t for whatever reason are often labeled bad mothers, in the same league as those who let their kids eat Pop-Tarts or play Grand Theft Auto. In the U.S., which has some of the weakest family policies in the developed world, breast-feeding presents a major obstacle to women who want to—or must—go back to work.
We already know that French women are better at staying slim, thanks to Mireille Guiliano’s French Women Don’t Get Fat, and at raising children, thanks to Pamela Druckerman’s Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting. In The Conflict’s final chapter, called “French Women: A Special Case,” Badinter argues that upper-class French women’s historical reliance on wet nurses, governesses, and boarding schools allowed them to better nurture their identities and careers after they had kids. In France today, she writes, “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.” Neither, apparently, is there any shame in feeding formula to your baby, unlike in the rarefied, stroller-clogged climes of Park Slope, Marin County, or Mercer Island, Wash. French women benefit from generous maternity leave, and the country is filled with high-quality, government-subsidized day-care centers. The men aren’t any more helpful than they are anywhere else, according to Badinter, but at least society as a whole shares some of the responsibility. This may account for the country’s relatively high birthrate compared with the rest of Europe.
On a recent trip overseas, I glimpsed one French mother as she smoked cigarettes and sipped wine at an outdoor cafe while her toddler staggered around a cobbled Provençal square, assiduously avoiding the dog droppings. In New York, she probably would have been leaping up every 10 seconds screaming at the boy to watch out for cars. Instead she stared peacefully into the distance. She might have been contemplating the macaroni and cheese she was about to go make. Or she could have been plotting her next corporate takeover.