Women and Mothers: No Conflict

I am participating in the PAIL book club. This month we read “The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women” by Elisabeth Badminter. I was really looking forward to reading this book because there is something about the expectation on mothers these days that ratchets up the stress and anxiety and I wanted to explore. But I think the author completely misses the bigger picture. The cynical part of me thinks she was so eager to blame feminism for “ruining motherhood” that she overlooked larger social forces that I think are driving these changes.

Here’s how I see the situation. There is a large general trend of raising the stakes and increasing the expectations on parents, and mothers in particular. Since my son was born, I’ve had many conversations with my mom and grandmother about decisions we are making. Their response was always along the line, “yeah, we did that, but it was no big deal” or “I remember that, we just didn’t have a term for it.” Just think of all the time new mothers or mothers to be spend researching parenting styles (attachment, free range, baby wearing, babywise, etc). How much time have you spent trying to make the absolute perfect decision about some aspect of raising your baby? When in the large scale, these decisions really don’t matter. But they seem such high stakes and so important to get right! This is the rise of helicopter parenting, where even those who disavow helicopter parenting, do so on purpose by adopting a contrasting parenting style. But yet it is all part of the same tendency to believe we can engineer perfect children.

Another symptom of this societal trend about motherhood is the rise of mommy bloggers (of which I guess I am now a part). I think women (at least some of them) have always stayed at home taking care of the home and children. Maybe doing some crafts or other activities. But it seems now the pressure is not just to do these things (even if you also work outside the home) but to do them online to showcase your achievements. I say this not to criticize mothers (I do all these things, too!) but to point out that even though we haven’t achieved the elusive family-work balance, mothers are expected to get home from work, decorate some cake pops, feed their family an organic meal, “help” their child write that college essay to get into Stanford, all while driving the other kids to Olympic development sports activities, cloth diapering, and blogging about it (and in heels!).

I view the cause of this change not on feminism or naturalism, but in larger social forces that emphasize individual achievement, competition, and mass consumer goods. As a culture, we prize competitive individual achievement so that you are only valued for your latest achievement. Or the latest achievement of your kids. We are over busy and over scheduled, striving to distinguish ourselves. It is hard to just be happy with simple pleasures. Do you enjoy running? That’s great, when are you doing a marathon? Do you enjoy writing? Terrific, there’s a national book writing month so you can get that book published. You mean you cook and you don’t blog your favorite recipes? These are small ways that our culture is sending a message that we can’t just enjoy things. We have to excel at them and rack up accomplishments. And with consumer goods no longer being enough to distinguish ourselves (who doesn’t have a Gucci purse, or at least a good knock-off these days), I think of children as the new status symbol.  We pump so much effort into our children because they become extensions of ourselves. Their achievements become our achievements. Badminter even acknowledges this on page 13 when she says “‘I want everything’ becomes ‘I must do everything for my child.'”

Naturalism, which the author devotes a lot of time to in the book, is to me a subtheme of this larger trend. The pressure to be natural is one that puts a lot of pressure on people in general, not just mothers. And even not just parents. Just look at all the organic food stores in  urban hipster neighborhoods that tend to have more single people than families.

Another broad social force that she overlooks is the well known psychological burden of choice. This has been shown to affect men and women, about even mundane things like what type of toothpaste to buy. Even though we think we want choices, often we have too many choices these days, and it creates a psychological paralysis. Going from one to three options for something may make us happier because we can buy something that better suits us. But now we’ve moved from three to 12 choices and it is overwhelming to know how to choose.

Also, I found the argument pretty thin and hard to follow. And the evidence was rather spotty. France was held up as an example. But of what, I was never clear. She made a big point about how the birth rates in France ran counter to trends in other countries, but the table she presents puts them very much in line with several other countries. It just seemed she was trying to pin a lot on a thin evidence base.

OK, now the PAIL questions:

  • Would you call yourself a feminist (either publicly or as you think about yourself), and do you think that choice influences how you read this book?
    • Yes. I am most definitely a feminist. What that means to me is that I believe in equality between women and men. I believe that women should have the same options as men. It also means that I see women and men making different choices, I question whether there is an underlying tension that is shaping these choices. I am also sensitive to statements made about women without also thinking about whether they apply to men.
    • I also think this influenced how I read this book because I had a gut reaction to the assumption that motherhood and woman-hood are fundamentally at odds. I don’t believe that any desires I have as an individual woman (such as to succeed in my career) are at odds with being a good mother. There is not something inherent in wanting to do something outside of raising kids that makes you a bad mother, any more than doing something outside of raising kids makes my husband a bad father. In fact, I think having interests outside of motherhood make me a better mother.
  • What was your motivation for having a child? Badinter seems to think that most women do not really articulate their reasons, and those who do think it through often decide it is too onerous to have a child, at least in many societies. Did your experience of infertility force you to evaluate your motivations and expectations for motherhood? Do you think this influenced your experience of motherhood?
    • I admit I can’t give a detailed reason for having a child other than a desire to nurture a child. But I don’t think that is a problem. Why do we need a reason? Are some reasons better than others?
    • It is onerous to have a child. Maybe onerous is not the right word. But it takes significant financial and emotional resources to raise a child. Not to mention the resources it takes to have/adopt a child in the face of infertility. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t do it again in a heartbeat.
    • But I also don’t question women who look at the pros and cons and decide they (and any potential children) are better off if they become mothers.
    • The reason I think most women don’t have “good” reasons to have a child is that it is not a conscious choice for many women. Yes, there are plenty of people who decide one day to try to get a baby; some are successful right away and others are not. But there are still many women who find themselves pregnant without intending to and so start the journey to motherhood. The NY Times recently had a story that highlighted that most births to women under 30 are to single women (not married couples). Many of these women go on to be wonderful mothers, but that doesn’t change that they probably didn’t spend any time thinking up reasons for or against having a child before becoming pregnant.
  • Badinter condemns the movement towards breastfeeding as forcing women to make themselves available to their babies constantly. How have you experienced breastfeeding (or not breastfeeding)? Are you someone who is happy to be at her child’s beck and call, or have you found ways to be an individual and a mother? How have societal expectations influenced your decisions?
    • Not being able to breastfeed was one of my biggest concerns about adopting. I know many women relish being pregnant. But pregnancy was never that big a deal to me. Breastfeeding was. I did go through a lot of effort to do adoptive breastfeeding. For a while, there was nothing that made me feel more like my son’s mother than breastfeeding him. That is, until he got a little older and started attaching to ME and not just my breast. I do think my experience with adoptive breastfeeding made me less militant about breastfeeding than I would otherwise be. I didn’t let breastfeeding stop me from getting out and about with my newborn. In fact, I think being a mother through adoption more generally has influenced me from feeling too “tied down” with the baby. I have friends who isolated themselves with their babies, too overwhelmed to do anything. But we were living in a hotel, lacked a basic support system those first two weeks, and had to figure things out for ourselves. Staying inside all day wasn’t really an option.
  • Do you consider yourself a “naturalist” when it comes to motherhood and child-rearing, and if so did you feel hurt/offended by this book? Did it make you question your decision to be a naturalist parent or stir up feelings of regret? Do you feel the author made some good points, topics for discussion, or did you just want to hurl her book against a hard brick wall?
    • Yes, I am a naturalist. I eat organic as much as possible and want to be as natural as possible. I was not offended by the book as a naturalist. I do think she misses the mark in many ways about it. My husband is very much a naturalist as well, yet there is no acknowledgement that men/fathers may also value being natural. As I note above, I think naturalism is just a part of a larger societal trend.
  • Do you feel the author is right to assume that there is always a struggle or negotiation for women between their role and desires as women and their role and desires as mothers?
    • Not at all. This was one of my biggest complaints with the book. I don’t see my desires as an individual as in conflict with my role as a mother. At least not inherently. I see larger societal forces that ratchet up the expectations on women and on mothers that creates the illusion of conflict only because demands are for perfection.
  • Did you find yourself agreeing with Badinter’s assessment that if you fail to be a natural parent who eschews drugs during birth, breastfeeds, cloth diapers etc. society deems you an unfit mother?
    • Yes, but I think society’s judgment also comes down on people as bad parents for things other than not being natural. Think your kid should write his own book report? Don’t want to spend every day transporting kids to sports practice? I also think these are mostly problems by more affluent parents.
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