The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women, by Elisabeth Badinter

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Three stars, read in September 2014.

Now that I see how long ago I read this, I wonder if I might feel differently were I to read it again. I had left my church by then, but I don’t think I’d reached my current level of radicality—or realized that I actually don’t want to have children—and I wonder if things that seemed harsh to me before would be perfectly reasonable now.

What I thought at the time was that Badinter makes some really good points, though the book was a tad annoyingly written (almost sarcastic; this is another thing I’d probably feel differently about now, as I am much more comfortable with women’s anger). It’s also quite short and with weirdly large text and margins, which seems a little strange, as there’s obviously a lot of information here; the book seems to be deliberately just skimming the surface. Maybe that’s to make it more accessible, but I would certainly like to go deeper.

It focuses on the naturalist movement of the last few decades (things like co-sleeping, attachment parenting, increased emphasis on breastfeeding, etc.) and on how government policies and cultural norms about motherhood are related to each other. On the contradictions women face:

The first . . . is social. While boosters of the traditional family condemn working mothers, companies resent them for their children. For many, motherhood is held as the highest form of fulfillment for women even as it is devalued socially. Full-time mothers are unpaid, suspected of doing nothing all day, and deprived of a professional identity because their work requires no qualifications . . .

The second contradiction is conjugal. Couples tend to expect and desire children, yet, as many have noted, a child is not conducive to a couple’s love life . . . A good number of young couples admit that they only realized the demands of the job after the fact (“no one warned me,” they say). Increasingly, partners are taking a hard second look before launching on this adventure.

The worst part of this is that I have the distinct feeling that it’s on purpose. In the church I grew up in, for example, boys were (the rules have changed slightly now) supposed to serve two years as missionaries when they turned eighteen—but girls weren’t allowed to go until they were twenty-one, because the church really preferred that they focus on getting married instead. “Sister missionaries” were seen as virtual spinsters. At twenty-one years old. And how many times have you heard people talk about an unmarried young man being a “menace to society” after his early twenties? How many times have you seen older people “playfully” harass a young couple for not having gotten married yet—and then, once they’ve gotten married, for not having had children yet? I get the sense that rather than protecting younger generations, rather than passing on information that might help them prepare a little better, older generations want to trap younger ones in the same conventional behavior that so firmly controlled their own lives. We tend to do that, when we’ve sacrificed a lot for something and can’t bear to think it could’ve been different. But it’s a pretty shitty betrayal by those who are supposed to be looking out for us.

The most painful contradiction is personal, affecting every woman who does not identify with motherhood, every woman who feels torn between love for her child and personal desires, between wanting the best for her baby and wanting the best for herself. A child conceived as a source of fulfillment can, it turns out, stand in the way of that fulfillment. And, if we pile up a mother’s responsibilities to the point of overload, she will feel this contradiction all the more keenly.

Not to mention that conceiving a child as a source of fulfillment is a pretty selfish thing to do—ironically, given the way people who “put off” having children are so often accused of selfishness.

These contradictions are rarely given serious consideration. And by expecting ever more of mothers, the naturalist ideology not only fails to offer solutions, it makes the contradictions untenable. Wherever the prevailing ideal conflates [womanhood with motherhood], women who cannot fulfill the expectations pinned on them are increasingly likely to turn their backs on motherhood.

This is in reference to low and dropping birth rates in industrialized countries, and an increase in couples who are “child-free by choice.”

In countries where being a woman and being a mother are seen as distinct identities, where the legitimacy of multiple women’s roles is recognized, and where motherhood does not overwhelm all other possibilities, women do want to have children, even if it means falling short of the ideal of motherhood.

Can you imagine a world in which no one became a parent unless they consciously chose, and prepared, to do so? One in which no one, much less half the population regardless of their preference, was pressured to make reproduction their entire calling in life? I can. It’d be absurdly easy to achieve, actually. We’d all just have to want it.

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