I recently came across the following headline on The Guardian’s website:
“French philosopher says feminism under threat from ‘good motherhood.’”
Is this the sort of headline that sucks you in and keeps you riveted?
You mean you don’t give a rat’s ass about what some French philosopher has to say about feminism and motherhood?
Well, it’s the sort of headline that has an attention-grabbing effect on me, the feminist mother who is a graduate student studying philosophy.
But even if you don’t find the headline to be absolutely riveting, I still think that the article itself–its content, and what it says about the current convergence of different generations of feminists/feminism and mothers/conceptions of motherhood–is relevant to all people who give at least a partial rats rat’s ass about feminist parenting.
Just bear with me for a moment.
According to Elisabeth Badinter, the feminist philosopher to which the headline refers:
France [is] at a turning point in its attitude towards female emancipation.
Thanks to a new coalition of ecologists, breastfeeding advocates and behavioural specialists, she argued, young women are facing increasing pressure to be perfect mothers who adhere to strict guidelines for how to care for their babies.
If this “regressive” movement takes hold, French feminism could be set back decades, she argued.
“The majority of French women [now] reconcile maternity with professional life. Many of them work full-time when they have a child. They are resisting the model of the perfect mother, but for how long?” Badinter said in an interview with Libération newspaper. “I get the impression that we may now be at a turning point.”
Such views – in her new book, Conflict, Women and Mothers, published today – have seen Badinter plunged into the boiling cauldron that is contemporary French feminist thought.
Attacked by her critics as out of touch with the new generation she is attempting to salvage, Badinter has stuck to her guns. She says that the new image of the “ideal mother” – one who breastfeeds for six months, does not rush to return to full-time work, avoids painkillers in childbirth, rejects disposable nappies and occasionally lets her baby sleep in her bed – makes impossible demands on any woman who has a life outside of her child.
“‘Good motherhood’ imposes new duties that weigh heavily on those who do not keep to them. It contravenes the model we have worked for until now [and] which makes equality of the sexes impossible and women’s freedom irrelevant. It is a step backwards,” she said.
Now to be fair, I haven’t read Badinter’s book. So anything I’m about to say is in no way intended to be a response to Badinter’s book.
What’s more, I have neither the time nor the energy nor really the desire to plunge into the history of feminist thoughts on family and reproduction and/or the particular characteristics of French feminist theory. But I don’t think that you need to know a lot about these theories (or, let’s face it, the particularities of women’s situation in France) to get a good sense of the general argument that Badinter is making in these comments.
(I’ll give you a hint: I think it’s probably the same sort of argument that Hanna Rosin made last year when she wrote about breastfeeding in The Atlantic.)
It goes something like this:
- There are lots of groups and individuals out there who advocate [insert your favorite parenting choice, such as breastfeeding, co-sleeping, cloth diapering, extended maternity leave, and/or natural childbirth].
- These groups and individuals try to scold women into choosing [said parenting choice] by using fear and guilt-inducing tactics.
- Using fear and guilt-inducing tactics is bad for women, and bad for feminism.
- [Said parenting choice] also keeps women chained to the home and out of professional life.
- Keeping women chained to the home and out of professional life is bad for women, and bad for feminism.
- [Said parenting choice] also functions as part of a constricting and damaging ideal of the “perfect mother,” an ideal that most women can never attain.
- Ergo, [said parenting choice] either is directly bad for women and feminism, or at the very least undermines women’s professional lives and feminist goals for women.
Okay, there are all sorts of things that are wrong with this argument. Loads of them. Stinking HEAPS of them.
Let me tackle just a few of them.
1. Even if a group or individual uses a guilt-inducing tone to promote a certain practice, this does not necessarily mean that what they are saying is false, nor does it mean that we should necessarily reject that practice.
Sure, when people promote breastfeeding, cloth diapers, etc. by using guilt-inducing tones, they’re doing something really shitty, and there are good reasons reject those tones.
But that doesn’t mean that the all of the claims that these people make about breastfeeding, cloth diapers, “natural childbirth,” etc. are untrue! It doesn’t mean that we have to reject these parenting practices just because someone else’s tone of voice/writing makes us feel guilty!
To elaborate, I’ll admit that the tones of some (though certainly not all) pro-breastfeeding, cloth diapering, “natural childbirth,” etc. claims can seem demeaning, belittling, or haughty. And that sucks. It really, truly sucks. Not only because it’s disrespectful but also because people rarely make any super-personal choices after coming across arguments or claims that are demeaning, belittling, or haughty. So these “guilt-inducing” tones are not only anti-feminist but also counterproductive, at least when it comes to “convincing the other side” of one’s claims.
These poorly chosen tones do not undermine the evidence that supports the health benefits of breastfeeding, both for mothers and their infants.
They do not undermine the fact that cloth diapering reduces environmental waste.
And they do not undermine the evidence demonstrating that using little medical intervention during childbirth in most cases is actually a healthy practice, both for mothers and babies.
So yes, it’s well and good to critique the arguments, the social systems, and the individuals who try to use guilt-inducing or otherwise coercive tactics to get us to make any parenting choice. Let’s take our justified anger out on them.
But let’s not take our anger out on breastfeeding, cloth diapering, and “natural” childbirth themselves!
Because choosing these practices is not anti-feminist, and obscuring their benefits may very well be.
2. Choosing to breastfeed, use cloth diapers, co-sleep, and refrain from using pain medication during labor in no way necessitates that one is chained to the home, nor does it mean that one cannot have a job, a life, or even a good sex life.
Though let’s face it.
If a person decides to have a child, and if s/he wants to have a relatively active role in raising that child, then his or her life will have to change in some meaningful way.
Parenting forces one to make certain compromises and sacrifices–but not necessarily the parenting practices. In fact, many women who work outside of the home find all sorts of ways to integrate the aforementioned parenting practices into their work and home life.
For instance, working women can (and do) use breastpumps. (And so can women who want to go out for a night with their girlfriends.)
They can also make the decision to breastfeed while they are at home and have formula offered to their infants while they are at work.
Working women can also (and do also) ask and/or teach their childcare provider to use cloth diapers.
They can (and do) co-sleep. (And these women can also have sex with their partners. Maybe not as much sex as before the kid was born, but hey, that happens even if the child is sleeping at the other end of the house!)
And working women can (and do) research and plan for the way they want to birth their babies. (Seriously, if they have enough time to research a car or a laptop or a camera they are planning to purchase, then they have enough time to research the way they want their baby to come into the world.)
And if they face obstacles to these practices or choices in their professional lives?
It seems to me that the optimal feminist pursuit would be not to force women to accommodate corporate practices but to require corporate practices to accommodate working mothers (and fathers)!
3. Although the model of the “perfect mother” is certainly damaging and anti-feminist, rejecting all of the components of the “perfect mother” ideal seems to be…well, throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
Yes, yes, a million times yes, perpetuating any myth of the “perfect mother” is damaging to women. (And those myths of the “perfect working mother” who “has it all” are just as damaging.)
What’s more, choosing to breastfeed, cloth diaper, co-sleep, have a “natural” childbirth, etc. because one wants to attain the ideal of the perfect mother is, at the very least, misguided. And also ridiculous. And in direct defiance of almost any feminist value that I can imagine.
But as with my response to point #1, just because this myth “requires” woment to breastfeed, use cloth diapers, avoid pain medication during labor, etc., it doesn’t mean that these practices themselves are damaging to women. (I feel like a broken record here, folks.)
What’s more, choosing these practices doesn’t make women more “perfect mothers.” They don’t make women better than other mothers or even better than all other women.
They shouldn’t even reflect upon any “competition” between women at all!
Simply put, there are good health and ecological reasons to breastfeed, use cloth diapers, and strive for a low-intervention birth, where possible. This doesn’t mean that one must do these things. It shouldn’t even suggest that these practices are somehow duties that women must undertake.
But there are good reasons to practice them.
And if a woman makes a decision to do x, y, or z after reflecting upon “good” reasons in support of x, y, or z…
…then isn’t that a “good” feminist decision?
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