Tuesday, August 14, 2012

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 Seven 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 Seven'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 did 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.
  • There are several points in the book in which Badinter categorizes women (or cites other authors’ categories). Do you feel you can be typed? Have your ideas of what you find fulfilling changed since you had your first child?
    • I am a crunchy, creative intellectual. There are certainly types I fall into. Using typologies doesn't bother me. I do think she made many assumptions about women in these typologies on very little data. Her categories were so broad that the variation within them is huge.
  • 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.
  • If you left the workforce to be home with your kids, temporarily or permanently, did you find the need to continually rationalize your decision to yourself and others? Do you/did you feel pressure to return to the workplace or vise versa and have you ever felt threatened or made vulnerable by a dependence on your spouse for income?
    • I returned to work after only a short parental leave. This was not an issue for me, other than the sense that I am supposed to feel guilty about it.
  • 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.
  • Badinter makes a poignant point regarding women who experience infertility and are childless, stating that “those who can’t have children are expected to put up with it nobly.” As someone who has experienced loss and infertility, how did that statement make you feel? 
    • I disagree. I think that women who don't have kids are considered odd and their status as women are questioned. They should "just adopt".
  • Badinter talks a lot about family-friendly policies around the world, sometimes intended to shrink the equality gap between mothers and fathers–she uses Sweden as one of the most progressive examples. Do you think it’s possible for any government policy to bring equality to the sexes? Or does the role that mothers play trump any attempt to level the field?
    • I think government policy can help to bring equality between the sexes. I disagree with the assumption behind the second question. This is my feminist side coming out. I don't think that there is anything inherent about being a mother that precludes equality between the sexes. If men can find a way to be both breadwinners and fathers, women can do the same. If a couple decides they want one parent to stay home (and I can see the benefit to that even if we didn't go that route), I wish it was not always the woman that ended up doing so. I wish the US adopted many of the family friendly policies that are seen in other countries. That, to me, exemplifies family values, much more so than what is usually put under than label.
  • Does it matter you, as a mother, that your choice to breastfeed, stay home etc. might undermine your status as a woman? Do you feel it’s your duty to help further the status of women by not giving into the pressures of modern motherhood?
    • Again, I disagree with the premise of this question. I don't think being a mother and being a woman are at odds. When I do feel these pressures, I ask myself whether the decision I am making is really my true desire, or something that society is telling me I should want.


  1. I love reading what you have to say Missy! I think you are spot on, especially with everything coming down to achievement and to putting WAY too much thought into small parenting decisions. I have to say I'm not interested in reading that book after your review, but I did love reading your thoughts about it.

  2. You make a great point about helicopter parenting and the pressure to be successful at everything we do. That does seem to be the driving force behind a lot of parenting trends.

    This pressure to be successful can actually be felt in the opposite direction as Badinter's focus on natural parenting. I know someone who had a baby at about the same time as me and who is taking a similar career path (we were both law students when our babies were born). She's done everything differently: while I breastfed, she bottle fed; while I coslept, she had a baby nurse at night; while I had my classes taped and listened from home for four weeks after the birth, she went back to class after a week; she took the high-paying, long-hours job, I took the opposite (though still full-time). Is one way better than the other? No, I don't think so. We both probably felt pressure to do the opposite thing, even me, supposedly the "better" parent according to Badinter's conception of pressure to be a natural parent. I've had to reassure pregnant law students that they should feel like they must return to school in a week like the other women did, that in fact, if they're breastfeeding they CAN'T return to school in a week.

    In sum, I think you're absolutely right about what is really happening, and Badinter is, well, trying to sell a book.

  3. Really enjoyed reading this post!
    I think a lot about how achievement oriented our society is...both for moms and kids. I have five month old twins so it's not really an issue yet, but I am very conscious about the push to over-schedule kids and want to protect my children from that. I want them to have lots of time to just hang out, you know? Also trying not to succumb to that pressure myself. All I seem to be able to do is work part time and take care of the kids...a little bit of exercise thrown in here and there but that's about it. I have a half-written book I'd love to finish someday but for now I'm trying to let it go in an effort not to be so over-scheduled/achievement oriented.
    I'm on the older end of the motherhood spectrum, and I think that's made it a little easier for me to not feel so pressured by society in this regard. I just want my kids to be happy...I really don't care much about them being experts in every possible realm.


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