“The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women,” is the latest release of self-effacing mom lit, by prominent French intellectual Elisabeth Badinter. From her recent piece in the Huffington Post:
Today’s ideal of motherhood requires that we give birth in pain, without benefit of an epidural, since this robs us of our first act as a mother. We are enjoined to nurse for six months, a year, or longer, day and night, whenever our child wishes, regardless of the mother’s situation. We are advised to practice co-sleeping, at the risk of sending numerous fathers to the sofa. The good mother who wants the best for her child is urged to forswear processed baby food, which is eyed as a health hazard, and to avoid daycare as injurious to her child’s healthy development. With all of its demands, the naturalist ideal of the 21st century means that it takes a woman as much time and energy to raise two children as our grandmothers spent raising four.
We’ve heard these types of arguments before from Erica Jong and countless mothers before her. Frankly, I’m tired of it. Prescriptive parenting, whether pro- or anti-naturalism, is at the heart of the issue. As Badinter herself agrees, when we look to gurus, whose opinions change with the mood of the times, we lose our way. Believing that there is a right way to parent, especially when that way contradicts with your own instincts, is the real prison modern mamas are facing.
Badinter continues: “Daughters have reacted against the feminism of their mothers. Most of all, we have seen the return of a naturalist ideology not much different from that of Rousseau, which kept women at home for almost two centuries. Its message was simple: ‘Ladies, your duty and your great achievement is to make the adults of tomorrow. You need only look to the teachings of nature and devote your days and nights to the task.’”
I’m concerned by this idea that modern or attached motherhood is setting back the feminist movement. For me, and for many of my generation, the lasting gift of feminism is the right to choose what we do with our lives: the right to self-determination. Not the right to sit in a cubicle all day, then pick up our child from day care and call ourselves liberated. Not the right to hate your life as you wash cloth diapers and puree baby food because someone told you that’s what “good” mothers do. For me, feminism means choosing how we navigate motherhood, whether we dress Junior in cloth diapers, disposables or none at all. In other words, if it’s not for you, just skip it!
Now to the valid issue Badinter raises about mothers whose lives revolve entirely around mothering. “We …fail to remember that raising a child doesn’t last forever, that when children grow up we have thirty or forty years left to live. To make a child the alpha and omega of a woman’s life deals a terrible blow to women’s autonomy and to the equality of the sexes.”
I’ll start by pointing out that this issue – identifying so completely with a particular role, always has the potential to leave our worlds completely rocked. A close relative recently told me about the best job she had. She loved it – the work, the people, everything about it. And she was there for a long time. But then one day she was let go. And she swore to never again identify with a job so completely. Work is work, she said, and that’s all it is.
So maybe identifying so completely with one role, to the exclusion of others, isn’t just a pitfall of motherhood. It’s a danger of completely identifying ourselves with what we do, rather than who we are. The danger is identifying as anything but our true selves, whatever that means to each of us. As long as we stand in our own truth, we’ll make the best decisions possible – for ourselves, for our families and for our careers. And if the highlights of our lives change suddenly or over time, we’ll be equipped to ride it out.