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Mothers Beware!

Guy Le Querrec/Magnum Photos
French children at an école maternelle, or free public nursery school, Neuilly-sur-Seine


The American presidential election campaign shot out of the blocks with a testy ideological exchange begun when a Democratic Party commentator, Hilary Rosen, derided Mrs. Mitt Romney as a woman who “never worked a day in her life.” Mrs. Romney retorted in a public tweet that raising five boys was plenty hard work, and got a speedy apology from Rosen and other Democrats, with Michelle Obama seeming to lean toward Ann Romney: “Every mother works hard, and every woman deserves to be respected.” TV coverage of the Romney–Rosen exchange was apt also to resurrect memories of Hillary Clinton’s famous observation in 1992 that she could have stayed home and baked cookies, a sneer that then as now infuriated women not working outside the home.

As long as children need to be born and taken care of, certain disputes, now renamed “the war on women,” seem irreducible about the woman’s place, with established political equations (stay-at-home mom = Republican; working mom = Democrat), even when these aren’t universally the case, as plenty of stay-at-home moms plan to vote Democratic, and vice versa. In the meantime, the conflict between motherhood and career remains as divisive as any of the other cultural issues that viscerally affect Americans, though in the Rosen–Romney exchange, all sides agreed that Rosen should have acknowledged the serious work of motherhood by at least phrasing it that Mrs. Romney had “never had a paying job” (my italics).

A well-timed translation of a best seller by a respected French feminist, Elisabeth Badinter, weighs into the debate: The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women. Jane Kramer, in a penetrating recent New Yorker profile,* has described Badinter as an “extravagantly entitled feminist philosophe,” a wealthy intellectual married to an influential senator and former minister of justice—well-known for having abolished the death penalty—who has herself taught at an elite French institution, the École Polytechnique. Long an influential figure in France, she had also made an impact with an earlier book entitled, in English, Mother Love: Myth and Reality (1981), which contends that the maternal instinct is not innate but a learned cultural response, at least in France. As she acknowledges in The Conflict, “French mothers have a bad reputation….It is clear that [they] are not all that keen on staying at home or breast-feeding,” and she has many things to say in the defense of their right to be “bad.” She goes on to express the fear that young Frenchwomen have been sacrificing their hard-won claims to social equality by falling for attempts to convince them that they have no higher calling or more satisfying accomplishment than motherhood.

The argument of The Conflict is, briefly, that social forces—parents and in-laws, psychologists, doctors, the Church, crusaders, society in general—are redoubling their attempts to make women feel guilty if they choose careers over motherhood, or if they go back to work after they do have children, or if they use day care, or don’t breast-feed the children they have. Badinter further argues that these social pressures to return to an age-old view of women’s proper place are a reaction, mostly but not entirely from male institutions, to recent feminist struggles for such things as child-care centers for women with careers—struggles that have been effective in France, which has some of the most women- and children-friendly social policies in Europe.

A romantic or sentimental view of maternity has been around since the Victorian The Angel in the House—since Rousseau—even since Plutarch, who said that “mothers ought to bring up and nurse their own children,” because nothing can replace Mother. Despite the truth or speciousness of arguments for and against combining career and motherhood, most can agree that an exalted view of mothers, with its attendant strictures (stay home with your baby), also has the effect of controlling women and seeking to reconcile them to their lack of independence and worldly influence, binding them to their place (the home), keeping them economically disadvantaged (out of the workplace), and frustrating their individual talents and ambitions. Pressures to return to what Badinter calls the “new naturalism” have, she writes,

thus far produced neither a matriarchy nor sexual equality, but rather a regression in women’s status. We [women] have agreed to this regression in the name of moral superiority, the love we bear for our children, and some ideal notion of child rearing, all of which are proving far more effective than external constraints [at keeping women in voluntary servitude]. As everyone knows, there is nothing quite like voluntary servitude.

Badinter singles out as an instigator of ideas about innate maternal instinct and woman’s true destiny the American anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, author of Mother Nature: Maternal Instincts and How They Shape the Human Species (1999). Badinter may have been misled by the book’s shorter title in French, simply Les Instincts maternels, and accuses Hrdy of having a “disturbingly teleological point of view of attachment.” In fact Hrdy, while not discounting maternal physiology—those hormones and oxytocins—seems to agree with Badinter that gains for women are being menaced by a new wave of maternalist fundamentalism.

We see that exactly the same forces are at work in our own society, with American women buying into things like “attachment parenting.” This may be the place to remark the recent Time magazine cover showing a woman suckling a toddler almost four years of age, and an article that begins, chillingly but significantly, “Joanne Beauregard is nothing so much as she is a mother…” (my italics). American controversies over attachment parenting—the theories that recommend complete self-abnegation and years of breast-feeding—have been blamed on the influence of books like Dr. William Sears’s The Baby Book, and on a number of other American pundits including one, the late Jean Liedloff (author of The Continuum Concept), who was a woman with no children. These “experts,” interestingly, recommend the kind of parenting they themselves didn’t get, which suggests a residue of anger and reaction, while French baby books tend to recommend the kind of upbringing the authors themselves had, which seems a reassuring demonstration of cultural self-confidence.

Badinter might find America’s putative child-centeredness hypocritical, since, as a society, we do such a bad job of seeing to the education and health of our children. Pamela Druckerman, an American new mother living in Paris, tries to fathom the secrets behind the serenity of French parenting in Bringing Up Bébé. Her book is full of germane observations:

There are structural reasons why French women seem calmer than American women. They take about twenty-one more vacation days each year. France has less feminist rhetoric, but it has many more institutions that enable women to work.

I hesitate to reveal one of her major conclusions without saying “spoiler alert,” lest people think they don’t need to read the rest: French babies sleep through the night, and French children don’t throw food, because their parents train them to wait for the things they want, even just for five minutes for a hungry infant (“the Pause”), longer for older children, always with an explanation of why the adult can’t instantly gratify the kid’s wishes. She compares this to American parenting theories that teach that infants will feel rejected if they experience an instant of frustration.


Sarah Hrdy has an interesting teleological explanation for the rise we are seeing of both religious and social fundamentalism: she and other anthropologists say that the real basis for it is an innate, or at any rate primal, male impulse to control female fertility. In this view, such an impulse is behind the restrictions on women demanded by the Taliban and any number of religions. Like Badinter, Hrdy notes that young American women are in danger of losing their hard-won rights because

they see no connection between innate male desires to control women in earlier times and the attitudes toward women and family that…motivate elected officials to debate endlessly over who has the right to choose whether and when a woman gives birth.

Hrdy illustrates her theory with an anecdote in which then Senator Rick Santorum hyperventilates on the floor of the Senate so that bystanders fear for his health:

Like all humans, and indeed as is typical of the entire Primate order, the senator exhibited an intense, even obsessive, interest in the reproductive condition of other group members. Like other high-status male primates before him, he was intent on controlling when, where, and how females belonging to his group reproduced.

She points out that on one occasion the Santorums, rather than terminate a pregnancy when it was known that it would not result in a baby that could live and might kill Mrs. Santorum, chose to endanger her life, hardly a choice most Americans would make, but one he did not hesitate to say he would impose on other American families.

Badinter sums up the present situation generally:

Since women gained control of their fertility, four phenomena have become apparent in developed countries: a decline in the per capita birthrate; a rise in the average age of first-time mothers; an increase in the number of women in the job market; and a diversification of women’s lifestyles with the emergence, in many countries, of couples and single women without children.

The last point is of particular significance for societies that are concerned about falling birthrates. Badinter notes that many conservative efforts to promote childbirth are finally counterproductive; social policies that “help women manage their different roles”—and don’t discourage them from getting jobs—as in Scandinavia and France, are more successful in encouraging women to have children than those that only support women in their family lives, considering “all other demands on a woman—those relating to a career—as matters of personal choice, with no connection to government policy.” Some countries have approached the need to increase population with family subsidies, but these do not succeed as well as when child-care facilities and maternal leave policies support women working. When women’s choices are limited, the effect is that career-minded, well-educated women, much more often than formerly, choose not to have children at all—hence the falling birthrates in many countries: “The higher the qualification and the more interesting the job, the more likely a woman is to choose to remain childless,” she writes. “Supporting part time motherhood is the key to increased fertility.”

Many of Badinter’s observations are directed at French society, and at first glance might seem not to apply in our own. Cross-cultural discussions are always complicated because France and the US are often out of phase by a decade or two when it comes to fashions in feminism, family, sex, and politics, however familiar the issues common to them both. Broad generalizations about child care, maternal and paternal leave, and so on may be much more plausible in a relatively homogeneous, much smaller country like France, which incidentally has one of the most advantageous sets of social policies in Europe, far better than those in America. And because America is at least fifteen times bigger than France, the US has a myriad of regional and social distinctions and variations that complicate any generalizations about our own society.

  1. *

    “Against Nature,” The New Yorker, July 25, 2011. 

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