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Deconstructing The Conflict: Is Elisabeth Badinter’s Book a Fair Take on Motherhood?

The moment parents gaze upon that first positive pee stick, they’re faced with an endless string of choices: natural birth or medicated? Breastfeeding or formula-feeding? Helicopter parenting or free-range kids? Elisabeth Badinter’s latest book, The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women, asserts that the stigma surrounding parenting decisions today, with many revering attachment parenting and criticizing those who do not, have set back women personally and financially.

Babble Voices bloggers Stefanie Wilder-Taylor, Tracey Gaughran-Perez, and Meagan Francis, along with Babble’s Director of Blogs and Social Media Catherine Connors, dissect the arguments made in Badinter’s book:

Catherine Connors: What was your gut reaction to the book? It’s been presented in the media as pretty polarizing — “mommy wars”-stoking, even. Did you find it extreme? Is it inflammatory?

Stefanie Wilder-Taylor: Here’s my first thought on this: The Conflict is definitely extreme. Elisabeth Badinter at one point refers to strong proponents of breastfeeding as “ayatollahs of breast-feeding.” With lines like that, you know that she wrote the book to make people crazy.

Tracey Gaughran-Perez: I’m sure I’m going to be in the minority here when I say that I actually liked the book and agreed with Badinter’s points about how women voluntarily disadvantage themselves when they leave careers to stay at home.

I say all of this from the perspective of someone who DID stay at home — I left my PhD program and teaching career to be at home with my daughter from infancy through age 7, while my husband devoted himself to working full time. Seven years later, I had the rudest of all possible awakenings. I hadn’t prepared for what, in truth, 49% of married women will end up going through at some point in their lives: a divorce.

 

SWT: I also chose to not go back to work and stay home for the first year. About six months into it, I found myself jealous of women who had full-time jobs to return to, and while I felt that staying home with our daughter was “the right thing to do,” I sadly wasn’t enjoying it as I’d hoped.

So why not just go get a job, right? Because of what Elisabeth talks about in the book — the pressure to be everything to my child, to breastfeed, make her my whole world, etc. But nothing hit home in her book more than the breastfeeding pressure.

“I found myself profoundly guilty for even thinking that going to Music and Me Together with my infant was less than fulfilling.”

Basically Ms. Badinter spends a large portion of the book talking about how out of control the breastfeeding movement has gotten. She talks about the origin of the La Leche League and its rise into the enormous group of closed-minded zealots who believe that breast is best no matter what. I have to say that I don’t think she’s totally off base.

CC: Guys, I related to the book, too, so count me into that minority.

I wanted to be a self-sacrificing, baby-wearing, breastfeeding-for-years alpha-mom, but it just wasn’t in me. Nor was it in my daughter. But I still feel pressure to explain WHY I didn’t breastfeed longer, WHY I put my kids in daycare at the first opportunity, WHY I sought out stuff for me. And there’s something messed up about that.

 

TGP: I couldn’t get through breastfeeding — my milk didn’t come in, and after two weeks I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown and scaring other humans, so of course they suggested I “supplement” … Which I did, and of course, BAM! Everything was immediately better and easier and she stopped crying all the time (because she was no longer hungry all the time). So at that point I decided: my psychological health and her physical nourishment was more important that following any rigid parenting doctrine.

 

Meagan Francis: I always feel sort of like I’m living in two different worlds when it comes to these stories. There’s my online life, which tends to be made up mostly of affluent and/or highly educated women, many of whom live on the coasts, in cities or suburbs. That’s where I see women doling out and reacting to pressure/judgment in the baby arena.

Then there’s my “real life,” in a small city right in the middle of a rural area in the Midwest. Here, the baby-oriented pressures seem a lot less pronounced. I don’t even think you can find a “natural” birth class in this area, much less a midwife. Most women I know give breastfeeding a shot, but there doesn’t seem to be any expectation that you’ll keep going past the first month or so.

Maybe a solution for all of us is diversification. When you’re exposed to a variety of different perspectives and ways of living, you start to realize how meaningless anyone else’s opinions about your life are.

 

SWT: The more I hear from people living in smaller towns away from LA, NY, Chicago etc., the more I start to wonder who these books like The Conflict and Perfect Madness are for. If this crazy pressure to feed only organic, breastfeed ‘til puberty, and sacrifice our very sanity for the (alleged) sake of our children is not even that rampant in most of the country, then why do we let it become such a monstrous issue?

CC: Why CAN’T we just do our own thing and leave it at that? I’ll never understand. We seem to have so much investment in how other mothers do things — why do you suppose that is?

 

MF: I think a lot of the pressure comes from these online communities we’ve built for ourselves, frankly. Nowadays we’re hanging out online with people from other areas and backgrounds. And those who feel most passionately about something tend to be the loudest voices, which can make their numbers feel elevated.

“Maybe a solution for all of us is diversification.”

Confession here: when I was a very young mom (sometime between babies 1 and 2), I turned briefly into a judge-y “lactivist” crunchy type. Mostly I think I felt judged for doing things like not sleep-training, nursing in public, and sleeping with my babies, and I felt more confident about my parenting choices when I could elevate them in my own mind.

My favorite part about The Conflict was how it wrapped up by basically saying that if women don’t fear motherhood, they will have children, but that this we-owe-them-everything philosophy of motherhood is scaring women off of having children (which I have witnessed myself).

 

CC: I went through a judge-y lactivist phase myself and only pulled back when a former colleague sent me an email that basically amounted to a mild wrist-slap. She said that she was uncomfortable with the unrelenting breastfeeding preachery on my blog — she was unable to breastfeed, and felt, at times, shamed for it by the breastfeeding-activist community.

That was kind of a wow moment for me — I’d been so obsessed with the cause of promoting breastfeeding (which I really struggled with, and felt vulnerable about) that I hadn’t stopped to consider the experience of moms who couldn’t (or wouldn’t) breastfeed.

TGP: For people like me who couldn’t make the breastfeeding happen and have been inundated with breast is best propaganda, new motherhood was a bit torturous. I could not get over the guilt enough to just let it go.

I started asking other women about their experience and so many of them had gone through the same thing. I believe it was then I started having some resentment toward the whole breast is best, natural parenting is superior thing. I may have gone the other way with it briefly. But once I got my footing more, I balanced out and figured out what was right for me.

 

SWT: I think “the conflict” (as it were according to Badinter) is alive and well, but in essence, it’s an upper-class problem. It’s also something we’re more vulnerable to when we’re brand new parents. I wish we could override the new “natural” parenting movement with a more relaxed, less strident, do-what-works-best-for-you-and- your—children-but-try-to-do-better-than-your-parents type of movement. Is that a pipe dream?

 

CC: Pipe dream or no, it’s a good dream.

Have you read The Conflict? What’s your take on it?

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