French feminist philosopher and writer Elisabeth Badinter has made a career out of being controversial. Her views on feminism and motherhood have been raising eyebrows since her first book, “L’Amour en plus,” was published in 1981. In that look at the history of maternal love, Badinter concluded that, unlike chimps, human mothers are not hardwired to nurture their children. Instead, she says, women take care of their offspring because they feel a sense of duty to do so.
In her latest book, “The Conflict, The Woman and The Mother,” she advances the theory that modern mothers have taken that sense of duty to the extreme and have essentially become slaves to their babies. Having fought the good fight for equal rights, she is disheartened to see feminism threatened by motherhood.
Badinter believes that the pressure to be the perfect mom is serving only to keep women chained to their children while men go about ruling the world. Breastfeeding? An unnecessary step backwards in the liberation of women. The green movement? Forcing moms to stay home washing cloth diapers and whipping up batches of organic baby food.
Badinter is convinced that co-sleeping, natural childbirth and the pressure to not work outside the home are all chipping away at the freedoms our mothers and grandmothers fought for. We have, in essence, thrown off the shackles of oppressive men only to replace them with the ball and chain of babies.
It is easy to dismiss Badinter’s philosophy as hopelessly out of touch and even selfish. She is, after all, 66-years-old and the product of a different time. But while she may be missing the mark when she assumes that all mothers want to “have it all” as defined by her generation, she does make at least one valid point:
“We live 80 to 85 years in our industrialized countries, and children take up 20 to 25 years of that. Staking your whole life on 20 years is a bad bet.”
That part makes sense to me. Because while I am currently parenting a tween girl, she’s not my only child. I also have a 27-year-old daughter to whom I dedicated my entire life until the day she left home. As a single mother, I worked because I had to. But my focus was always on her. During those years, I did very little, if anything, that was specifically just for me. I didn’t take the art classes I longed for. I didn’t travel. I worked jobs that were secure rather than fulfulling. In essence, I put my life on hold to concentrate on hers. And when she left home, I found myself right where I started, only older and slightly more bitter.
Childhood is a temporary situation and does not require total sacrifice from a parent. And while I know plenty of moms who have figured this out and have found a happy medium between selfishness and selflessness, I fear I am not there yet. Whether it is from guilt, an overdeveloped sense of responsibility or simply the inability to break my own parenting habits, I find myself continuing to ignore my own needs in favor of my child’s. Does this make me a better mom? I don’t think so.
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