The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women
by Elisabeth Badinter
Metropolitan Books, $25 (cloth)

Breast milk is freighted with more symbolic weight than any beverage should have to bear. The stuff signals femininity, fertility, and naturalness. It is thought to possess quasi-magical properties: to protect babies from infection, to enrich their brains, and to bestow them with devastating good looks. (Okay, that last one hasn’t been studied yet, but watch out for a future issue of JAMA.) To a certain subset of feminist, breast milk represents the awe-inspiring abilities—to sustain life, to nurture—that distinguish the female sex.

To another kind of feminist, the substance is considerably less worthy of reverence. It embodies the duties that biology has foisted on women, keeping them from more interesting pursuits. Simone de Beauvoir, for instance, viewed breastfeeding as “exhausting servitude.” For this kind of feminist, scientific advances, such as formula, can free women from the shackles of the nursery.

The philosophical dispute over nursing encapsulates a larger debate about how women should live: Embrace a distinctively female set of values, focused on care and connection? Or strive to join men on their turf?

Elisabeth Badinter is firmly in the second camp. A French philosophy professor, she has written a number of contrarian books about womanhood, including Mother Love: Myth and Reality (1981), which challenges assumptions about the maternal instinct. In 2010 Le Conflit: La Femme et La Mère, her most recent salvo, became a bestseller in France. She is considered one of that country’s most influential intellectuals and has also achieved an unusual degree of celebrity in the United States, with profiles in the New York Times and the New Yorker.

Now an American version of Le Conflit has been released, with the title The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women. In the book, Badinter lambastes the return of motherhood to the center of women’s lives. She examines a wide assortment of policy and cultural factors at play since the 1970s. But her chief culprit is an ideology she calls “naturalism,” the belief in the infallible wisdom of nature. She sees naturalism at the heart of breastfeeding absolutism, as well as other trends, such as un-medicated childbirth and cloth diapers. In the name of nature, all of these deprive women of conveniences that could ease the burdens of motherhood. “Nature has become a decisive argument for imposing laws or dispensing advice,” she writes. “It is now an ethical touchstone, hard to criticize and overwhelming all other considerations.”

Badinter is right to call out the excesses of contemporary motherhood in some quarters. She is also right that knee-jerk allegiance to the “natural” warrants interrogation. But too often, she fails to persuasively defend the particulars of her argument, and her rejection of ambiguity hurts her case. What’s more, at least from an American perspective, Badinter’s charges inflate the importance of her favorite targets while under-emphasizing some of the guiltiest parties.

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Badinter traces the advent of naturalism to a backlash against modernity, sparked by the 1973 fuel crisis. She sketches the emergence, in the 1970s and ’80s, of three schools of thought, each of which glorified the natural and which together produced an ethos investing nature with moral authority. Ecology held that instead of mastering nature for human purposes, we must defer to it. Behavioral science claimed to vindicate old beliefs about the maternal instinct, based on the study of mammals and hormones. Finally, “essentialist feminism” stressed the differences between the sexes rather than their similarities, celebrating menstruation, childbirth, and other experiences unique to womanhood. Badinter’s definition of naturalism, then, yokes together quite distinct meanings of “nature,” uniting environmentalism with belief in innate gender differences.

‘Naturalness’ drives breastfeeding’s consecration, but the concern behind nursing zealotry is less about nature than about children’s health and success.

Her criticism of breastfeeding dogma fits this argument best. All of the factions singled out above are aligned. In behavioral science, the well-regarded anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, among others, has praised nursing for triggering in mothers virtually orgasmic hormonal releases that forge crucial bonds with babies. Many feminists, chafing at over-medicalization, embraced breastfeeding along with natural childbirth. And Badinter cites a more recent environmentalist rationale: breastfeeding saves water, plastic, and other resources needed for formula.

Perhaps most relevant to mothers, the most esteemed medical institutions, such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the American Academy of Pediatrics, are also onboard. The WHO recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months, followed by the introduction of solid foods while “breastfeeding continues for up to two years of age or beyond.”

But a sober look at the data reveals a more nuanced picture of breast milk than its most diehard champions allow. Some of the purported virtues are confirmed, Badinter reports, but others, such as the alleged cognitive benefits, are more debatable or have been debunked. She argues that considering improvements over time in recipes, formula now rivals breast milk. (American readers may already be familiar with these points from Hanna Rosin’s widely discussed 2009 Atlantic piece, “The Case Against Breast-Feeding.”)

Given the marginal benefits and the commitment required by nursing—often likened to a full-time job—the pressure to breastfeed can be unreasonably intense. In certain milieus, formula is regarded as hardly more appropriate for babies than vodka. Many women give up professional momentum to nurse, while others, without the luxury to cut back on work, resort to bottles and are haunted by feelings of guilt. This is to say nothing of adoptive parents, mothers whose bodies do not produce enough milk, or women who find nursing prohibitively uncomfortable or onerous.

But while Badinter is surely right that the “naturalness” of breastfeeding facilitates its consecration, the driving concern behind nursing zealotry, at least in the United States, is less for fidelity to nature than for children’s health and success. The prevailing rhetoric stresses that modern science has proved breast milk’s substantial boons for children. The maternal bonding is no doubt a plus, but given that women are encouraged to pump when they can’t offer a nipple, this aspect seems secondary. And it’s safe to assume that few mothers see breastfeeding principally as a green lifestyle choice, akin to driving a Prius or taking shorter showers.   

Indeed, Badinter’s attempt to implicate environmentalism in modern motherhood is the most strained part of her argument. Consider her attack on the use of cloth diapers. Cloth diapers, Badinter writes, have become an all but compulsory choice for today’s progressive mother. Huggies and Pampers, after all, are to blame for the massacre of trees and prodigious landfill waste. The decisive strike against them: Greenpeace-sponsored tests found traces of dioxin in some disposable diapers. (She doesn’t explain what dioxin is, but she doesn’t need to; you can guess that you don’t want it next to your baby’s private parts.) Of course the cloth kind cannot be tossed and forgotten—that’s the point—but must be laundered again and again. Hence, “Yet another new task awaits the ecologically minded mother.”

Put aside the fact that, unlike breastfeeding, diaper laundry is not intrinsically a woman’s job; we’ll grant that women are disproportionately stuck with it. But Badinter exaggerates the phenomenon. At least in the United States, pressure to opt for cloth is nonexistent. According to the only statistic she invokes—presumably the most impressive she could find—20 percent of English babies “regularly or occasionally” sport cloth diapers. These numbers tell us very little, since they include occasional use and do not reveal the reasons behind the choice. She also declines to grapple with the issues at stake, insinuating, but not explicitly contending, that to care about all those dead trees is rather frivolous.

More damaging to her argument, she conflates anxiety about children’s health with a broader commitment to the environment. Judging by Badinter’s own facts and figures, a fairly small minority of parents use cloth diapers, and a good slice of them may be motivated largely by fear of exposing their babies to chemicals. Progressive mothers may well want to save the trees and the whales, but their environmentalist sympathies conflict with their parenting choices more often than they dovetail. Witness the profusion of baby gear in a typical nursery and the custom of chauffeuring children unceasingly to soccer practice and swim meets. All are part of an ethos that extends well beyond weaning and potty training, in which the child’s perceived interests dominate family life.

This single-minded focus on children’s health and flourishing leaves little room to think about the bigger picture. In a 1980 journal article, social critic Robert Crawford used the term “healthism” to refer to a new preoccupation of the middle class with personal health and wholesome lifestyles. He also drew a connection between healthism and political disengagement. A sense of impotence—“I can’t change the world, but at least I can change myself,” as Crawford put it—fed the mania for vitamins, exercise, herbal supplements. And in turn, as people poured more energy into their own health, they had less time and inclination to invest in civic or political involvement. Since 1980 this outlook does not seem to have abated, to say the least, and for parents it applies doubly to their children. In shaping contemporary parenthood, this retreat to the private sphere has been at least as important as a retreat to nature.

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Badinter’s argument about the retrograde state of motherhood is meant to apply throughout the industrialized world. But, of course, there are profound differences across nations and classes, which she does discuss (the former much more than the latter). Ironically, the country in which her theory applies least is her own. For example, according to her statistics, as of 2010 just over half of French mothers breastfeed at birth, while about 15 percent do so at three or four months. At six months the numbers are so minimal that France is not even represented on the charts. By contrast 75 percent of American mothers try nursing, and 24 percent are still lactating a year later.

In the past few years, a spate of American writers has brought tidings of French parenthood as if sending awed dispatches from utopia. In her 2005 book Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety, Judith Warner reminisced about her time in Paris, where both of her daughters were born. She availed herself of an affordable, state-subsidized nanny; she was surrounded by relaxed mothers who guiltlessly worked and took time for themselves. When she returned to the United States, she found evenings dominated by Girl Scout meetings, marriages corroded by resentment, and promising careers derailed. Pamela Druckerman’s recent bestseller, Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting, reports that French children sleep soundly, eat sophisticated cuisine, and behave politely to adults, among other miracles. Meanwhile, French mothers look fabulous and keep the spark alive in their marriages. The common theme of both books is that French mothers refuse to let their children rule their lives—and yet they are in some ways more effective parents than their American counterparts.

In the insecure, winner-take-all landscape of the United States, parents are frantic to ensure their offspring’s place in the hierarchy.

Policy and culture, inevitably intertwined, both play a role in these national differences. Warner and Druckerman marvel at the French government’s support for families, whether by implementing a sliding price scale for high-quality daycare or furnishing monthly cash grants to parents. Badinter recognizes the importance of policy, but she offers an additional explanation of the French anomaly. At least since the 1600s, she writes, French women have not identified primarily as mothers. Aristocratic women handed off their children to wet nurses and, later, governesses and boarding school. By the 1700s, all but the poorest families employed wet nurses. Childcare responsibilities were considered “embarrassing”; upper-class women were expected to prioritize their husbands and social lives. Rather than waiting on children, they dispensed witticisms at salons. With roots in this history, Badinter argues, French women today feel exempt from many of the demands and the self-reproach that torment women elsewhere. (Mercifully, though, they seem to be more attentive to children than their ancestors were.)

In France, according to Badinter’s account, a laid-back approach to motherhood confers prestige. In the United States, by contrast, well-off, highly educated women today subscribe to a cult of intensive motherhood. Like shopping at Crate and Barrel and knowing where to get artisanal cheese, obsessive mothering is a class marker.

What accounts for the rise of this model in the United States and (probably to a lesser extent) in some other countries? In addition to her main argument about naturalism, Badinter suggests that mothers today are reacting against the more distant parenting style many of their own feminist mothers practiced. She also advances what could be called the Whac-a-Mole hypothesis of sexism: as women have made gains in universities and boardrooms, oppression has reemerged in a different site. There is probably some truth to both theories. But whatever their origins, once norms of motherhood solidify, they are self-perpetuating; few stigmas are more severe than that of the bad mother. 

Judith Warner provides another key explanation: in the increasingly insecure, winner-take-all landscape of the United States, parents are frantic to ensure their offspring’s place in the nation’s hierarchy. They feel intense pressure to give their children every ostensible advantage—from breast milk’s nutritive value to Harvard-worthy extracurricular résumés.

France’s government offers a measure of protection against this insecurity. The state’s relevance is not limited to what we think of as family law. Certainly the United States needs much better paid-leave policies and support for childcare. But we also live in a society of subpar public schools, gaping economic inequality, and under-regulated toxins, without guaranteed health care, in which people have lost faith in the political process. All-consuming motherhood is easy to mock—and sometimes richly deserving of mockery. But there are reasons parents feel anxious about their children’s health, safety, and prospects. Parents harbor little hope of changing the conditions that affect everyone’s children. They fixate instead on their own. The result is a vicious circle.

If there’s any bright spot—and any counterpoint to France envy—it’s American men. Badinter writes, “With the baby back to being exclusively the mother’s concern, the father is once again free to attend to his own affairs with a clear conscience.” That statement is patently false in much of the United States. As Liza Mundy’s new book, The Richer Sex, demonstrates, a growing number of American women are primary breadwinners while more dads are staying home with kids. Even in relatively conventional households, fathers spend more time with their children than their own fathers did, as well as more time on housework. The sight of a man pushing a stroller or folding the laundry is no longer exotic. We’re still far from an egalitarian ideal, but on these fronts we’re doing better than France.

That men are stepping up in the home is welcome news. But it doesn’t fully address the heart of the issue. To some extent, it means that the albatross of modern American motherhood is really the albatross of modern American parenthood. (Men now also buy more cosmetic products than in the past, but that kind of equality doesn’t necessarily represent progress.) The government has woefully underserved families, making parenting a more overwhelming job than it needs to be. Parents share some blame too: among many upper-middle-class families, legitimate concern about children’s welfare slides into a game of signaling status and fitting in. While anthropologists, feminists, and environmentalists may have helped inform current norms, the figures that really matter are more familiar: Uncle Sam and the Joneses.