PAIL Book Club: The Conflict

I have to admit, when I saw that Elisabeth Badinter’s The Conflict, How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women had been picked for this month’s PAIL book club I was a little shocked. It just didn’t seem like the kind of book that particular group of women would want to read.

I will also concede, I wasn’t all the keen on reading it myself. I swallowed a lot of pride, and some self-respect, when I spent $12 for the Kindle edition of a book that got 2.5 stars on Amazon. I NEVER buy something that gets 2.5 stars. Never.

I will admit, the book was a bit hard to read, not necessarily because I took issue with what she was saying but more with how she was saying. I actually thought Badinter had some really interesting points, I just felt they were hard to consider when she was presenting them in such an extreme (and inherently negative) way. There were just always little words thrown in, an extreme verb here, or a severe adjective there, and sometimes there was just this tone, like she was defending herself, and women everywhere, from what she felt was a deeply personal attack. The following paragraph (p.33), explaining how the 70s and 80s delivered us into a “natural” parenting movement that would ultimately bring women down, illustrates the general tone of the book:

Claiming to provide happiness and wisdom to women, mothers, families and society, each in its different way advocated some sort of return to nature. Having tried to dominate nature and failed, we had apparently lost our bearings and were lurching headlong toward disaster. It was about time we acknowledged our error and collectively and individually took the blame. It turned out that what we thought was liberating and progressive was as illusory as was dangerous. We had been warned: wisdom lay elsewhere, in the past.

Yes, Badinter’s tone, one of general anger and distaste was hard to look past, which is a shame because she actually brought up some interesting and important points. For one, it is hard to look past the effects of the reproductive revolution. It is clear that when give then chance, women choose to have fewer children.

(p.17) 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.

These are interesting data and have important implications for society today, as Badinter further discusses.

I also found Badinter’s discussion of why people have children, or better said, the fact that they have trouble articulating why they have children, to be enlightening. And I was especially affected by her discussion of those who do not have children and how the way they are treated illustrates our societal expectation that everyone will or should have a child, and that they are useless if they don’t do so.

(p.12) Childless people are always expected to explain themselves, although it would never occur to anyone to ask a woman why she became a mother (and to insist on getting good reasons), even if were the most immature and irresponsible of parents. 

I was also enthralled, and slightly perturbed, by realizations that “marriage has always come at a cultural cost to women, not only in terms of the unequal division of household work and child rearing, but also in its detrimental effect on their career and salary prospects.” In most marriages women actually end up doing more work than they would have if they had remained single, while most men end up doing less. That is a sobering thought. Knowing that these inequalities exist make it clear that women have a long way to go before they are treated equally, both in- and outside of the home.

As a mother who has felt attacked by natural parenting gurus and their “militant” (as Badinter continually refers to them) messages, I did appreciate her discussion on how extreme some natural parenting propaganda can be, especially surrounding breastfeeding and, by extension, returning to work in your child’s first year. In response to the natural parenting assertion that their way is “instinctive” and therefor ultimately (and for everyone) correct, Badinter says this: (p.54) There are not just two ways of experiencing motherhood but an infinite variety, a fact that should deter us from talking about a biologically determined instinct. 

During moments like the above I actually enjoyed the book and I wished the entire thing could be as evenly presented as some parts were.

I will admit that I didn’t finish the book in time offer discussion questions but I was really impressed with the list when it was posted. It was hard to choose which ones I wanted to address. And because I already wrote so much as an “introduction” I will have to choose my questions and my words of response, sparingly.

Badinter condemns the movement towards breastfeeding as forcing women to make themselves available to their babies constantly. How have you experienced breastfeeding (or not breastfeeding)? Are you someone who is happy to be at her child’s beck and call, or have you found ways to be an individual and a mother? How have societal expectations influenced your decisions?

I felt I had to address this question since so much of Badinter’s book focused on breastfeeding and what the implications of a 1-2 year on-demand breastfeeding ideal might mean for women.

First of all I did breastfeed exclusively for six months. It wasn’t easy–we had latch issues, oversupply issues, we battled thrush for three months and we never got to a place where breastfeeding was “easy” or “natural.” I basically LIVED at Kaiser’s lactation center where I was frequently treated in ways that I wouldn’t want other new mothers to experience. I was constantly told I needed to just suck it up, to breastfeed through the pain, that stopping because of incredible discomfort or dissatisfaction was NOT an option. It was always made clear that my daughter’s right to breast milk trumped ANY issue I was having personally. My needs were not even considered if doing so threatened her chances of getting breast milk. My first and last responsibility was to my daughter, never to myself.

Breastfeeding was not a positive experience for me. I was so thankful that I was able to provide my child with what I was told was the only acceptable nourishment, but I felt guilty for not enjoying it. I felt horrible that my daughter didn’t even seem to really like doing it, that it was never something that provided much comfort or bonding for either of us, that neither of us seemed to savor that time together. And when I read messages about how breastfeeding is just “naturally” and “instinctively” all those things and more, I feel even more shitty about my own experience.

So I appreciated Badinter’s discussion about breastfeeding and how intense the propaganda from groups like La Leche League can feel and how detrimental it can be for mothers who cannot, or choose not to breastfeed for whatever reason.

As a breastfeeding mother who didn’t revel in breastfeeding, I did struggled with the fact that I had to surrender myself completely to my daughter. When breastfeeding is not this amazing, transformative bonding experience we’re told it should be, it is a lot harder to sacrifice so much to do it on demand for months. At four weeks I was already pumping so that my partner could feed our daughter from a bottle while I got away to a work on graduate school work. While I was very thankful (and considered myself very lucky) to stay at home with my daughter for six months, I definitely needed breaks and time to myself. If I had not been able to pump so that someone else could feed my daughter while I was away every once in a while I doubt I would have made it through six months of breastfeeding.

I tried to pump once I returned to work but my supply quickly diminished. At the same time we were finding that my milk created an enzyme if it was frozen for too long and most the freezer full of breast milk was useless. My diminished supply and the realization that all those tortuous hours of pumping had been for naught broke my breastfeeding spirit. I continued to breastfeed my daughter twice a day for a month or two, until I stopped letting down and we (I’ll shamefully admit happily) abandoned the practice altogether.

If you left the workforce to be home with your kids, temporarily or permanently, did you find the need to continually rationalize your decision to yourself and others? Do you/did you feel pressure to return to the workplace or vise versa and have you ever felt threatened or made vulnerable by a dependence on your spouse for income?

Not reaching my goal of a year of breastfeeding was all the harder because I blamed it on my return to work. I already felt so guilty that I had to leave my daughter every day to make a living and I definitely worried I was irrevocably harming her by doing so. Messages like the one those quoted from the 1988 T. Berry Brazelton interview were everywhere, even if they had been toned down slightly:

(p.48) “These kids that never get it… will become difficult in school, they’ll never succeed in school; they’ll make everybody angry; they’ll become delinquents later and eventually they’ll become terrorists.”

Now obviously such things are not said anymore, but subtle and not-so-subtle messages about the harm that mother-baby separation and extended child care can do to babies under two years old abound, heightening the guilt that mothers who have to, or choose to, work already deal with.

In a world where more and more families can’t afford for a mother to stay at home it is irresponsible to tout SAHMotherhood as the panacea of parenting, as the only way to assure your child will be socially and emotionally well-adjusted and successful in life. Motherhood looks very different for different women and we should start embracing those differences instead of holding one ideal on a pedestal as “natural” and “pure” and “instinctive” so that other mothers who can’t, or don’t want to, achieve that ideal feel badly about themselves and guilty about the potential harm they are imposing on their children.

That message, and many others presented in Badinter’s book, are important and need to be said. I just wish she could have stated them in a way that more people would be willing to listen to.

8 responses

  1. I submitted the question about breastfeeding, and I’m glad you answered it. Having had a largely positive experience myself, it’s interesting to hear your perspective. I’m sorry that you felt such pressure to continue despite how difficult it was for you. I do sometimes resent my child’s and my husband’s sense of entitlement to access to my body (in the most respectful way, on the part of my husband), though I also appreciate their (very different) desire for me most of the time. I could nod along to some of what Badinter was saying for that reason. I thought Badinter had a lot that was interesting to say, especially about women’s reasons for having children, but ultimately I also think she packaged her message wrong, though I think it’s not so much because she was inflammatory as because she attempted to say that natural parenting limits women’s choices, which I think is off-base. I ended up writing a post about that instead of a post about the good points she made.

  2. I did not participate in this book club because when I read the description of the book, I was totally turned off. Like you, I have felt judged and attacked by those that tout “natural parenting” or any other parenting style as the one and only way to parent. So, I am glad that she spoke out against the breastfeeding propaganda that is SO prevalent right now. But a lot of the reason I didn’t want to read the book is I am so tired of that debate- both sides. I am already having anxiety about BFing this next baby (I want it to work so badly, and am already putting so much pressure on myself- ugh) that I think it’s best for me to not read any more than I have to about the subject this early in my pregnancy. And while I agree that no one should be made to feel like an inferior mother because she chooses or must work outside the home, I think it needs to be acknowledged that being a SAHM is a valid choice too. I am curious– is she is in support of those who choose to stay at home as well as those who choose to work? I am so glad you read the book- your review was great- still glad I didn’t read the book though 🙂

    (Just catching up on your last 2 posts- wow, a lot to process. Will comment my thoughts later)

  3. I bought the book, read the first couple chapters, and then got distracted. But your review makes me want to read it now!

    I’ve told you in past comments about my SIL and MIL who think natural and attachment parenting is the ONLY way. I cloth diaper, exclusively nursed until 12.5 months (and had another 3 months of frozen milk in the freezer to get him to 15.5 months), wear my son when it’s convenient for us BOTH, let him sleep in our room as a newborn (but not in bed), stay home with him, and have him shower with me daily (because he loves to sit in the shower and just play in the water) – but that’s not good enough for them because I have him on a schedule and did sleep training. This book is going to make me feel vindicated, I think. I am excited after reading your review!

  4. I planned to participate but never got the book. I thought it looked interesting, but after reading a couple of reviews, I don’t think I’ll take the time now. Thanks for your take on it.

  5. Pingback: The Conflict: Book club conclusion – PAIL Bloggers

  6. Amen to the ambivalent to negative breastfeeding experience. We made it to 13 months but I hated the first 4 so much I wanted to quit all the time, and I was ambivalent and annoyed with it until about 8 months when I enjoyed it a little bit. I was home until the kid was 3 months old, then at school full time after that so a lot of my hatred was actually pumping. The hardest part for me of the whole thing was that my mom and MIL were super enthused about nursing and so I had to hide how much I hated it from them, AND at the same time, my SIL would leave the room if the kid was nursing (like mid-sentence) and that made me crazy because really. Not unnatural, let’s just settle down. I felt really yanked to play up all the good stuff. I’m not convinced I’d do it again. I’m glad that at least someone is pointing out how much of a burden that pressure is, even if the tone is too academic and melodramatic.

  7. I also thought that her discussion of why people have children was interesting. When we were struggling to get pregnant I hated people asking me why we didn’t have kids – it just felt so inappropriate. But she is probably right that there is ‘pressure’ from society to have children even is you don’t want to. I guess for me that part is really sad, because there are people who probably don’t want children who become parents because of this pressure.

  8. Thanks for your discussion of breastfeeding…good to know I’m not alone in my struggles. My twins are five months and I’m still muddling through it, but it has been a struggle from Day 1 with supply issues that are still ongoing and oh, the pain (not so bad anymore), and the latest wrinkle is the twins will nurse at night but not during the day, which makes a hard situation even harder.
    I too liked the part of the book about breastfeeding propaganda…made me feel better about how things have turned out for me.

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