Review: The Conflict… debating motherhood

October 11, 2012

The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women, by Elisabeth Badinter

The Conflict is a brief overview of its subject that occasionally makes poorly supported generalizations, but it has sparked an important debate within feminism. Badinter criticizes not motherhood itself, but the new trend of “attachment parenting” (AP) which involves spending as much time with the infant as possible and includes breastfeeding, co-sleeping, cloth diapering and natural childbirth.

Most of the burden of AP falls on the mother, creating a conflict between motherhood and her paying job or career. She supports women making their own choices, but she wants them to think about the effects of their choices on their lives and society.

While Badinter is concerned about women wasting their potential and endangering themselves financially, she is also concerned that women who want to have children are discouraged, aware of the stress involved in trying to reach this ideal of perfect motherhood. While she respects those with no desire to have children, she says lowering the birth rate too much will endanger nations and their ability to pay pensions. I am not sure this is a threat because of immigrants adding to populations, and it needs to be balanced with the issue of global overpopulation.

AP has been championed by some feminists as a way women can change society through rearing smarter, more emotionally and physically healthy children. This has an eerie resemblance to Right-wing propaganda that women must stick to nurturing roles in the private sphere or risk injuring their children and destroying society. (This propaganda has been used to bash single mothers and LGBT marriage and parenting.)

Badinter shows that accepting that infants need constant nurturing—and only from their mothers— comes from animal studies whose relevance to humans has been debunked.

She discusses why feminism and the Left became attracted to the philosophy of “naturalism”—the idea that anything considered “natural” is better. She believes it is completely negative, but I think some of the issues she raises need more exploration. She states the ecology movement created paranoia about scientific advances, including artificial chemicals, modern medicine, and genetic engineering. While, as Badinter says, these have improved our lives, capitalism has contributed to their misuse.

She thinks the natural world is not endangered, but climate change and pollution are real problems. She uses women’s fear of the side effects of the birth control pill as an example of pharmaceutical paranoia, but, although liberating, it does carry some serious risks, and was only made safer because women made its limitations public. She complains that “the vulva came to represent woman,” but it is possible and necessary to love all aspects of our bodies and sexualities while still recognizing that all genders are more alike than they are different.

Badinter’s book has started a debate about whether AP is anti-feminist, but it raises other issues that feminists and the Left need to consider. We need to examine what we mean by “nature” and what it symbolizes. We also need to study repressive ideologies so that the philosophies and practices we develop to liberate ourselves don’t lead us back in a reactionary direction.


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