A blog reader alerted me to a bestselling book from French philosopher and feminist Elisabeth Badinter, Le Conflit, La Femme et La Mère (The Conflict, The Woman and The Mother).I haven't yet read the book, but I did read an article about Badinter's new book in The Times. Among other things, Badinter claims that babies have become women's new tyrants, and that cloth diapers, homemade baby food, and breastfeeding are major culprits in the oppression--even modern-day slavery--of women. "It may seem derisory but powdered milk, jars of baby food and disposable nappies were all stages in the liberation of women," she comments.
I then took an amusing romp through the comments. Is it just me, or does Badinter's argument, and many of the ensuing comments, just seem so old and worn out? Is there a way to talk about these issues without lobbing personal attacks against Badinter or simply rejecting everything she says outright ("if you're too selfish to lay off cigarettes and alcohol for a few months, then frankly you're too selfish to be a mother")?
My take on this whole weary debate:
- "Choosing" not to breastfeed (and in lesser part, choosing disposables and processed baby food) and thus being obligated to purchase expensive, commercially manufactured products for a number of months and/or years does not feel very liberating to me.
- For me, breastfeeding isn't just about getting food into the baby's body, but about relationship. How can you quantify something so complex as love or attachment or comfort?
- The women I've met who cloth diaper, me included, do it because they really enjoy using cloth, not out of a sense of grudging obligation to some unspoken ideal of motherhood.
- Speaking of washing diapers, is it really that much work to put diapers in a washing machine and hit a button? If we're talking about a new form of slavery, turning on a machine and spending...what?...30 seconds at a time doesn't seem all that terribly demanding to me. Now, cloth diapering would be a whole different story if I had to wash everything by hand...
- I've never used either homemade or purchased baby food, and this particular example seems especially trivial. Children have to eat one way or the other. I don't see how buying small jars of prepared foods will somehow liberate women from an otherwise bleak life of slavery.
- Badinter is coming from a position of wealth and privilege. She has the means to outsource many aspects of mothering, from feeding to childcare. What irks me are her grand, sweeping generalizations that all women ought to abandon the day-to-day tasks of mothering because she found them oppressive--as if economics and personal value systems played no role whatsoever in the various ways women choose to mother their children.
- I'm trying hard not to reject everything she says outright, but it's proving difficult. Especially her devaluation of children--they ruin your lives, just ship them off so you can do "important" things with "real" people, etc. Children are human beings, albeit small and often quite helpless, and they deserve an extra measure of compassion and care, not abandonment (however you might personally define it) to surrogates so their parents can "get on with their lives."
- I'm not buying her argument that French women are happier than German women because they are more successful at separating their motherhood from their womanhood. No room for nuance or personal preference.
- Overall, Badinter speaks of breastfeeding, cloth diapering and stay-at-home parenting as if they were predominant practices that very few women dare break from. In reality, most women formula feed and buy disposables and send their children to day care. So I guess I am left wondering why she's getting herself so wound up over a non-existent "problem," as it were.
- I acknowledge that I am responding to someone else's summary of her ideas, since I haven't yet read the actual book. Great big caveat.
- I do think that modern-day, industrialized, nuclear family life can be isolating. I don't think humans were really meant to live in isolated, nuclear families where the father leaves to go to "work" and the mother "stays at home." I think it's a tragedy that most of us in the developed world have lost our extended kin networks. We no longer have sisters who can breastfeed our babies if we are away, or cousins next door to tend to our little ones, or grandparents who can be a daily part of their grandchildren's lives. We live in a culture in which work and family life occur in strictly separated spheres. Can we imagine new ways of combining the need to earn a living and raise a family, outside of todays' either/or options (working mom or SAHM? Paid out-of-the-home employment or unpaid stay-at-home parent?)
Please read the article and the comments (and be warned, some of them get really off-topic), and then come back and discuss!