Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Your baby the tyrant

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?)
I had to laugh at this comment: "I don't understand why washable nappies and breastfeeding should ruin your sex life? It sounds all in the mind to me, oh no darling not tonight I've got to wash some nappies!!??"

Please read the article and the comments (and be warned, some of them get really off-topic), and then come back and discuss!


  1. Yeah, I'd have a hard time reading something like that without wanting to punch something. No matter how you cut it, motherhood requires sacrifice- no matter what diapers, feeding method, birthing method... but it's also rewarding and you often get out of it what you put into ti.

  2. Actually it is my opinion that breastfeeding is very selfish when it comes right down to it, while there is evidence that it benefits the child most of the evidence points to greater maternal health - and more reward the longer we nurse.

    I mean, if we diet and exercise to stay healthy why aren't we also lowering our risk for breast, ovarian and uterine cancer by nursing, lowering our risk for type II diabetes, lowering our cholesterol that was sky high in pregnancy by nursing, and helping lower our risk for hip fractures postmenopausally too? When it comes right down to it, it's to our deficit to not breast feed, really us more then anyone else, including our infant.

    The rest I've heard before, total snore to me.

  3. I think she does have a point that trying to live up to the standard of this idealized mother can be overbearing. On the other hand I do not think it is the child's fault at all. I went through a stage where I felt like such a bad wife and mother because the house was not spotless, I hadn't made dinner, and I was to tired to do laundry so I was using disposables. I cried to my husband about it and he told me that I was overwhelmed because I was holding myself up to an impossible standard. He basically told me to chill out. Once I quit trying to live up to those standards I felt free. If I didn't make dinner from scratch, well, who cares. If I stopped using cloth for a bit so that I would not have so much laundry to do, who cares!
    I have breastfed for 14 months now and I do not find it restrictive. It is so much easier and less expensive than preparing a bottle.
    I think that it is sad that there are some people who actually want to live selfishly. I thought that was a bad thing. The author is absolutely correct when she says that children will take away from your life. That is kind of the point. I give up my life in order to raise another. We see that perfectly exemplified in pregnancy. The baby takes from the mother so it can live. Children are dependent. I sure hope that women who fall for those lies will never have children. I feel very sorry for hers. Here is an article written by the daughter of a feminist with similar views:

  4. Yowsa. I really really want to read this book now. But I fully recognize that the LAST thing I need right now at the end of my pregnancy is to be bothered by the rantings of someone I disagree with. Normally, I love healthy debate and I like hearing other views (even when I find them to be ridiculous) but right now... this might have to go in the "read later" pile after I've FULLY enjoyed nursing, changing, giving freely to, and loving on my new babe, as I whole-heartedly plan to do. :)

  5. Seems to me she views motherhood as slavery and anything eases the burden off of the mother and onto another shoulders is liberating.

    That seems to be a fairly common theme in feminism-that we are to be free of all the pressures of roles-and since in feminism we can define all roles as being mandated top down from a patriarchal system-motherhood is included. No matter how biologically sound the argument might be for mothers breastfeeding, nurturing,or what have you, as it's a ROLE anything we do is wrong.

    It's like instead of redefining roles feminism decided to hell with them, anything having any point of contact with any role is oppression of women. They get so obsessed with ideology they forget to think things through logically, or to look at what our biology primed us to do.

    Obviously motherhood can be an enslavement, but it can also be liberating and fulfilling. It all depends on how you approach it.

    This woman would be impossible to argue with as she is thinking ideologically only, and in my experience once someone is thinking that way it becomes impossible to show them anything outside their mindset.

  6. Seriously? He thinks these things are becoming an issue just now? As if there have always been convenience baby foods, disposable diapers, and formula?

    Being a mom isn't easy, but it's been a job that women have held for a LONG time. Get over it- it's work, but it's joyful work.

  7. Like Mrs. Schaible, I think there is a legitimate complaint to be made/issue to be raised with this idealized notion of motherhood, where you have to be perfect and make all the "right" decisions or your child will be harmed somehow. But someone can use formula and then Gerber's and use disposables and still make themselves miserable trying to be perfect (by their standards), and someone can breastfeed, make their own baby food and use cloth and have a well balanced approach to mothering that leaves some room for themselves.

    She also casts it in such an either/or way that I could not relate to it. I breastfed my son for 22 months, and I went back to work when he was three months old. My work and time spent with other adults is very important to me. The time I spent nursing my son also was very important to me, and so is the time we spend together now that he's older.

    In particular, I was so grateful I was nursing during the difficult time when I was at work and he wasn't sleeping through the night. I would much rather just roll over and give him the breast than get up and prepare a bottle.

    And I had to wonder where the fathers are in her scenario. I identify as a feminist, and part of that is creating a household and a family life in which parenting responsibilities are shared. Men can't breastfeed, but they can change diapers (cloth or disposable) and do laundry and make meals for kids that don't come out of jars. Her description of a family life in which the mother is isolated with the kids while the father does his own thing was very foreign to me. For us, raising our children is something we're doing together.

  8. "But then it all went wrong. Rather than continuing the struggle for equality, younger women have returned home to place themselves at the service of their children, she says."

    And this is looked down upon, why? The three possible explanations offered don't really hold water for me. The scenario of an enslaved mother throwing herself on the irons of motherhood to make the world a more peaceful place, save some trees, and heck- this way she don't have to search for a job that she would really rather have (if only she knew that) seems downright silly.

    I suspect the real reason why women who stay at home are looked down upon goes back to the consumerism. If one is not a cog in the machine in a clearly defined, measurable way (earning X amount of dollars in exchange for doing A,B, and C) that person is devalued by society.

    Also, one area where modern feminism, although I do identify myself as a feminist, can be just as faulty as any chauvinistic ideology is the tendency to devalue anything that is distinctly or typically female oriented. Why is the only route to liberation in the eyes of most modern feminists the male trodden path? If a man doesn't or can't do it then it has no value? I don't get it.

  9. I am SO TIRED of the "new" argument that breastfeeding (and cloth diapering and making one's own food) are oppressive. First of all, since the majority of women in the US do NOT do those things, it inherently cannot be oppressive. The minority cannot oppress the majority. And the argument that bottle feeding is part of the story of women's lib is RIDICULOUS. While bottlefeeding definitely enabled women to go back to work in the 70s and 80s, it was instituted much earlier (40s and 50s) by doctors who told women their bodies were junk and vaguely "yucky". As for making one's own food and cloth diapering - well women who don't have time to do those things or don't want to do them *simply don't do them*. Problem solved. And I love how the health and nutrition arguments for BF and not using jarred food are seen as completely irrelevant. Women who make different choices than the conventional in how to raise their babies (baby-led feeding for example) do a lot of research and put a lot of thought into how they want to parent/ exist in the universe. I guess this author isn't interested in any of those things. Which is fine, but for crying out loud, why impose that model of being on the rest of us?

    And for the record, in case the author ever stumbles to this site, I am both a feminist and a mother and full-time WOH. I BF and cloth diaper and find nothing I do oppressive, largely because I have a partner who co-parents with me. I guess *men* don't parent in her world, either?

  10. I see motherhood as something I "get" to do, not something I "have" to do. I feel privileged to have grown a child inside my body and to have continued to nurture her outside my body through breastfeeding. I also feel like my child is privileged to have a mother who enjoys cloth diapering and appreciates its benefits to both her body and the planet.

    I do these things to live up to no standard other than my own, and it's not about being the perfect mother or the perfect tree hugger but about doing the best I can each day for my daughter, my planet and, yes, myself.

    It seems to me that an inherent aspect of motherhood is self-sacrifice, but this does not have to mean losing oneself.

  11. So many thoughts, most of which are echoes of what others have written here.

    Actually my first thought was, "What nappy laundry?" My husband has complete jurisdiction over diaper laundry, so I haven't thought about it in months! I think that is what struck me most about Badinter's analysis - the complete lack of discussion of the role of the father/partner/co-parent in the equation. If all the tasks fall to the mother alone, perhaps it can be overwhelming. But in our family, cloth diapering, breastfeeding, and homemade baby food were all decisions that were made together (primarily for economic and environmental reasons), so we both take responsibility for their success. Granted, the labor of breastfeeding falls primarily to me (obviously), but the rest doesn't necessarily have to be so. Perhaps instead of railing against families who choose these options as being opposed to the liberation of women, Badinter should be more concerned with male partners taking greater responsibility for child rearing activities.

    Frankly, I think formula and paper diapers would be a greater form a tyranny than breastfeeding and cloth. The concern over cost alone would be added stress to our families. And how is getting out of bed in the middle of the night, going to make a bottle, finding out your out of formula, running to the all night supermarket and plunking down upwards of $20, all while your baby is hungry and crying EASIER than rolling over and popping a breast in the baby's mouth?! I work outside of the home 35 hours a week, and I cannot imagine the stress that formula would add to our family life. Furthermore, breastfeeding is about relationship as well, as Rixa wrote - it is one of the most delightful ways to reconnect with my boy when I pick him up from day care in the afternoon.

    Badinter's analysis absolutely comes from a place of economic and social privilege, and it shows. How many women have "opted out" of the workforce because their wages are less than the cost of quality child care? How many women and families struggle with the never-ending costs of formula and disposable diapers? Reminds me of Linda Hirschman's "Back to Work" manifesto - mostly incendiary, coming from a privileged woman claiming to speak on behalf of all of us.

  12. I'm not going to get sucked into it all, LOL, but I have to feels VERY liberating to not be shelling out my husband's hard earned money on things that just get flushed/thrown away (diapers, formula, etc). I don't see much need for buying baby food either (although I did find the meats better than what I could make, but still icky). I'm doing laundry anyway, I'd rather throw a diaper in there than throw it in the trash.
    That line about no sex-I have to wash diapers...OMG. There's one line I haven't tried yet, LOL!!

  13. It's kind of funny the whole birth rate thing- Since Germany has an almost 100% breastfeeding rate they probably do have a lower birth rate- breastfeeding has a suppressing effect on fertility...but that has nothing to do with the happiness of either group.

    it's just ridiculous.

  14. "Frankly, I think formula and paper diapers would be a greater form a tyranny than breastfeeding and cloth. The concern over cost alone would be added stress to our families. And how is getting out of bed in the middle of the night, going to make a bottle, finding out your out of formula, running to the all night supermarket and plunking down upwards of $20, all while your baby is hungry and crying EASIER than rolling over and popping a breast in the baby's mouth?! I work outside of the home 35 hours a week, and I cannot imagine the stress that formula would add to our family life."

    yeah, that. it's so much easier to sleep when you breastfeed!!

    Also, I LOVE my cloth diapers and don't feel enslaved by them at all- I mean, look at the Pampers drama right now!

  15. a civilization starts viewing raising their own offspring as a form of slavery... something is seriously messed up in that civilization.

  16., I completely agree with you!

    Modern society is all about comfort, leisure, and instant gratification. Elements of raising children don't often match those ideals!

    There is false sense of feminism too that tells us that we have to reject aspects of our biology and nature in order to be feminist. Should I deny that I have breasts and lactate and that breast milk is meant for feeding babies? Should I have guilt that I don't want to outsource the baby feeding? Should I argue that my way of caring for and nurturing my kids and looking after my family is not the same as my husband and others? I'm the most connected person to my children since they started growing in my womb! Should I view that as a burden of my sex?

    Anyway, Mother's Day is coming and we should celebrate motherhood in all its different forms.

  17. Its too bad that we don't value parenthood enough to make it more possible to share the work. =)

    I certainly find much of the arguments to be offputting. I breastfed my first for 21 months (his choice to wean), and am currently breastfeeding my second. During both, I worked up to 40 hours or more a week. I took two weeks off with each birth.

    However, I have a flexible schedule that allows for breastfeeding -- not quite on demand, but no bottles needed. I cloth diaper (most of the time unless we are sick or the electricity is out or we are travelling), and certainly don't find buying jarred baby food liberating, especially after said child spits it all over the dining room table. =)

    My idea of liberation, or feminism has to do with more important things really. Like my husband being able to take most of two months off for each birth-- PAID since we are in CA, kincare so he can help with sick kids. Ability to choose homebirth, public breastfeeding, and those are just a few. As a grad student, schools could do way better on breastfeeding access for students.

    But cloth diapers? Thats really not on my list as far as lack of liberation. Lack of paid maternity & parental leave has far more impact on my liberation or lack thereof. So does having a flexible workplace.

    But then, I assume that family is integral to my life. My children do not hold me back, or at least not any more than they hold my husband back. We enjoy our time with the kids, though folks keep telling us to take a date night every week, we can't figure out why so often. Once a month or so seems to be consistent with our lifestyle. Long before we had kids we had a family friendly lifestyle. Maybe thats part of the difference. We were both in our late (very late) 30s before our first child and our priorities were long established.

    Perhaps if we were in our 20s and still finding ourselves, things would be different. But that is not the case.

  18. Yay for posting your thoughts on this article! Thank you! When I first read about this book, I basically said to myself "What a bunch of BS!! I can't *believe* this women is actually making an argument against scientifically proven data, not to mention common sense." Bah. I can't really go on and I had little words to begin with. The only thing that makes me angry is that women might actually be buying into the BS and neglecting their children when they weren't before.

  19. cloth diapers, breast-feeding, and attentiveness to the baby all make my life easier, cheaper, and richer. so screw her. (just don't get her pregnant, cause, gah, what to do with a baby!)


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