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(Frank and Helena Corbis/Frank and Helena Corbis)
(Frank and Helena Corbis/Frank and Helena Corbis)

Margaret Wente

Motherhood: the new oppression Add to ...

Motherhood came easily to my mom. She popped out the three of us, as reliably as toast, every other year. But by modern standards she was a mediocre parent. She smoked. She drank. She drove us around without seatbelts, while she smoked.

After I turned 10, she often left the three of us at home, unsupervised, for hours at a time. (She figured I was smart enough to call a neighbour if the house burned down.) We raced around without bike helmets, and made our way to school on our own. We never wore sunscreen except at the beach.

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Apart from the violin (which, to everyone's relief, I quickly abandoned), we had little in the way of extracurricular enrichment. In summer, we hung around and did nothing. During the long summer evenings, my parents would sit around in the backyard with their friends, smoking and drinking to excess, while we ran wild through wooded vacant lots and hazardous construction sites. One time, when I was around 8, my mom allowed me to go to a Cubs game in the company of the friendly school bus driver (!!!). It's amazing we lived to adulthood.

Times were simpler then. Nobody had heard of child abuse or BPA. Mothers used cloth diapers, not because they were environmentally responsible, but because Pampers hadn't been invented yet. Peanut allergies were virtually unknown, and breastfeeding was regarded as faintly backward.

Now we know better. The obligations of responsible mothering have been ratcheted way up. They start before conception, when you must swear off alcohol and tobacco so as not to harm your hypothetical embryo. Abstinence from all things, including ice cream (you can't gain too much weight!) extends through pregnancy. Natural childbirth? Of course, preferably at home. Epidurals are for losers.

And then the real work starts. The modern world is full of invisible threats, from toxic plastic to UVA. Vaccines and cellphones are supposed to be safe, but who knows? Last fall, vigilant mothers I know spent hours on the Internet, researching the ins and outs of the H1N1 vaccine, and quarantining their kids from contact with anyone who'd had contact with someone who might have had the flu. They don't trust experts and they take these matters seriously.

As The Globe and Mail's Siri Agrell wrote recently in Toronto Life (Totally Freaked Out, March), "A generation of moms and dads has taken a purity pledge for their kids. You can't throw an organic terry cloth teething ring today without hitting a parent obsessing over pesticides on apples and phthalates in soothers."

Every generation of mothers is buffeted by different waves of social panic.

Ten years ago, it was child abuse - the fear that dangerous pedophiles lurked in every bush. Consequently, middle-class kids now live in a world where no child is left alone, not even for a moment. Now, we are afraid of anything that isn't chemical-free. Conscientious moms scrub down the kitchen with green cleaners (which aren't nearly as effective as the hard-core stuff), and hang their washing out to dry to save the planet. I see some of them at Whole Foods, filling up at the quinoa bin, towing tots armoured in hats, sunglasses, and SPF 100 sunscreen.

Once upon a time, the conveniences of modern life (processed foods, Lysol spray, disposable diapers, clothes dryers, polyester sheets) liberated women like my mother from their chains. But now, their granddaughters are clamouring to clap the shackles on again. Someone's got to mash the organic applesauce, hang the diapers out to dry, and breastfeed the kid. No matter how enlightened the parental units, that someone will generally be Mom.

It seems to me that if you had deliberately devised a plot to oppress women, it couldn't get more diabolical than this. Highly educated, progressive and enlightened mothers don't need men to oppress them. They're perfectly capable of oppressing themselves!

Today, the baby has become "the best ally of masculine domination," argues Elisabeth Badinter, a controversial French feminist. Her new book ( Le Conflit: La Femme et La Mère, translated as Conflict: The Woman and the Mother) argues that the moral requirements of modern motherhood - especially the back-to-nature, eco-mommy trend - have struck a blow to women's freedom. "Women's lives have grown more difficult in the last 20 years," she told The New York Times. "Professional life is ever harder, ever more stressful and unattractive, and on the other hand, there is an accumulation of new moral duties weighing on women."

The new ethic of mothering promises that you will find wisdom, happiness, and connectedness, not only with your children but with the earth itself. Instead, what you mostly get is guilt. So you fed your kids fast food last week? Bad mommy!

Ms. Badinter contends that there is nothing wrong with being a mediocre mother. She was one herself. Natural childbirth, she says, is highly overrated, as is breastfeeding, which doesn't always produce that mystical bond that it's supposed to. She has even argued that the maternal instinct does not exist, citing long periods of French history during which women were generally indifferent to their children.

I'm not sure about that (although I am sure it's not nearly as common or intense as we suppose.) But it occurs to me that the high moral bar we've set for modern motherhood is a tremendous deterrent to motherhood itself. Any thoughtful woman would have to think twice, thrice, or three times thrice before committing to a task with such demanding standards. Can you blame them for deciding not to? If we want to raise the birth rate, perhaps we need to lower the bar. So long as you keep the kids from running out into the traffic, they'll probably be fine. It seemed to work for Mom.

 

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