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Elisabeth Badinter pictured in 2007 (Vim/ABACAPRESS.COM)
Elisabeth Badinter pictured in 2007 (Vim/ABACAPRESS.COM)

'The good mother doesn't exist. She's a myth' Add to ...

Call it a lament for the modern maman.

The Conflict, already a bestseller in France, is kicking up a fuss since its publication in English this month. In it, noted French feminist and intellectual Elisabeth Badinter argues that today’s generation of women face a new form of oppression: Being a perfect mother.

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Ms. Badinter argues that yesterday’s patriarchy has been replaced by the tyranny of a suckling baby, and the pressures of “natural” parenting in the form of drug-free childbirth, co-sleeping, and cloth diapers. Moreover, women’s decision to step out of the workforce to devote themselves to their children is setting the cause of equality back to their grandmother’s generation. On parenting forums and blogs, the book has been praised, dissected and debated.

Ms. Badinter, who describes herself as a “spiritual daughter” to Simone de Beauvoir, is a retired professor at the elite École Polytechnique in Paris and has been active in the women’s movement since the 1970s. She and her husband, former French justice minister Robert Badinter, have three grown children.

Ms. Badinter spoke to The Globe and Mail from her home in Paris.

The full title of your book is The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women. Can you explain how you reached your viewpoint?

We call it modern motherhood, but it reminds me of the motherhood of my great grandmother’s generation. It’s the model of motherhood as a full-time job, the notion that as soon as you become a mother, you owe your child absolutely everything. So the child becomes the centre of the life of the mother, and even the couple. As a result, mothers’ duties have become considerably heavier in the past 10, 15 years, to the point where women believe they have to start over like it was in the old days, with things like breastfeeding on demand, 24 hours a day.

You are especially scathing about breastfeeding, which you say subjects women to the “despotism of an insatiable child.” Breastfeeding’s benefits for babies and mothers are widely recognized. Where do you see a problem?

Women should be told that they have a choice. That they’ll probably be as good a mother or as mediocre a mother whether they breastfeed or not. If a breast is given out of a sense of duty, the baby feels it. The mother isn’t happy and the baby senses absolutely everything. So it’s far better to give a bottle with pleasure than a breast out of duty.

What worries me is what we’re seeing these days in Scandinavian countries, for example. It’s no longer possible to say you don’t want to breastfeed. You are viewed very, very badly.

Each woman has her own representation of her body. For a lot of women, breastfeeding is absolutely wonderful. For others, it gives them a feeling they’re becoming a cow. It’s not funny at all. It’s tolerance that I would like to pass along.

You’ve gone as far as calling pro-breastfeeding advocacy groups “ayatollahs.”

There are many ayatollahs of breastfeeding. Like the representatives of the La Leche League. Their message is picked up by the media, and it becomes an official truth.

In maternity wards now in France, nurses and midwives say you absolutely have to breastfeed, it’s very good for the child. And if you answer, “Well, I don’t really feel like it,” they say, “But Madame, Don’t you want the best for your child?” Then it starts. You’re off on the guilt track.

You extend this notion of “natural” mothering by critiquing the ecological movement, which you say is responsible for pushing everything from natural childbirth to cloth diapers to co-sleeping. You call it a “moral cause that worships all things natural.” How does this pose a problem for women?

These movements are robbing women of their time and freedom. If you have to wash diapers – can you imagine how much time it takes, how disgusting it is? We’re returning to ancestral practices. In some maternity wards, women are told it’s better not to ask for epidurals during labor. We’re putting pain back at the centre of motherhood. We’re treating the notion of the divine curse of painful childbirth as wonderful. This systematically turns our backs on all the progress that new techniques, chemistry and medicine have brought.

You also argue that young mothers today are in effect rejecting the agenda of their feminist mothers. You call it a settling of accounts with their mothers.

Daughters are saying to themselves, “My mother wanted a job, children, a husband, leisure time. And she got it all wrong. She killed herself doing a double-day of work, she hit the glass ceiling – since women’s salaries never matched men’s – and she was always stressed out and tired. And who paid the price? I did. In the end, she didn’t give me enough, either time or attention.”

So young women are saying, “I have a job but I’ll stop for two or three years to raise my child, because I want to give him the best.” I fear that this modern-mother movement is a step backwards, simply because if it carries the day, then I don’t see how we’ll attain equality between the sexes, or equal salaries, or the independence of women.

Women forget that children stay home for 15 years, 20 years. You’re an active mother for maybe eight or 10 years of that. But we have a life expectancy of 85 years. So what do you do when the children leave?

What are the risks of putting child-rearing first?

A frustrated mother who is denied her own desires and ambitions is not good at all for her child. Can’t there be a balance for women between working outside the home and raising kids? Can’t it be possible to find your own definition of a good mother?

The good mother doesn’t exist. She’s a myth. It’s utopian. If you stayed home full time to look after your children, when they’re 16 or 18 years old you’ll hear, ‘Oh, my mother was always there, she was always present, but she was a burden.’ And if you’re not there and you worked, you’ll get the other criticism, ‘Oh my mother was never there. she was always rushed.’ I’d say that if the good mother exists, she is as rare as Mozart. And honestly, we may be mothers, but we’re human beings – we have our limits, our own neuroses, our own subconscious, our own particular history. Whoever we are, we want to do our best. If women think they always do exactly what they’re supposed to for their children, they’re wrong, because we’re not gods or goddesses.

Where do fathers fit in the picture?

For fathers, this is a bargain. We fought like crazy 35 years ago to involve them in childrearing. The bottle was very practical from that standpoint. Bit by bit, they did more – even if they never did as much as women. But we should have continued that battle. Because now we’re told that a little baby has to be fused with his mother, that the father has nothing to do with it, and in the end what purpose does a father serve in the first year of a baby’s life? There’s breastfeeding and there’s co-sleeping. I don’t find co-sleeping great for closeness between couples.

What was your overarching goal in writing your book?

The goal is for to say, for heaven’s sake, don’t make this new trend of parenting a model for everyone. It might suit some women, but not all. And to those who don’t feel like adopting motherhood as a full-time job, don’t believe you are bad mothers.

Ingrid Peritz is a member of The Globe and Mail’s Montreal bureau. This interview has been condensed and edited.

Follow on Twitter: @iperitz

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