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review; social studies

Elisabeth Badinter in 2007

From the halls of the École Polytechnique in Paris, in a country where women are still resolutely women first and mothers second, where breasts are a female sexual organ first and a mammalian gland for feeding newborns second, and where adult-oriented parenting goes hand in hand with one of the highest birth rates in Europe, comes the bold, adamantine voice of Elisabeth Badinter, a philosophy professor, author, mother of three and famous (even notorious) feminist essayist.

The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women, which took Europe by storm, could just as easily have been called The Corrections. Badinter forcefully returns women's gaze from making soft goo-goo eyes at their babies to the feminist prize: economic independence and the right to self-determination. With vivid prose that doesn't shy away from the declarative sentence, she sounds the alarm against rising new orthodoxies in mothering protocol, which she argues are bad for women and bad for national birth rates.

In the 1970s and '80s, second-wave feminists reacted to their shoulder-pad-wearing, briefcase-carrying, harried mothers, many of whom may have openly scorned stay-at-home moms, by putting motherhood back at the centre of women's lives.

At the same time, environmental movements, the back-to-nature movement and new studies emerging from biology, psychology and anthropology all converged to suggest new mothers should breastfeed on demand, be responsive to the child's feelings and every need, and put their own need to succeed, to socialize and have passionate sex lives a distant second to the needs of their children.

This new maternalism that eschews bottle-feeding, disposable diapers and early child care, Badinter argues, virtually precludes the possibility of mothers returning to work full-time after giving birth. The best they can hope for is to continue with part-time work until the children grow up.

Badinter also identifies the overwhelmingly intensive demands of this new mothering as the reason women are delaying having children, having fewer, or choosing to have none (though she champions the ethical responsibility and rationality of a woman's choice to be child-free).

Badinter deconstructs the aggressive campaign started by the women of La Leche League (a bête noire she outs as originally at least having a Catholic conservative agenda) to encourage (and shame) women into breastfeeding exclusively for six months to a year and to delay weaning until children reach three to six years old. She scorns the notion that breastfeeding is necessary for emotional bonding between mother and infant, and offers counter-evidence to the "scientific" claims that breastfeeding enhances cognitive development, prevents allergies and asthma, and significantly boosts the child's immune system. She concedes that in undeveloped countries, where clean water and modern medicine can be hard to come by, breastfeeding remains important.

Badinter also scorns the notion of a maternal instinct that governs women's behaviour, arguing that women "are not chimpanzees" and are too complex and individual to be subject to biological determinism. She cites maternal indifference, cruelty, infanticide and the choice to be child-free as proof that such instincts do not rule. This may be flogging a dead horse, as evolutionary anthropology has long since moved to nature-and-nurture models and abandoned simplistically deterministic modes of inquiry.

Badinter briefly engages the work of Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, a U.S. anthropologist whose research and writing have gone a long way to fill in the missing female half of evolutionary theories. Hrdy's books (most recently Mothers and Others) have demonstrated the enormous impact of mothering behaviour in our species' evolution.

Badinter chooses a passage from Hrdy's Mother Nature that waxes poetic about the interplay of hormones and experience during breastfeeding as evidence that Hrdy gives too much supremacy to maternal instinct and hormones in governing women's behaviour. The French author settles for an extremely reductive interpretation of Hrdy's rigorously scientific work, and reveals something of her own intellectual modus operandi. She likes to get the knife in quickly and move on even more quickly.

Badinter's primary concern is with the rights of women to maintain financial independence and an identity separate from the all-consuming role of mother. She is a fierce sister-in-arms delivering necessary intellectual ammo to young women resisting the rising pressures of a newly repressive, inflexible code of maternal behaviour that hides behind the skirts of terms such as "natural" and "instinctual."

Indeed, no one, male or female, can have failed to notice how ridiculously baby-centric our society has become. Celebrity rags obsess over celebrity pregnancies and children. Gag-inducing terms such as "yummy mummy" and MILF have infiltrated common usage.

The consumerism directed at child-rearing is off the charts, from designer togs, mountains of toys and fantasy bedrooms to all the unnecessary equipment crammed into mommymobiles built like tanks to keep precious offspring safe (God help pedestrians and cyclists).

And aren't we all waiting for the research that will reveal that one glass of wine and a couple of puffs of a cigarette won't irreversibly harm the fetus after all? Motherhood, the act of reproducing our species, has gone from being seriously undervalued to being equated with sacred ascension; each new human infant is practically the Second Coming.

Badinter is unafraid to give the sacred cow of maternalism an occasional swift kick in the shins. Her quote from a study of child-free couples, in which an interviewee likens motherhood to "spending all day in the exclusive company of an incontinent mental defective," may elicit the odd subversive chuckle. On the other hand, while the emotional needs of children are certainly not the focus of this book, the French feminist does betray a certain insouciance toward that subject which may cause the reader to arch an eyebrow.

The translation is occasionally clunky, but never enough to diminish the crisp drama of Badinter's statements in the original French. It is, however, disappointing when a book like this has no index.

As a woman who, while writing this review, scurried around washing sheets, cleaning the kitchen, buying daffodils and cooking a healthy lentil soup in honour of her first-born's return home for a week of carousing with his friends, a woman whose extended family might justifiably accuse her of being excessively child-centric – I was intrigued and provoked by Badinter's book.

The Conflict is not so much a philosophical or scientific work as a passionate polemic. It uses arguments, observations and research (cherry-picking, to be sure, on the way) to grind a new lens through which to view our culture. It is one of those rare books with the power to change the way we look at our world and change the choices we make.

Claudia Casper is the author of three novels and mother to two disgracefully adored sons.

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