French feminist and philosopher Elisabeth Badinter has hit a nerve with her latest book, The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women, by characterizing a number of seemingly progressive parenting trends as chipping away at women's hard-fought gains in the feminist movement.
Sling-wearing. Co-sleeping. Extended breastfeeding. Ms. Badinter believes that these popular, labour-intensive practices, part of the attachment parenting model, cast women as mothers above all else. In her view, the Betty Drapers of the past have not evolved, but have been remade into glowing Earth Mothers pressured to embrace their biology: "Their increased responsibility for babies and young children has proved just as restrictive, if not more so, than sexism in the home or the workplace," she writes. "The best allies of men's dominance have been, quite unwittingly, innocent infants."
Since its North American release last week, response to the book has been fevered, with some observers cheering her analysis of modern parenting pressures, and others shaking their fists at what they see at outdated feminist values.
Agree or disagree with Ms. Badinter, it's hard to deny that she deftly slices right to the heart of modern parenting angst. Herewith, a few of reverberations Ms. Badinter's ideas have set in motion:
According to Ms. Badinter, the pressure on women to breastfeed for as long as possible tethers women to the home à la 1950s housewife, affecting her ability to work or be independent.
Not surprisingly, breastfeeding advocates have come out swinging. Ottawa parent blogger Annie Urban of PhD in Parenting dismisses the notion that there's anything wrong with women being more biologically tied to children in general. "It makes sense to me to be the one to carry the baby, give birth and breastfeed. Those where things my body is made to do," she says.
Some have gone so far as to question Ms. Badinter's motives, pointing out that her family's company, Publicis, has worked with formula-maker Nestlé. "How can anyone take anything Elisabeth Badinter has to say on the topic of infant-maternal nutrition seriously?" blogger Katie Allison Granju writes in Slate magazine. "Her ethical conflict is so enormous … that her position on the topic ultimately doesn't even matter."
Others say that it's worth talking about how sacrosanct breastfeeding has become. Phyllis Rippeyoung, the co-ordinator of the women's and gender studies program at Acadia University in Wolfville, N.S., recently co-authored a paper linking a mother's prolonged breastfeeding to a steeper decline in earnings than women who breastfeed for shorter periods of time or formula-feed.
"When I first thought of this idea and presented it, there were people yelling at me. People are very nervous about this," she says. "My hope is that policy makers and people who promote breastfeeding keep in mind what it is we're asking of women. … What if you have to quit your job? Or you're a single mom. You're not going to be able to do it... then it becomes a way to enforce privilege, to [cast]some women as good mothers and other women as bad mothers."
ATTACHMENT OR "NATURAL" PARENTING
Ms. Badinter sees co-sleeping, a big part of attachment parenting, as an additional limitation to a woman's freedom - and to her relationship with her husband or partner, who is often relegated to the couch for months.Actress and parenting author Mayim Bialik wrote a rebuttal in The New York Times titled Attachment Parenting is Feminism, saying those who practice it are not "competitive corporate-minded trendy celebrity divas toting secret nannies on the side, nor are they perfection-driven bored subjugated barefoot lonely women setting feminism back 200 years. They are educated, humble and devoted women who believe it is just as much a feminist choice to be a parent as it is to not be one."
Calgary parenting educator Judy Arnall raised her children as an attachment parent and believes strongly in the practice. But she doesn't see it as the only way to parent, and says that most parents will find through trial and error what practices are best for them. "There's no one wave of parenting that has taken over," she says. "There's a little bit of Tiger Mom and attachment parent in everybody," she says.
Ms. Arnall agrees with Ms. Badinter on one point: A one-size-fits-all parenting is not a healthy goal. The bottom line: "You may not have the perfect kid and you may not be the perfect parent, but if in the end your child is still talking to you, you've done well."
MOMMY GUILT AND THE MODERN DAD
Ms. Badinter writes that the degree of parenting guilt modern mothers are made to feel is oppressive, and that women are often their harshest critics, having internalized messages about the high stakes of mothering.
But some observers suggest Ms. Badinter has been too quick to dismiss the role men and fathers play in modern parenting styles.
"It really bothers me that in her book and in so many other conversations about parenting, it's always about the mother," says Annie Urban, who wrote a response to Ms. Badinter in The New York Times titled, It's About Parenting, Not "Mothering."
Ms. Urban, a freelance consultant, and her partner have balanced attachment parenting with careers and school. She breastfed while he took care of other tasks; and he stayed home for about six years while their children were young.
Martha Fell, CEO of Women in Capital Markets, says that while progress has been slow, some male-dominated financial industries are also starting to make better efforts to retain female workers after they start families – and not just for the "mommy track."
"I'd like to think we're on a tipping point and we're actually going to move the dial on women in senior ranks in as male-dominated an industry as ours."
STOP THE JUDGING
While The Conflict is arguably a judgmental book, Ms. Badinter does seem sympathetic to contemporary moms themselves. "If women are subjected to the relentless message that a mother must give her child everything - milk, time, energy - or pay for it later, inevitably more and more of them will give in."
A theme of forgiveness is also popping up in people's reaction to the book. Tracey Ruiz, who runs Sleep Doula in Toronto, says she often sees evidence of the type of judgment parents feel in her work. Some parents sneak her into their homes to sleep-train their children because the pressure to co-sleep is so great, they feel bad admitting it's not working for their family.
"Parents these days don't often just do it from the heart; they do it from the Internet," she says. "I tell my parents, no matter what you do, someone on the Internet is going to tell you you're doing it wrong or being a terrible parent."
Prof. Rippeyoung agrees. "All women are working hard about being mothers. They're just trying to do their best. I don't want to make mothers feel bad. I want to make [the people perpetuating]cultural prescriptions about motherhood feel bad."
Or, as Ms. Arnall says, all parents would do well to "develop a thicker skin."