Slaves to the Child

A review of Elisabeth Badinter’s The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women

French writer Elisabeth Badinter
French writer Elisabeth Badinter

Photograph by  Eric Feferber

If you have ever experienced a dark hour of the soul in the middle of a dinner party, where the men seemed to be talking about something intriguing at the end of the table, while you were deeply immersed in a women’s conversation about how to transition from the bottle to the sippy cup, the French  feminist Elisabeth Badinter’s rousing indictment of our child-centric culture, The Conflict, is bound to offer some consolation.

Her very French, rather severe, and fascinating book does not pander to readability in the way an American cultural analysis would, but she raises important points about the dangers of what she calls “L’enfant Roi” or the child-is-king culture, to the hard won gains of feminism. She describes the blow to our freedom, to work, to expansive ideas of self delivered by rigid standards of what motherhood should be. She discusses and attacks among other things: La Leche League and the pressure to breast-feed, the fad for natural birth, for total abstinence from alcohol during pregnancy, and the stigmatization of women who decide not to have children.

In Jane Kramer’s excellent New Yorker profile, Badinter calls herself a “fanatic of clarity”; and at times her commitment to clarity, her desire to over-resolve or over-pin down can be a bit constricting. (I prefer in my feminist tomes, what Elizabeth Hardwick referred to as Simone de Beauvoir’s “brilliant confusion,”that is, the willingness to tolerate enlivening conflicts and complexities.) But Badinter’s arguments are provocative and rigorous: She explains the phenomena that we are currently struggling with, the phenomena that lead us to rabidly consume and debate books about Chinese mothering or French mothering, in an effort to rethink or recast or correct our current mode of parenting.

Badinter attributes the current enslavement to our somewhat oppressive styles of child rearing, to the fact that women with feminist mothers in the 1970s onward have rebelled against their experience of being abandoned or somehow insufficiently mothered by their working mothers. She writes that these daughters thought to themselves: “In pursuit of your independence, you sacrificed me as well. You didn’t give me enough love, enough care, enough time …The truth is, I was not your top priority and you were not a good mother. I won’t do the same with my children.”  This seems possibly true to me, as a sort of larger, underpinning psychology, but there must be more to it as well.

Why are we raising our children in this way? Why have we created this oppressive culture for ourselves? (And of course for those of us not exactly raising our children this way, we are raising them in the shadow of this way: thinking about it, worrying about it, or flagrantly disregarding it with some consciousness of recklessness,  some demoralizing whiff of potential failure.) But why has the dominant ideology of child-rearing veered so radically toward responsibility, sacrifice?

While I was mulling over this question, I was reading the back of some fancy granola that happens to be in my house and it says: “Happiness isn’t found on a clothing tag. We’ve looked! We find happiness in making healthy choices, getting outside and keeping fit—choices that make us feel better, inside and out.”  This idea of enlightenment through health, this lively preoccupation or concern with what is healthy over, say, what is fun  or vivid or pleasurable is a larger turn that affects our ideas of motherhood. Doing something unhealthy, or creating an unhealthy environment for a child is currently so taboo that we are tyrannized by the fear of it: We are almost unable to think in other terms.

In discussing the disheartening toll babies take on relationships, Badinter writes, “a mother cannot allow herself to be consumed by her baby to the point of destroying her desires as a woman.” It occurs to me that in some sense, many of the mothers she is talking about are using their children as an escape from the imperatives of romantic life. This elevation and fetishization of the child over the parent’s private life is perhaps not always the cause of unhappiness, but some sort of escape from the pressure to be happy, some flight from the demands of romantic connection.  If the child is overwhelmingly central to family life, in all of the much-discussed, anti-romantic ways, then you are delivered from the demands of true intimacy, at least for a while; it’s a reprieve from the expectation of romantic happiness, which can of course be exhausting.

Likewise, of course, children deliver us from the pressure of our ambition, the shadows of our failures. I often think of Geoff Dyer’s brutal, bravura passage in Out of Sheer Rage. In describing his decision not to have children, he writes, “People need to feel that they have been thwarted by circumstances from pursuing the life which, had they led it, they would not have wanted; whereas the life they really want is a compound of all those thwarting circumstances. … That’s why children are so convenient: you have children because you are struggling to get by as an artist—which is actually what being an artist means—or failing to get on with your career. Then you can persuade yourself that children had prevented you from having this career that had never looked like working out. …” And it actually goes on, and I’ll continue to quote it because in its bleakness and cynicism it really carries a certain insight, an insight that dovetails nicely with Badinter’s condemnation of certain attitudes toward motherhood.  He writes:

 After a couple of years of parenthood people become incapable of saying what they want to do in terms of what they want to do. Their preferences can only be articulated in terms of a hierarchy of obligations, even though it is by fulfilling these obligations (visiting their in-laws, being forced to stay in and babysit) that they scale the summit of their desires. The self-evasion does not stop there: at some level they are ashamed because they realize that these desires are so paltry as to barely even merit the name of desires and so these feeble desires have to take on the guise of an obligation.

The dark idea here again is that children are the best excuse in the world not to pursue happiness, not to live fully or take risks or attempt the work one loves. The compromises we make are justified, elevated, and transfigured by the fact of children, and this can be a relief. And Dyer’s point is interesting in that it is not that children transform vibrant, ambitious, desiring people into juice-box-carrying automatons, but rather that the juice-box carrying offers a socially acceptable escape from all that troublesome vibrancy.

But these speculations aside, Badinter’s impressive imperative to own one’s own life, to take rigorous and energetic responsibility, to cast off the silly or cowardly or frivolously domestic ways, seems very appealing, and refreshing and brisk. One wishes at the end not to displease or disappoint her, to live up to her lofty ideals, to really try to inhabit her enobling vision, though one’s 2-year-old, the little enfant roi, is calling for a cookie.