The problem with modern motherhood

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First aired on Day 6 (13/5/12)


On the cover of this week's Time magazine is a picture of a young mother. It's a photo that has sent shock waves around the continent. Why? She's breastfeeding her son. Her three-year-old son. The image is for the magazine's cover story about attachment parenting. Attachment parenting, a term coined by pediatrician William Sears, has five basic (and relatively vague) characteristics, but has come to encompass a number of parenting trends, such as co-sleeping, breastfeeding, using only organic food and materials, natural childbirth and un-schooling. It's a movement that French writer Elisabeth Badinter condemns in her new book The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women.

Badinter says when contemporary women take on motherhood they're giving up their career, their future and their autonomy. Modern motherhood "really has become crushing for women," she told Day 6 host Brent Bambury in a recent interview. (Badinter gave her answers in French, but thse were translated into English by the CBC's Susan Campbell.) Badinter says that attachment parenting, which is only part of this modern parenting movement, "monopolizes women's time" and imposes a set of unrealistic and problematic expectations on new mothers.

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"Now you not only have to breastfeed 24 hours a day, day and night, for six months, you have to make your own natural baby food. You have to wash your own cloth diapers instead of using disposables. After six months, you have to combine breastfeeding with solid food," Badinter explained. "There's an incredible number of obligations weighing on the shoulders of new mothers, which, I think, are dangerous for their desires, their ambitions and their freedom as women."

Badinter also sees this movement as bad for fathers. When mother and baby come first, and when the baby's relationship with the mother is prioritized above all else, it gives the father "permission to tiptoe away." According to Badinter, this undermines all the work in recent years to ensure that fathers play an active role in raising their children.

So, why is this happening? Why are young women being pressured to adopt this "organic ideology" that encourages  -- or, as Badinter sees it, pressures -- them to give up their careers, their social lives, their hopes and dreams, their ambitions and goals and their body for their child? She sees it stemming from a number of factors.

First, there is currently a strong mistrust of industrialization. Products produced through industrial means have "become dangerous in people's minds." It's not only that "chemicals are making people fearful," but society has also become critical of capitalist consumerism. This means more and more mothers are turning to products that are organic and produced at home, or at the very least, close to home. "[There's a] suspicion of technology, of science, of even, I'd say, of medicine aided by technology," Badinter said. "We see this need among young women to go back to the way things were done before."

Second, access to contraception has made having a child a choice. As a result, women "are giving birth to babies they want," which has "engendered a profound sense of responsibility towards those babies amongst these young mothers." If mothers are going to choose to have children, then they better do it right. And right now, doing it "right" means appealing to what Badinter calls this "organic doctrine." For example, if a mother chooses to bottle-feed her child as opposed to breastfeeding, "it's a sign of a mother who is egotistical, a mother who doesn't want what's best for her child."

Third, young mothers of today are reacting to their own mothers' choices. The mothers who raised children in the 1970s and 1980s tried to do it all, Badinter says. They had children and a career. As a result, they made some compromises. "They all bottle-fed their babies with a clear conscience." However, Badinster says young women don't see all the progress their mothers made. Instead, they focus on the shortfalls. "Young women say, 'I'm not going to be like my mother. She wanted a career. She wanted to be a good mother, She wanted her independence. And what did she end up with? What did these women end up with? They ended up with a bunch of lies. They were full-time mothers. They had full-time jobs. They were extraordinarily tired, stressed, rushed. They hit the glass ceiling. They had lower salaries. And all for what?'"

Badinter recognizes that this position is one that not all mothers can take. Economic status, among other factors, affects women's ability to opt out of the workforce, to afford organic baby food, and to have time to launder cloth diapers and blend puree. 

And that's the crux of Badinter's argument: she wants all women, regardless of their socio-economic status, regardless of their beliefs on the right way to parent, regardless of how many children they have and why, to be able to choose the mothering method that is right for them. If you want to be an attachment parent, go ahead. But mothers shouldn't feel pressured to become one.

There is no right way to parent. For Badinter, there's only one rule to live by: "when a mother is happy, the baby is happy." What makes one mother happy might make another miserable.

And that, according to Badinter, should be completely okay.

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