Every week in The Kiddy Pool, Erin Newcomb confronts one of many issues that parents must deal with related to popular culture.
Élisabeth Badinter’s European bestseller The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women has found no shortage of critics on this side of the Atlantic. Most of the controversial press comes from Badinter’s claim that breastfeeding is oppressive, a position made more polemical because the author’s public relations firm represents major formula brands like Enfamil and Similac. I find that conflict of interests deeply problematic, but as I read Badinter’s book for myself, I also found myself agreeing with many of her arguments.
The book jacket asserts that “the pressure to provide children with 24/7 availability and empathy has produced a generation of overwhelmed and guilt-laden mothers.” I can question Badinter’s examples as well as the conclusions she draws from them about birthrates, but that single sentence rings true. It also helps to explain the increasing number of women who “opt out” of motherhood, choosing to be child-free because the cultural expectations of motherhood seem so unappealing. On the day after Mother’s Day, when so many churches provide clichéd readings of Proverbs 31 and awkwardly distribute carnations to all the females, I find Badinter’s exploration of childlessness compelling.
On page 12, Badinter outlines the cultural confusion surrounding women, and couples, without children:
a couple without children is always seen as an anomaly, up for interrogation. How strange it is to not have children like everyone else! Childless people are always expected to explain themselves, although it never occurs to anyone to ask a woman why she became a mother (and to insist on getting good reasons), even if she were the most immature and irresponsible of parents. But people who choose to not have children are spared nothing — not the sighing from their parents (whom they deny the joy of grandchildren), not the incomprehension of their friends (who want everyone to do the same thing they’ve done), and not the disapproval of society and the state, both of which are, by definition, pro-birth.
Both Badinter’s book and the child-free couples she describes represent opposition to the belief that motherhood is instinctual, natural, and universally-desired. She traces the rise of modern conveniences (like formula and contraception) and women’s increasing access to education and professional status to illustrate that making more social roles available to women means more women postpone or reject motherhood. What society at large misses, and Badinter forcefully asserts, is that women who choose not to be mothers probably do so with thoughtfulness and careful consideration — precisely because they are constantly made aware that they are not following the established order.
Badinter sets these claims against the backdrop of a culture of individuality in which each member is expected to discover what she will find most fulfilling. For some women, that answer is motherhood — practiced with such intensity that femaleness becomes conflated with motherhood and woman with womb. Some women’s central desire is to mother, some women’s desires for motherhood and other vocations are more mixed, and for some women, there is simply no appeal in the image or ideal of contemporary mothering. What a greater availability of social options reveals, Badinter claims, is the diversity of female desires and the multiplicity of women’s callings.
The byword of modern motherhood is “devotion”, while the epithet of the child-free woman is “freedom”; neither is necessarily superior or inferior, because both depend on what women do with them. Women without children can exercise their freedom to distribute their time, talents, and resources in ways that women responsible for children simply cannot. Badinter’s book is certainly not without its own conflicts, but in a climate that seems determined to see motherhood as an all-consuming sacrifice and the height of womanhood, it is worth noting that those who choose to be child-free can still offer themselves in meaningful and sacrificial ways.