I’ve written about this before, but the book has just been released in English in Australia. .
You might have seen this article in the Good Weekend.
In 2005 Judith Warner published a book called Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety. In it she compared mothering in France with mothering in the USA. Warner spent her first three years of motherhood in France, where there is a free public health service, extended maternity leave, affordable nannies, affordable pre-schools, everybody sends their kids to the local public school, and the working week is capped at 35 hours. Mothers lived a balanced life and there was no mention of guilt. Returning to the USA she found mothers depressed, stressed, obsessed with trivia, unable to afford the quality childcare that could release them back into the workforce, trying to be perfect, looking and feeling old and tired, and blaming themselves for their inadequacies. In the USA mothers are constantly questioned by media messages and children are the centre of the family’s lives. In France, children eat in the kitchen and play in their rooms, while adults talk together in the loungeroom. In the USA children have delegated playrooms and the adults schedule adult time around them. Of course, in the USA, individual responsibility is championed, rather than changing to socially progressive polices.
Now, French philosopher feminist Elisabeth Badinter states in her book (released in Europe two years ago) The Conflict: the Woman and the Mother that motherhood as it is in France now is bad for feminism. She blames the environmental movement (cooking organic baby food and washing cloth nappies is time consuming), the focus on children rather than women, attachment parenting, the dietary advice to pregnant women, the advice to breastfeed for two years, and all the expert advice on raising children as if they are vulnerable creatures who can blame any psychological issues on their mothers. She says French women have caught the guilt bug.
She has a point.
Badinter says it is important for women to be financially independent. She’s not alone there.
She champions the mediocre mother, because the perfect mother doesn’t exist. Too right.
But, if things have changed for mothers in France, without a change in social policies, I think we can look to some other factors. Is the global financial downturn a factor in families’ decision making? Did women find that returning to work part time or after a break of a year or more meant they were on the ‘mommy track’, and they were taken less seriously in their careers? What about the fact that jobs with flexibility to allow for care work are the lower paying jobs? Is the increase in marketing of products and services to babies and young children a factor? Do mothers find satisfaction tending their children more intensively than past generations? Do mothers approach their child rearing more as a family branding exercise, or are mothers applying the skills they’ve learnt in business, academia and the workplace? Lets also look to other countries with comparable social policies. Are their mothers feeling guilty too? And why aren’t we looking at men’s roles in families and work? Are they downshifting and baby wearing? Are men concerned about their work/life balance and feeling guilty?
I disagree with her view about the green movement. We need to move towards sustainability in all areas of our lives, and to not consider this is naive at best. What’s the point of having children if the planet they inherit is unable to sustain human life? And what about community involvement and having a say in broader issues? As Erica Jong says, ‘Aspiring to be perfect parents seems like a pathetic attempt to control what we can while ignoring problems that seem beyond our reach.’
What Elisabeth Badinter is saying is similar to what I said in my article of April 2004, so it’s nothing new to me. Does intensive mothering take a lot from women, when the outcomes are unproven and, perhaps not truly related to the input? Would mothers’ energy be better spent doing something else? Something that wields more power, personally, collectively and politically? Is intensive mothering a step backwards for feminism? Did our feminist mothers work for women's rights so we could mother more intensively?
Or is Badinter just jumping on the mother bashing bandwagon?
What do you think?
I’d better read the book (which I feel like I’ve already read), then report back.