Mother Natures: On Elisabeth Badinter

Badinter The ConflictJennifer Szalai in The Nation:

The Good Mother ideal is examined by the French feminist Elisabeth Badinter in her latest book, The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women. Badinter, a 68-year-old mother of three grown children, is utterly uninterested in writing about the personal experience of mothering. Last year she was voted “the most influential intellectual” in France, and she seems never to have wallowed in maternal guilt, choosing to dissect it instead with chilly precision.

In 1980 she wrote L’Amour en plus, a history of mother love, in which she described how maternal “selfishness and indifference” were the norm until Rousseau and the Romantics put the “reign of the child king” at the center of European family life. The book opens with some startling police statistics from 1780. Out of 21,000 infants born in Paris that year, more than 19,000 were dispatched to wet nurses in the countryside, where—if they were lucky enough to survive the treacherous journey—they would be tightly swaddled and left to stew in their excrement for hours; hung up on a nail by their swaddling bands to keep them out of reach of barnyard animals; and fed a diet of pap when the wet nurse had trouble with her milk supply. More than half of those children died before the age of 2.

Historians have commonly argued that such displays of maternal indifference were due to the crushing levels of infant mortality in the eighteenth century: a mother would stop herself from becoming too attached to an infant who might die. Badinter, however, takes her cue from medical historians such as Edward Shorter and reverses the lines of causality: “It was not so much because children died like flies that mothers showed so little interest in them,” she writes in L’Amour en plus, “but rather because the mothers showed so little interest that the children died in such great numbers.” The 10 percent of children who stayed at home to be breast-fed by their mothers or by live-in wet nurses were about twice as likely to live. To believe that high mortality rates were the cause rather than the result of maternal indifference is, for Badinter, a sentimental fantasy that “prevents us from condemning” mothers and keeps our mythology of mother love heart-warming and pristine.

Such sang-froid wends its way through The Conflict, which includes the same ghastly statistics, but here Badinter brings them up at the end, after devoting most of the book to denouncing what she calls “ecological motherhood,” which is essentially the attachment parenting promoted by Dr. Sears: breast-feeding, cloth diapering, co-sleeping. “Eco-biological prejudices” and “the vilification of chemicals” have “put motherhood squarely back at the heart of women’s lives” by making childcare an all-consuming activity that only a mother can do.