Book Review: The Conflict (about which I am conflicted)

This month’s PAIL book club pick was Elisabeth Badinter’s The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women. I was excited when I found out that The Conflict was the next book because I was halfway through it (and had been since April), and it gave me the nudge I needed to finish the book AND have a built-in group of bloggers with whom to discuss it.

In The Conflict, Elisabeth Badinter analyzes the rise of the child-centric culture and how it threatens the progress made by feminism. Modern motherhood demands sacrifice – total sacrifice – from the mother as she places the needs of her child first. A goodmother births naturally, breast feeds for as long as possible, wears her baby, co-sleeps, cloth diapers and makes her own baby food. The dirty secret, Badinter points out, is that this emphasis on all-things natural takes a lot of time and devotion, hurting women’s freedom, ability to work, sense of self and relationships. According to Badinter, the rise of the La Leche League and its influence on breast feeding, the ecological movement and the assumption that natural must be better and safer crashed into a generation of women who believed that their mothers pursued their own independence to the detriment of child-rearing, leading them to grow up swearing they would not parent that way.

All Things Natural

Badinter heavily criticized the trend towards natural parenting and the pressure under which it places women: natural is best and anything else is inferior. Badinter paints the emphasis on natural parenting as almost a conspiracy and while I concede that it does undermine a woman’s independence in that she is attached to her child constantly and at the child’s beck and call, I hardly think that petulant men were conspiring with the La Leche League in some smoky back room to figure out how to chain women back to the home and convince them that it was their idea.

I am not an attachment parent. I would have had an epidural if I gave birth. I did not induce lactation so I could breast feed and when F needed to start a medication that would require her to stop pumping, we switched to formula without a second thought. Ok, I admit that I did have a few qualms and last-minute regret as I got ready to mix that first batch of formula after 5 months of breast milk. I didn’t baby wear a lot; honestly, the contraptions looked so complex that I was worried I would get it wrong and drop the baby. We did not use cloth diapers, and it was for selfish reasons: I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. They seem gross to me and didn’t seem feasible to me as a working mom. A few days after Daniel was born, my mother and mother-in-law were talking about diapers and how when Jimmy and I were babies, cloth diapers were the only option and how much work and how nasty they were. To them, disposable diapers are a miraculous time saver. I know that cloth diapers have changed a lot since the 70s, but it is interesting how one generation’s scourge becomes another generation’s preference.

We did co-sleep for a while. It wasn’t a philosophical decision; it came strictly out of a desire to get more sleep when Daniel woke up in the middle of the night. What surprised Jimmy and me was how much we liked having him in bed with us. We loved having the opportunity to snuggle him and feel his warmth and hear his even breathing as he slept between us. We also made our own baby food. Again, that was something I never planned to do (so very crunchy in my opinion and while I am liberal, I am not crunchy) but after seeing how jarred food looked and smelled, I thought that surely it couldn’t be too much more work to make our own apples and sweet potatoes. We’d make huge batches of pureed fruits and veggies and freeze them. I have to admit that there was also something about looking at Daniel and thinking that he deserved only the best; surely we could take a few extra minutes and make homemade food for him, and it gave me joy and satisfaction to do so. And if I’m completely honest, probably a little smugness as well.

I often wonder how infertility influences our parenting styles. Because I didn’t carry Daniel, I felt detached from a lot of the hot-button parenting issues surrounding birthing, eating and sleeping. My focus was on getting a live baby. I can see, though, how infertility could possibly influence a mother down the path of natural parenting. These hard-won babies deserve only the best, right?

Motivations for Having a Child

Badinter writes that most couples cite “happiness” as the primary reason to have a child, a motivation that causes them to be shocked when the reality of parenting sets in. I do think that a lot of couples don’t think deeply enough about what parenting a child entails and likely do make the decision wearing rose-colored glasses. Yes, there are sacrifices required even if you aren’t an attachment parent. The reality of parenting is that a child takes up a lot of your time, energy and focus. Forever. I think it is hard to understand what parenting is like – really like – until you are one and maybe that’s nature’s way of ensuring the biological imperative wins out and the species continues now that we can choose whether to have children. It would be helpful for there to be more frank accounts of what parenting is like, though; maybe such accounts would reduce the pressure to live up to the ideal of the good mother. Hopefully our blogs can provide that.

Infertility forced us to think long and hard about why we wanted to have children. If your route to parenthood includes invasive procedures and a lot of money, you better be damn sure you want to have children. At the same time, for us at least, finally attaining a child did come to equal happiness: everything will be better once we have a child. I think that belief insulated us from some of the first shocks and frustrations of parenting. Not much phased us because we were so damned happy and relieved Daniel was here. I’m not implying that infertility makes us better parents and Daniel has been a fairly easy child. What I’m trying to say is that for us anyway, we had been in such a dark place for so long that any negatives were buffered and experiences filtered through the lens of not having him here.

This book is the latest in a series of books that has made me think about how I parent Daniel, how I feel I should be parenting him and what mix I should strive for. I do feel pressure to make my child the center of my universe – not from any person per se but from society in general and when I don’t spend every moment playing with him or nurturing his intellect, I feel like a bad mother as I wrote last week. What Bringing Up Bebe and The Conflict helped me realize is that not all cultures are as child-centric as America is and that it’s ok, maybe even preferable, not to be.

Overall, I thought the book was an easy read if a bit disappointing. Some of her arguments and conclusions came across to me as flimsy and that impression wasn’t helped by her usage of end notes because I couldn’t find the source as I was reading and judge its merits accordingly. Badinter examined leave policies and parental support initiatives in several countries and didn’t find one that offered a completely workable model for any country, making me wonder what the big takeaway from the book is supposed to be. Are we supposed to question why we have children instead of just mindlessly reproducing? Are we, especially women, supposed to make a detailed pros and cons list? Am I supposed to buy stock in Enfamil?

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6 comments

  1. I didn’t finish the book, but I do agree that I got the same “flimsy argument” impression. There’s a clear difference between “getting all the information and forming a hypothesis” and “finding evidence to support the thing I already believe,” and Badinter seemed pretty obviously (to me) to be doing the latter.

    I found this section of your post interesting: “At the same time, for us at least, finally attaining a child did come to equal happiness: everything will be better once we have a child. I think that belief insulated us from some of the first shocks and frustrations of parenting. Not much phased us because we were so damned happy and relieved Daniel was here.” We had a feature post on PAIL a while back (http://pailbloggers.com/2012/06/26/featured-post-birth-part-two-first-week-freak-out-by-survive-infertility-and-thrive/) that talked about just the opposite– how infertility had us looking at parenthood with “rose-colored glasses” and how the hard reality of those early weeks can really surprise you and throw you off your game. Just goes to show how different our experiences with infertility and parenting really can be.

  2. Interesting. I haven’t read the book, but am enjoying the discussions nonetheless. I’m not an attachment parent, either, but I said something the other day to jjiraffe about the possible connection between infertility and attachment parenting, wondering how the percentages might look if we did a survey.

    I don’t think that child-centric culture threatens feminism, though. I think that feminism means being allowed to make our own intelligent decisions, without someone forcing those decisions down our throats. It doesn’t sound like the author really did the difficult work of unpacking what feminism really means, though.

  3. I definitely agree that we should evaluate the child centric-ness of our culture and whether it really is what’s best not only for us, but for our children. I appreciated Bringing up Bebe for that, but I didn’t really get that out of The Conflict. I also thought Badinter’s arguments were flimsy, and I was disappointed. As someone who does a lot of the mothering things Badinter derides and who is also working on a career, most of what she said just didn’t resonate with me. The things she described as problems for women in my position just aren’t my problems, and I have different problems I find more pressing affecting my career.

  4. I wasn’t the center of my parents’ world, and I’m so grateful. There’s a lot of warmth and stability for a child to not be the constant center of attention. The world of children and the world of adults were distinct, separate, and we were to “go play” and leave the adults to their conversations. I’m also grateful that my parents put their marriage first, before myself and my sisters. Nothing feels more secure to a child than to have parents who love each other first and foremost. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to give my children that security.

  5. I’ve not read this particular book, though I did enjoy what the writer of Bringing up Bebe had to say about child-centered parenting in America. Surely there must be a happy medium between helicopter parents and parents who rush their children into independence to assuage their desires to live life on their (the parents’) terms. To a large extent, if you choose to have children (because it IS a choice– at least right now), you’re choosing to put your own life on the back burner for a bit. It’s just the price of parenthood. I don’t think it’s anti-feminist as, again, parenthood IS a choice.

    Nonetheless, something I’ve been thinking about lately is how many social controversies arise because we want to overlook the fact that if you think about it, biology is actually anti-feminist. Society and technology have evolved to the point where women don’t have to be as physically attached to their kids as our cave sisters did, but Mother Nature clearly gave women the heavier load, literally and figuratively, when it comes to parenting. I mean, women are the only ones who get pregnant. Women, prior to formula and its more primitive forms, are the only ones who can feed babies. Plus, just based on conversations that I’ve had with my husband, it seems like women hormonally and physically bond with children more than men do. I told my husband shortly after my first was born that regarding my son, I’d finally found someone that I would undoubtedly give my life for. His response was, “That doesn’t make sense. You can have more.” And then I seriously pondered divorce for a day or so. Anyway, I think a lot of these debates and controversies are because our biology has not evolved as quickly as our technological our social constructions have. But that’s just an aside. Nonetheless, I may check out this book just to see what’s up with this woman’s argument… or it seems based on this post and the comments, the lack thereof.

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