Feature

Book of the week: The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women by Elisabeth Badinter

The latest book from the 68-year-old feminist is a “vehement polemic” aimed at the “naturalist” approach to child care.

(Metropolitan, $25)

Elisabeth Badinter has had it with modern mothers, said Jessica Bennett in TheDailyBeast.com. Arriving in the U.S. two years after becoming the talk of her native France, the latest book from the 68-year-old feminist is a “vehement polemic,” aimed at tearing down a child-care ethic that many of today’s mothers are embracing even though it acts to tether them to the home and reduce their future choices. Badinter takes on all the sacred cows of a model of parenting she labels the “naturalist” approach—mandatory long-term breast-feeding, “co-sleeping,” the insistence on organic foods and diapers, the all-consuming attentiveness to a child’s whims. Women aren’t just throwing away their own time chasing this ideal, she says, they’re making peers feel guilty if they don’t adopt the same creed. 

“Do we really require a privileged French academic to tell us all this?” said Heather Havrilesky in Bookforum. Badinter’s alarm about overparenting is often justified, and she throws her arrows with energy. But she also seems a bit removed from most mothers’ reality because of her wealth and “seems to prefer alarmist rhetoric” to grounded insight. To hear her tell it, mothers are practically being held hostage by placenta-eating, permanently lactating militants. It feels like a gross exaggeration. Don’t be so sure, said Amanda Marcotte in Slate.com. “As I recently learned when arguing that placenta-eating demotes new mothers to four-legged animals,” the devotees of naturalist mothering like to insist that it should be taboo for any woman to criticize another’s “choices.” Yet if a woman actually makes a choice that doesn’t involve staying home with her children, suddenly she’s a “bad, unnatural mother.”

Mothers aren’t the only losers in this battle, said Molly Guinness in The Wall Street Journal. “It’s men who should be rising up against the basic sexism of the natural movement, which pushes them out of the picture to create an exclusive mother-child unit.” Not that we need yet another group getting angry with mothers, said KJ Dell’Antonia in NYTimes.com. The bigger problem is that “we don’t, as a society, make it easy for parents of either sex to balance the financial demands of raising children with the physical and emotional demands of being there for them as they grow up.” This is a conflict that most every parent feels, and that isn’t going away. Badinter’s “simplistic interpretation” represents a mere distraction.

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