The Curse of the Perfect Mother

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By Elisabeth Badinter, published in themarknews.com
Feminist theorist and author Elisabeth Badinter argues women are being shackled by expectations of what it takes to be a good mother.

Women once again need to start talking frankly to each other about what it means to be a woman. Contrary to a coalescing body of opinion, it does not mean being a mother. If we don’t have an open discussion, the dream of gender equality will remain exactly that – a dream.

The gains of the feminist revolution that empowered women to make independent, personal choices about the kinds of lives they want to lead are being quietly eroded on several fronts.

The “return to nature” movement and its not-so-distant cousin, the “green” movement, propose that being a mother is the essence of womanhood. Meanwhile, any number of child-rearing experts – whose opinions, incidentally, seem to swing opposingly in 30-year cycles – are telling women that anything less than total dedication to their child’s physical and emotional needs means that they are not being good mothers. The child reigns supreme. The mother obediently serves.

Add to this the unstable economic times that make balancing work and motherhood ever more challenging – and a retreat to home and cradle more alluring – and you have a perfect storm of circumstances that are pressuring women to abandon their quest for gender equality and instead become almost competitive in their urge to be seen as perfect mothers.

Babies, so we are told, must be breast-fed – on demand. Attachment parenting theory dictates co-sleeping and baby wearing. The perfect mother, apparently, must hold herself totally responsible for what happens to her child. It’s not just about tending the baby’s needs. It is also about producing the happiest, most fully developed and intelligent child possible – in effect, creating a masterpiece.

The persuasive impact of these ideas is insidious for two reasons: first, because opinion is presented as expert fact, and second, because it makes women who don’t want to breast-feed, or who don’t want to share their bed with an infant or devote every moment to its total welfare, feel somehow guilty and inadequate.

Women fall prey to this subtle, yet emotionally corrosive, pressure for various reasons. In part, it’s a generational backlash, as women of today see how little has changed despite the efforts of those before them. Many were reared by women of feminist principle who didn’t necessarily breast-feed (there was a time when baby formula was fashionable), and who had broken from patriarchal shackles to pursue career ambitions, reconciling the obligations of motherhood and work.

Now, they question whether the battle for women’s autonomy was worth it. There’s still a glass ceiling. Wage parity remains largely a dream. And when it comes to layoffs, you know who’s likely to go first.

So, the idea that a woman’s “natural” role is that of mother and homemaker can be a tempting one to embrace. “What’s there to lose?” they ask.

If motherhood is truly what a woman wants, then it’s absolutely the right thing for her to do. What deeply worries me, however, is the way women are unwittingly being pressured towards the view that woman equals mother without considering its full implications.

Those same pressures can have an equally damaging reverse effect. In the western part of Germany, for example, many young women are abandoning motherhood altogether. This choice makes a lot of sense given the pressures they face: The bar for motherhood is being set incredibly high, they’re expected to sacrifice their careers in the process, and, given the divorce rate, it’s quite possible that, after a few years, they will find themselves struggling as single mothers. So who can blame them for avoiding these pressures and risks?

It is these disturbing trends that impelled me to write The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women, a book that I hope will sound an alarm and prompt serious debate. Women need to see what’s going on before they’re duped into accepting dogma as truth.

I’m a mother of three. I chose to have children not because I believed I was fulfilling my natural, biological destiny, but because it was something I made up my own mind to do. By today’s exalted standards, I was probably only an average mother. I certainly wasn’t burdened with expectations of perfection, and I managed to have a full life and career on top of my role as mother.

I want today’s women to equally forge their own paths in life, free to make personal choices without feeling that they have to fit into a particular mold. Every woman should be able to choose whether to be a mother, and every mother should be able to choose whether to breast-feed, and whether to continue working. If women don’t start asserting the right to choose for themselves, I can foresee a time when they won’t be given the choice at all.

Elisabeth Badinter is a professor at the École Polytechnique in Paris. She is author of the book, The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women.

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