Guest Post: A Down-to-Earth Look at Feminism and Motherhood

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Man, mothers can’t catch a break. There was the “attachment parenting is a prison” thing. Then the “Tiger-Mom up if you want to raise winners” bit. And then more recently “the French do it better” discussion. Oh, and the so-called Mommy Wars are back in the flames (with the interesting new piece: the rise of the Dad Wars). So when a new book dropped called The Conflict with a subtitle that basically says, motherhood is the new ambition-killer for women (taking over from marriage, of course), I posted this Slate article about it on the MMM FB page, and Amy Webb’s blood started boiling.

Here’s what Amy, a wife, mom and Ph.D. who blogs about child development and parenting, had to say about her conflict with The Conflict.

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Who knew that a book by a French philosopher and feminist could raise such a stir among parents of all varieties in America? Although Elisabeth Badinter’s book, The Conflict : How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women, was released in France several years ago, it just hit American shelves this week and the reaction has been immediate. Parents, be they the stay-at-home, employed, conservative, or liberal variety, have had strong reactions to her argument. In a nutshell, Badinter contends that modern motherhood, particularly certain time-intensive “trends” such extended breastfeeding and attachment parenting, are antithetical to feminism. She argues that these practices are, in a sense, setting women back to the type of oppression and inequality that they experienced generations ago.

This subject made me reflect on these parenting trends, as well as the nature of motherhood in general. First, what type of parenting methods are not time-intensive or do not require a great deal of self-sacrifice? (I think that is called “neglect.”) Any parent, female or male, who is worthy of the title “parent” is going to invest a lot of time and energy in their child. By their nature, children require a sacrifice of self. They are, after all, born thinking they are the center of the universe and do not figure out that they are not for several years.

Second, the idea that children have replaced men as the “oppressors” of women is outlandish. Yes, there are undoubtedly circles of mothers who are competitive, and some may feel pressured to follow certain parenting practices (i.e., extended breastfeeding, attachment parenting). I think these pressures generally come from a certain segment of the society and if one does not want to follow these practices, you can surround yourself with other people who support your choices.

In the early months of motherhood, I felt some of these pressures after attending a mothers’ group where extended breastfeeding, baby wearing, and co-sleeping were the norm. Although I actually practiced all of these things to one extent or another, I knew I did not adhere to them as fiercely as this particular group, so I sought out another “tribe” in which to surround myself. I soon found another group of mothers who, like me, did not adhere to one “trend” or style of parenting but rather made our parenting choices based on what we felt was right for ourselves, our children, and our families as a whole.

That’s the beauty of modern motherhood that Badinter is missing: Mothers today have the freedom to create this role in any way we wish. This is the true gift that the feminist movement has given us. As women and mothers we have the freedom to configure our lives in ways that are meaningful to us. Mothers of my generation, on average, waited longer to have children, are more highly educated, and I feel are more prepared to enter motherhood with our eyes wide open to the choices, opportunities, and yes, sacrifice that comes with this life path.

Badinter’s argument also sparked, for me, a larger issue about the role of self-sacrifice. There does seem to be an idea out there that anything that requires sacrificing your own desires for the sake of another is somehow anti-feminist or at least not progressive. I find this problematic. Generations ago women were required to sacrifice many of their ambitions/desires to care for children and husbands. This sacrifice was oppressive in the sense that women had few other options. If this lifestyle was not fulfilling to a woman, there was not much else she could do.

The difference today is that while this level of sacrifice is still present, women may choose how their life is configured. Many women find staying at home to raise children a meaningful and fulfilling lifestyle, even with the sacrifice that is involved in that choice. Similarly, women who work outside the home also face sacrifice and find meaning in that lifestyle as well.

The point is, women now have more choices. To my mind, opening up more choices to women is the primary goal of feminism. Almost any life choice is going to require some sort of self-sacrifice unless you want to live a life in which you have no relationships or commitments to anyone other than yourself. If that’s what it means to be a feminist, then I’ll pass.

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Amy Webb is a wife, mom, and blogger who translates academic child development research into parent-friendly articles at The Thoughtful Parent

3 Comments
  • 1
    Kristin says:

    That isn’t what it means to be a feminist, thank goodness. It’s more nuanced and complicated and tough – kind of like democracy. Messy in the same way. Once you have choice, everything gets all stressful and dizzying and exasperating. Because guess what? With great power comes great responsibility. Or something like that.

    Lovely reaction – thoughtful, even. Thanks for posting, and MMM, thanks for hosting!

  • 2

    Thanks for this, Amy. I think the discussion is interesting, and it is probably one we’ll keep having in some form forever. But in many ways, I don’t feel this conflict in my own life. I also have a PhD and chose to let my career take a significant hit for a few years, because it is important for me to be home with my kids when they are very young. Some days, this seems like an obvious and perfect choice for me. Other days, I feel like I’m really missing out and wish I could step back into a career for a bit. It is never easy. But all of that is a personal struggle. It isn’t fueled by fear of judgement from others, and it doesn’t feel like a “war.” Like you, I feel lucky to have the choice. But, I also think it is ironic that this discussion is occurring among women that do have a choice on this matter to some degree. The sad part for me is that many women truly do not have a choice – they must work to put food on the table – and there is very little support for them otherwise (but often little support for them at work if they want to breastfeed, etc).

  • 3
    Benito Hernandez, Ph.D says:

    “The Thoughtful Parent” is easily the best blog on child development and modern parenting on the web. It’s a daily devotional for me. Dr. Webb has a rare knack for translating opaque academic research into everyday vernacular, and has a real nose for a great story. I hope MMM continues to repost/guest blog her here. Well done!