1st May 2012
The Conflict by Elisabeth Badinter
Motherhood isn’t exactly a topic of discussion that’s going anywhere any time soon, being as it is crucial to our very existence, but Elisabeth Badinter’s latest read The Conflict ripples over itself with new and intriguing ideas regarding how a current ideological image of Mother can affect the lives of women and influence whether they have children at all.
The original French text has been translated by Adriana Hunter, although at times I wonder if the French might have been easier to understand: I’m hoping my advance copy will have had a vigorous edit before it finds its way to the shelves as it was frustratingly littered with errors.
Aside from the errant commas that appeared with alarming frequency, some sentences inexplicably stopped half way through, others had glaring omissions and some just weren’t in the right order. I think I still got the gist, though, and what I read was impressive.
Badinter covers a sometimes overwhelming amount of ground, but this can probably be summarised with the question: how can motherhood survive when it has been developed into a weapon to keep women at home under excruciatingly unrealistic expectations?
She begins by reminding us how far women came in the twentieth century on the road to equality: we unshackled ourselves from a fate of marriage and motherhood and gave ourselves the option of a job and financial independence.
But flip forward to today, and we seem to have taken a giant leap backwards: now, as well as holding down a job, we still do the majority of the housework and childcare and we still get paid less than men!
The idea that women can balance a successful career with being Mum of the Year seems like a pot of gold at the end of a very long rainbow.
Why are women forced to choose between freedom and motherhood? Badinter puts a lot of it down to the rise of liberal motherhood and all things ‘natural’.
Our jobs get in the way of our “maternal instinct”, preventing us from giving the nectar of breast milk to our children for years on end, and taking up time we should spend at home focusing all of our attention on our offspring.
Naturalism brings out the guilt in women like nothing else, and suddenly the notion of motherhood is implicitly terrifying: how can we possibly live up to the ideology expected of us?
The intimidating figure of Mother created by the Naturalist movement, combined with the uninspiring assistance offered by most developed countries’ governments, and the new age of Hedonism and Individualism that sees us all (unlike previous generations) seeking what we want to do rather than what we should do – seems to have begun to have a real impact: more and more women are choosing to abandon the idea of motherhood altogether in order to obtain a sense of freedom.
Some of the implications in Badinter’s text are distinctly terrifying, but I felt the statistics she presents do not always live up to her suggested potential outcomes. That said, she pulls on an impressive level of sources and her theories are – as always – based on meticulous, fascinating research.
It’s not easy to come at a subject as old as humanity itself with a fresh perspective, and I think Badinter gets a little over-excited in the attempt and her ideas come bowling out over each other without as much structure as I would like.
That said, The Conflict was certainly an absorbing read and will probably make anyone that tackles it ask themselves a few questions: I think any book that leaves you with more questions than it answers is worth exploring.
Recommended for: Essentially all women, but obviously particularly those with an interest in feminism and motherhood. This has a pretty wide audience draw.
Other recommended reading: If you’re looking for something a little more in-depth, then Judith Butler is your woman, but really I would suggest any of the other classic feminist texts, such as The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer.