The Conflict by Elisabeth Badinter

1st May 2012


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.

The Conflict was published last week by Metropolitan Books. Buy it in hardback for £10.17.

Rating: 3/5

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.

Laura Vickers


  • Jane Bradley says:

    Thanks for this review, Laura. It’s such a fascinating subject, and one that affects all of us (even if we don’t have or want kids, that choice seems to be public property for discussion/judgement too).

    I’d know what women who have or want children think about this; to an extent I feel lucky that kids have never been a priority for me. I already struggle to juggle my jobs, money, family, friends, extra-curricular and life in general, and I’d have no idea how to find the resources (physical, mental, financial and so on) that I’d need if I were to have children.

    I’m keenly aware of how much unrealistic and unsustainable pressure so many people are finding themselves struggling with at the moment, and I sympathise for my friends who would love to start families but don’t feel that they can until they have cleared debts/bought their own homes/put in place other security measures.

    Was the book as provocative as its title, or was the text itself more measured?

  • Kaite says:

    It’s an interesting one. I have a similar issue to Jane, in that I have no idea how the responsibilities I already have will work with kids, but I do want them.

    Does the book look at same-sex parents as well? I’d be interested to see how the dynamics change when there are two mothers in the equation – it certainly makes me feel less wary about becoming a mother, since I know that societal gender roles won’t be as big of an issue. I feel like ‘motherhood’ for me as a lesbian means something slightly different to someone in a heterosexual relationship since my partner will be in the same boat as me regardless of which one of us actually gives birth.

  • Am I the only one who thinks that Badinter’s age might make her a bit out of touch with this generation of parents? No one seems to be mentioning this fact or the fact that she has a huge stake in formula given her millionaire status with Nestle. I answer the question, “Who is Elisabeth Badinter” here: