The trials and tribulations of the ‘perfect mother’

The controversial French philosopher Elisabeth Badinter has stirred up a storm with her critique of the Anglo-American eco-mums whose values are now invading France.

Charlotte Faircloth

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Elisabeth Badinter, the author and philosopher, has long divided feminist opinion in her native France. Her latest book, Le Conflit: La Femme et La Mère (The Conflict: The Woman and The Mother) does nothing to buck this trend.

Badinter argues that the traditional French model of motherhood is under threat from a rising orthodoxy of ‘Good Motherhood’ (of the kind familiar to many British women), which champions practices such as long-term breastfeeding, using washable nappies and cooking organic food, and which impels women to take considerable periods of time off work to look after children. The wave of so-called ‘neo-feminists’ have accused her of ‘missing the point entirely’. So what’s going on?

Working mothers in France and Britain

Famously, the French government has long had a policy aimed at boosting the country’s fertility rate, at the same time as increasing the number of women in the workforce. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) lists the fertility rate in France as 1.94, in contrast to the UK’s 1.8. (These are both figures above the OECD average of 1.63.) In terms of female employment, 57 per cent of women of working age are employed in France, compared with 67 per cent in the UK. (The OECD average is 56 per cent, and this includes both full- and part-time workers.)

But the relationship between fertility and female employment is not as straightforward as it may first seem. In the UK, a woman can typically expect a year of leave (the first six weeks paid at 90 per cent of normal salary, then 33 weeks at a flat rate of approximately 33 per cent of the average wage. Any remaining time is unpaid.) According to statistics, these women are still ‘employed’.

In France, women can take 16 weeks of (fully) paid leave in the period immediately before and after birth. Since this is generally split on a four-and-a-half-month basis, pre- and post birth, women are expected to return to work when their children are between 10 and 12 weeks old. In the UK this point would typically be between nine months and a year. (Paternity leave in both countries is two weeks, with only 25 per cent of this time paid in the UK.)

Crucially, unlike the UK, France has a system of subsidised, easily available, affordable childcare. Municipal, cooperative and parental crèches exist, able to care for infants from the age of three months. From the age of three (or two, in larger cities) children can attend pre-schools (maternelles) for eight hours a day, for free – with the option of a means-tested after-school and holiday club, available until 6.30pm. For French mothers, the need to ‘juggle’ careers around the demands of childcare following the end of maternity leave is – financially, at least – mitigated.

Intensive motherhood

Indeed, even at the emotional level, the language of ‘juggling’ has traditionally been absent in France. Judith Warner, who in Perfect Madness writes about her experience of motherhood in Paris, argues that unlike her native USA (and, arguably, the UK) motherhood was just not such a ‘Big Deal’:

‘Guilt just wasn’t in the air. It wasn’t considered a natural consequence of working motherhood… The general French conviction that one should live a “balanced” life was especially true for mothers – particularly, I would say, for stay-at-home mothers, who were otherwise considered at risk of falling into excessive child-centeredness. And that, the French believed, was wrong. Obsessive. Inappropriate. Just plain weird.’ (1)

In her work in France in the 1950s, Martha Wolfenstein notes that for the Parisian parents she studied childhood was not about fun but about preparation. This is, she argues, almost in direct contrast to her native America, where ‘childhood is a very nearly ideal time, a time for enjoyment, an end in itself’ (2). In France, she says, ‘Childhood is a period of probation, when everything is a means to an end; it is unenviable from the vantage point of adulthood’. Unlike the ‘child-centred’ approach to parenting that Judith Warner observes in the US and UK, children in France would not be expected to disrupt adult activities, and should certainly not be the main preoccupation of adult conversation.

This is reiterated in more recent research by Marie-Anne Suizzo, who describes two distinctive features of French parenting (3). One was that mothers wanted their children to be ‘debrouillard’, a term difficult to translate into English but which broadly means being prepared and therefore enabled to achieve one’s personal goals. The second was a pervasive worry about mothers being enslaved (esclavage) to their children, who could easily become infant kings (l’enfant-roi).

As she explains: ‘[Esclavage] is the idea that mothers can become dependent on, even subordinate to, their children. This notion is quite different from the much more pervasive concern among parents in individualist cultures that children may become overly dependent on their mother. Mother-enslavement was described as a loss of personal freedom with very negative consequences for the mother.’

According to Suizzo, the fear about enslavement means that French parents ‘prefer more distal relations, maintaining separate beds and bedrooms for their infants, and engaging in less body contact, in part because they believe that separateness fosters independence in children… French parents also avoid prolonged body contact, such as co-sleeping, holding, and carrying babies… These findings point to a concern with fostering independence.’

What Badinter describes in Conflit, however, is a move against this ‘traditional’ ethic of separatist parenting, towards one validating attachment, attentiveness and parental fulfilment. This is a trend that scholars in the US and the UK have termed ‘intensive parenting’. For the American sociologist Sharon Hays (4), ‘ideal’ parenting under this orthodoxy (for a well-educated middle-class stratum at least) is demanding: one which encourages mothers to spend a large amount of time, energy and money in raising their children (or as Badinter puts it, ‘time, energy and milk’). The social role of mothering is therefore expanded to encompass a range of tasks beyond the straightforward rearing of children. Above simply feeding, clothing and sheltering, parents do much more for their children. Badinter notes the growth of infant specialists and experts who have sprung up to capitalise on this ‘more’ (infant psychologists, cranial osteopaths, judo teachers or otherwise).

Yet what Badinter appears to find most problematic about this new framework of ‘intensive parenting’ is that it has meant that mothering (since ‘parenting’ is a heavily gendered term) is now understood to be a vehicle to personal fulfilment for women, where mothers are expected to constitute their very identities through mothering. This, of course, points to tensions as old as the feminist discourse itself, divided along cultural and liberal perspectives.

Feminism and the place of nature

Badinter describes the emergent marriage between ‘naturalisme’ (what might be glossed as ‘green’ or ‘eco’ practices in the UK) and feminism as ‘a silent revolution’. She understands it as a particularly dangerous and insidious trend, because many of the practices it promotes (long-term breastfeeding, washable nappies and so on) have an embodied gendered dimension.

In France, feminism has traditionally been associated with the work of Simone de Beauvoir and her ‘existential feminism’. Beauvoir’s The Second Sex describes how female physiology renders women subservient to the requirement of the species to procreate, in ways vastly more costly than those accrued to men. Her view of breastfeeding, for example, was as some sort of enslavement (and it is notable that Badinter describes the bottle as an ‘objet moteur de l’égalité des sexes’ – a driving object of sexual equality). As Linda Layne and Jennifer Aengst note, de Beauvoir celebrates human society which exerts mastery over nature: ‘[H]uman society is an antiphysis – in a sense it is against nature; it does not passively submit to the presence of nature but rather takes over the control of nature on its own behalf.’ (5)

Traditionally, there has been an ‘embedded’ attitude towards the place of nature in France, in opposition to its visibility in the UK (something desirable, to ‘get back in touch with’). The 1970s ‘return to nature’ that saw pro-breastfeeding movements like the National Childbirth Trust and La Leche League blossom in the UK was not replicated in France – ‘being close to nature’ as something desirable is a relatively new phenomenon in France. Indeed, as Badinter describes it, this is an emergent culture for a privileged section of society – evidenced, for example, by the slow but sure growth of biologique (organic) food shops in moneyed communities in France, and a new wave of ‘eco-feminists’.

A recent article in Elle magazine is typical of this trend. It was entitled ‘The end of feminism? When super-woman returns home’, and featured women describing their feminism in a ‘maternalist’ language familiar to certain sections of British society: natural birth and breastfeeding as empowering, paid work as ‘no comparison to what it means to be a mother’, and so on. For Badinter, this is highly problematic:

‘“Good motherhood” imposes new duties that weigh heavily on those who do not keep to them. It contravenes the model we have worked for until now [and] which makes equality of the sexes impossible and women’s freedom irrelevant. It is a step backwards.’

Guilt travels

An ‘intensive parenting’ framework is being exported from the US and the UK to other cultural settings in a global economy of an ‘ethics of care’. Badinter’s French case study reveals that the relationship between the dynamics of intimate relations and broader international trends is not straightforward: what is considered appropriate care is not cross-culturally stable (for her, at least, because ‘intensive’ embodied care on the part of the mother had long been perceived as an impingement on female liberty). At the same time, the fierce reaction to her work points to the challenges that face French feminists, as the model of culturally sanctioned motherhood evolves.

Badinter’s thesis does not highlight the struggle of many French women, who would like to spend more time with their children in the early months and resent the social pressure to return to work. Nor does it pay more than lip service to the intense physiological and emotional pulls that many women experience, which impel them to be physically close to their children. At the same time, Badinter does show how this ‘struggle’ is itself a result of shifting cultural orthodoxies, which recently have seen a turn towards intensive mothering, making all the more salient a language of ‘guilt’ long familiar to mothers in the UK.

How each group of women negotiates these shifts – one with a generous system of childcare, the other with a generous system of maternity leave – will undoubtedly be a topic of feminist debate for some time to come. As Badinter says: ‘The majority of French women reconcile maternity with professional life. Many of them work full-time when they have a child. They are resisting the model of the perfect mother, but for how long?’

Dr Charlotte Faircloth recently completed her PhD at the Department of Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge. Her book Militant Lactivism? Infant Care and Maternal Identity will be published by Berghahn Books in 2011. She is an affiliate of Parenting Culture Studies where this essay originally appeared.

Le conflit : La femme et la mère, by Elisabeth Badinter, is published by Flammarion. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

(1) Perfect Madness, Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety, by Judith Warner, Vermilion (London), 2006

(2) ‘French Parents Take their Children to the Park’, by Martha Wolfenstein, in Childhood in Contemporary Cultures, University of Chicago Press (London), 1955

(3) ‘Mother-Child Relationships in France: Balancing Autonomy and Affiliation in Everyday Interactions’, by Marie-Anne Suizzo, in Ethos, Vol. 32, 2004

(4) The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood, by Sharon Hays, Yale University Press (New Haven and London), 1996

(5) ‘The “Need to Bleed?” A Feminist Technology Assessment of Menstrual-suppressing Birth Control Pills’, by Linda Layne and Jennifer Aengst, in Feminist Technology, University of Illinois Press, 2009

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