In Praise of the Mediocre Mother

Elisabeth Badinter’s bestselling book champions France’s so-so moms as the secret to high Gallic birth rates.

For all their hand-wringing over Gallic cultural decline, the French are the European champions of childbirth. With a consistently solid birth rate of two babies per woman, France is a both a puzzle and a model for demographers and policy makers alarmed by aging populations in the rest of the developed world.

Feminist philosopher Elisabeth Badinter, the Left Bank’s modern-day answer to Simone de Beauvoir, thinks she can explain this paradox: French women have always allowed themselves to be “mediocre mothers.”

As she details in her bestselling book, whose title translates as “The Conflict: The Woman and the Mother,” France has a long tradition of entrusting babies to nannies and daycare staff (the daycare center, or crèche, and the pre-school, or école maternelle, both being French inventions). Helicopter parenting, and the constant demands it places on women’s bodies, identities, intellects, and careers, never really made it to France, where for centuries the children of the upper classes were handed over to wet nurses. “Maman does not owe everything—her milk, her time, her energy—to her child,” Ms. Badinter says.

But times are changing, even in France, where maternal instinct and hormones are venerated ever more strongly, a trend that’s on the rise in the rest of the developed world as well. Becoming pregnant is, in Ms. Badinter’s words, becoming akin to “entering a religious order.” This global mentality shift is now threatening to strip French mothers of what has, ironically, made them among the most fertile women in the developed world: Their willingness to be so-so moms.

The tension involves more than simply what kind of mother one should be, or how much time with one’s children is too much. In her book Ms. Badinter describes a subterranean culture war that is being waged on mothers by the new forces of “eco-political” correctness. Only a few decades ago, disposable diapers, packaged baby food, infant formula and bottles were seen as key tools of women’s emancipation. Today, mothers in the rich world are under increasing pressure to not only give themselves entirely to their children, but to do so by going back to the “natural,” and all the tedium that entails.

Ms. Badinter identifies this concept as a regressive one, even adorned as it is with the new-age tinge of environmentalism. In the ascendent mentality, the “perfect” 24/7 mother is one who stays home to prepare only organic purees for her treasures, while endlessly washing cloth nappies and breastfeeding until the child is almost ready for school.

What Ms. Badinter terms a “holy alliance of reactionaries” comprises environmentalists, pediatricians, politicians, “the ayatollahs of breastfeeding” and elements of the media. As the book’s dense cross-national research shows, the consequences of the Total Motherhood credo are becoming dire for birth rates. Panicked by the all-or-nothing definition of good motherhood, women are opting out in droves, leading to the demographic crises we see in Italy and Germany, each with a fertility rate of 1.4 children per woman in 2008 according to the World Bank.

As Ms. Badinter tells it, the thinking that has lead to this baby-bust is not so new, and finds its strongest ideological roots in the 18th-century anti-progress arguments of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. And while there are important culturally specific notions of motherhood, such as the German mutter, Italian mama, and the Japanese kenbo, Ms. Badinter identifies the global trend now hitting France as part of a post-Baby Boomer backlash.

“Because of successive economic crises since the 1970s, and the feeling that our parents made a mistake with their excessive materialism, we have to turn our backs on extreme individualism and unreasonable consumption and give to our children only what is ‘natural,'” Ms. Badinter told me in a recent interview.

The reader might assume that all this means that “The Conflict” boils down to a blunt attack on the green movement, or the latest battle in the intergenerational feminist wars. It’s neither, though if we must, Ms. Badinter is best labeled as a libertarian of the left. The clearest difference between mother-of-three and grandmother Badinter, and her childless forebear de Beauvoir, is the former’s enthusiastic embrace of the will to procreate. But that embrace, she tells us, is only possible if motherhood isn’t supposed to take everything from the mother.

Ms. Badinter scoffs, for instance, at the interminable lists of banned foods and drinks for expectant mothers, noting that “thirty years ago we lived our pregnancies with insouciance and lightness” without bad consequences. While other mothers pore over the plethora of yummy-mummy websites and instruction manuals, Ms. Badinter jeers at the invention and multiplication of children’s needs in a world where the kid is king.

“The Conflict” hit German bookshelves last month after spending much of the year on French bestseller lists. Its tone can be brutal at times but it provides a fresh and apparently necessary wake-up call to advanced societies about how to stop the “womb strike” menacing graying nations from Japan to Germany.

Next year “The Conflict” will be published in English. As in France and certainly Germany, most English-speaking parents will recognize the ideology Ms. Badinter says is attacking procreation: That to attain moral elevation, mothers must throw out powdered milk and plastic bottles, disposable diapers, strollers, feeding spoons, and even submit to “natural births” sans epidural.

For all women who have wilted under these crushing prohibitions and admonitions, Elisabeth Badinter is their savior. Her acerbic dose of skepticism, even if overdrawn at times, is a welcome panacea to the fetishization of parenting.

And who knows, it might even convince some would-be mothers that, experts be damned, she can “afford” to bear children after all. At least if she does so à la française.

Ms. Symons is a writer based in Bangkok and Paris.


Full article and photo: