Dr. Amy Tuteur is an obstetrician-gynecologist. She received her undergraduate degree from Harvard College and her medical degree from Boston University School of Medicine. Dr. Tuteur is a former clinical instructor at Harvard Medical School.

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JUNE 7, 2010 8:41AM

Is a baby the "best ally of masculine domination"?

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crying baby

French feminist Elisabeth Badinter’s new book atop the French bestseller list is a full bore assault on the concept of the “good mother.” In Le Conflit: la femme et la mère (Conflict: The Woman and the Mother), Badinter argues that the biological essentialism implicit in current notions of motherhood reduces women’s freedom and limits professional success.

According to a New York Times review:

… [Badinter] contends that the politics of the last 40 years have produced three trends that have affected the concept of motherhood, and, consequently, women’s independence. … “[E]cology” and the desire to return to simpler times; second, a behavioral science based on ethology, the study of animal behavior; and last, an “essentialist” feminism, which praises breastfeeding and the experience of natural childbirth, while disparaging drugs and artificial hormones, like epidurals and birth control pills.

All three trends, Ms. Badinter writes, “boast about bringing happiness and wisdom to women, mothers, family, society and all of humankind.” But they also create enormous guilt in a woman who can’t live up to a false ideal…

Ms. Badinter … says that the baby has now become “the best ally of masculine domination.”

Badinter decries a philosophy that effectively relegates a woman to the home, sacrificing her health, independence and autonomy in an effort to live up to a socially constructed ideal:

... The “green” mother, she says, is pushed to give birth at home, to refuse an epidural as the reflection of “a degenerated industrial civilization” that would deprive her of “an irreplaceable experience,” to breast-feed for both ethological and environmental reasons (plastic baby bottles) and to use washable rather than disposable diapers — in other words, to discard the inventions “that have liberated women.”

Indeed, for most of human existence, women's lives, roles, ambitions and possibilities have been severely limited. Women were defined by their biology. The central role of women's lives was asserted to be biologic reproduction, in other words pregnancy, childbirth and lactation. The current concept of the “good mother” rests on this essentialism. Hence the inordinate emphasis placed on the physical process of birth, and the few physical aspects of parenting like lactation. The various prescriptions for “good mothering” combine to reinforce the notion that a woman is determined by her biology, that her destiny is to live out that biologic role, that her highest calling is to live out that role, and that the role must be lived in strict adherence to biologic limitations.

This essentialism dictates that women must reject technology (since it has been the traditional purview of men), that women must emphasize the physical aspects of parenting, that women are improved by suffering biologic pain, that any deviation from the biologic constraints of childbirth (having a C-section instead of a vaginal delivery, for example) is anathema and robs a woman of her fundamental reason for being, that a woman's natural place and the place where she is most fulfilled is within the home, and that parenting requires intensive physical interaction which renders work outside the home virtually impossible.

Badinter posits that the philosophy of the “good mother” has arisen to stem the rising tide of women’s professional success. However, it is worth asking who is threatened by that professional success. Is it men, who fear the loss of their traditional dominance as Badinter implies, or is it women who have not achieved professional success and therefore discount its value? Women who lack professional achievements may have fallen back on valorizing biological functions like childbirth and breastfeeding because those are the only "achievements" they are ever going to have. In other words, is this just the latest iteration of the “mommy wars”?

Regardless of its origin, biological essentialism, expressed as an emphasis on the physical aspects of mothering, does serve to limit the autonomy of women. By positing a very specific vision of the “good mother,” proponents of essentialism limit women’s choices within relationships, within the home and even within the professional world. Badinter exhorts feminists to reject biological essentialism.

… I’m convinced that the way feminism has been evolving will lead it to a dangerous dead end. I continue to think that gender equality comes with sharing roles and duties.

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mothering, feminism

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In answer to your question,
"...Is it men, who fear the loss of their traditional dominance as Badinter implies, or is it women who have not achieved professional success and therefore discount its value? Women who lack professional achievements may have fallen back on valorizing biological functions like childbirth and breastfeeding because those are the only "achievements" they are ever going to have..."

I think it is some of both, though many of the most energized opponenets of women working outside the home are affluent right wing types, married to successful men and these women never changed a diaper (cloth or Pampers) or washed a dish in their lives.
They WANT to be treated as princesses and they are...they think women who work are lowering themselves to "manual labor" somehow, even if the professional woman is a CEO of a Fortune 500 company.
Right now you have a workplace culture that is completely unsupportive of mothers. There's almost no flextime, paid parental leave, subsidized childcare and other supports that would allow mothers to fully participate in the workforce, (and incidentally also allow fathers to more fully participate in childrearing). As a result, women find themselves smacking that glass ceiling hard and burning out since they can't balance childrearing and working. Is it any surprise that some women fetishize intensive childrearing in order to compensate for their loss of status in the workplace? Our culture is fucking mothers out of full participation in the workforce and then convincing them they are "choosing" to opt out.
I respectfully disagree that babies are the allies of male domination. A majority of modern women have the power to choose whether or not they will bear a child. Childbearing is a unique, empowering experience that women alone can do.

Thanks to the feminist movement, a woman can choose to climb the ladder of professional success--the ultimate social construct. Or she can opt to devote some or most of her ambition to bringing up a child or children (which is a temporary endeavor in any case).

Women can now choose how they want to define success. A growing number of us are finding fulfillment in the domains of our choosing. I am thankful women are now so free to choose which responsibilities and privileges we pursue. The profession of mothering and/or outside the home professions are all worth pursuing with excellence. Let each woman decide for herself what counts as success.
Now, take this piece, the 2 comments above--and throw in the constraints added to women of color. "Fucked over" doesn't begin to cover it, when gender biases are multiplied by cultural biases.

I always felt that I was a product of precisely what feminism hoped for: a poor, fat kid, raised in the barrio by a single, ill-educated mother w/multiple siblings; no real prospects other than to marry someone "who will help (me)." Now add to that the machismo element of the men w/in that culture--including domestic violence. I thank God quite literally for college financial aid (and I paid back all my student loans in full) and access to birth control; w/out those, I would never have been able to break out of the cycle.

Women hit that glass ceiling soon enough, but women of color languish in the basement a lot longer b/c of their initial poverty: it just takes longer to get there b/c you start from further behind. That's why some of us just never get there; it takes too much hard work for far too long.

But it's possible--just takes a spell longer.
I suspect that Ms. Badinter does not mean that babies themselves are the allies of male domination. After all, she is not advocating childlessness and she herself has three children. It seems that Badinter is actually decrying a specific vision of motherhood that rests on a view determined entirely by biology and a view that not coincidentally relegates women to the home and deprives them of autonomy.

She's rightfully suspicious of any attempt to prescribe specific behavior for women based only on their biology. If a woman want to give birth in a hospital because it is demonstrably safer, then she should do so and not be restricted a romanticized view of childbirth in nature; if a woman wants an epidural in labor, she should get one and not be required to forego it because "that's what animals do"; and if a woman doesn't want to breastfeed, for whatever reason, no one should make her feel like a "bad mother."

The problem isn't children; the problem is using biology and history as reasons to limit women's options.
Babies provide jobs for everyone but the parents.
"Childbearing is a unique, empowering experience that women alone can do."

I find that people who are in power don't need empowering experiences, whatever that means.

Even at its most gloriously natural and unmedicated, it generally involves a number of people's help, including highly-trained midwives and doulas. It renders the woman less able to move freely without assistance, and exhausts her. In our truly natural state, it exposed her to infections and rendered her more vulnerable to the risks of early life-- outsiders, animals, cold, and hunger.

Child bearing, at any rate, is one day in your life (for each child). Some consider it a significant experience in itself. Others-- me included-- see it as the doorway to the real endeavor, which is childrearing.

At its most "natural," baby rearing requires a significant support system for the modern woman. Financial support, specialists for breastfeeding success, goods and services (diaper services, commercially manufactured slings).

For the modern woman with the power to sustain herself and her household, childbearing and child rearing represents a move to greater interdependence (with partner and specialists) and even dependence (financially).

Rather than rebranding motherhood as empowerment, why not explore whether interdependence and vulnerability have equal societal value? We value emperor Penguins' precarious existence, totally dependent upon partnership to keep the chick alive in the harshest conditions. We admire the dependence of preindustrial societies upon the land and the animals and plants on it. We value our vulnerable babies-- whose vulnerability is a direct result of the evolutionary conflict between the need for a huge brain and the limitations of bipeds' pelvic size. Their vulnerability is synonymous with their potential to become gloriously sentient beings.

For most of history, childbearing and childrearing has been acknowledged as a state where mothers are at their most interdependent. The "natural" state contemplates this, for hunting and gathering isn't possible for the new breastfeeding mother.

Glorifying a temporary vulnerable state is not palatable for modern women, who have drawn from feminism the value of independence. In embracing a woman's potential, we have rejected the idea of dependent woman.

Yet at its most "natural" and "empowered," motherhood necessitates heightened dependence and interdependence. Why not embrace that? It's only natural.
Keep in mind that this woman is writing of FRENCH society, not American, where the economic divide between rich and poor is not quite so great, where there's a social safety net, and where mothers get a lot more paid leave and help with childrearing.

The majority of work-outside-the-home mothers in America do not CHOOSE to work outside the home. They simply have to have a paying job to pay the rent and put food on the table. Choices like using cloth diapers and exclusively breastfeeding just aren't feasible for them and you don't hear a whole lot of guilty worrying about it from that subset. You also don't hear a whole lot of worrying about having a baby the "right" way--mainly they just want everyone to be healthy and for the insurance to pay for it.

In America, these types of worries really do seem confined to the white, upper-middle-class, well-educated, married mother who has the economic luxury to decide whether or not to work outside the home.
I think those that want to practice natural childbirth should also practice natural dentistry! R
"Is it men, who fear the loss of their traditional dominance as Badinter implies, or is it women who have not achieved professional success and therefore discount its value?"

This kind of stuff definitely does NOT come from men. Most men really, really don't care how the baby is fed. Just feed it so it'll stop squalling. I've yet to see a man in the cloth diaper subgroup of my local parenting group. And men are most definitely not the ones pushing the baby-wearing thing. Most men I see wearing a baby look a little to a whole lot sheepish about it.

I think it's just a continuation/evolution of the "keeping up with the Joneses" thing. In addition to whose husband has the better job, whose garden is the most amazing, who drives the fanciest car, now it's who can be the most attached parent with the "best" (most developed, smartest, most talented, etc.) kid.
Even though I am a semi-crunchy stay-at-home mom and wife to a professional man, I do think some of Badinter's claims have merit.

I graduated from college and worked for only one year before giving birth to my first child. Even though I *hated* my job, I do reflect somewhat fondly back on that time as a period where I had more personal satisfaction, autonomy, accolades, validation, etc. than I do now. When I bring this up, my husband always reminds me that I used to complain about my work incessantly and couldn't wait to give it up to have a child. While I wouldn't go back today, I do realize that paid work offers some kind of personal boost that at-home mothering just doesn't.

Having said that, I truly do believe that my kids are better off not in a daycare facility. I chose to have these babies, and I feel like it's my responsibility to put my goals on the back burner while I raise them. As a grown woman, I can deal with some level of personal dissatisfaction that I feel is less detrimental to me (and the family) than 40 hours a week in daycare would be for my kids (and the family.) And, since we CAN live on one income, we just do. For now.

Ideally, I'd be able to raise my own babies full-time, have fulfilling work for good pay, enjoy an amazing marriage and maintain the kind of house I want to live in. I guess for me, I know all that isn't possible at the same time. I had to choose.

It's difficult when there is no outlet for your intelligence, motivation and ambition. Add to that a competitive streak and a lifetime of being told you could be an astronaut or President - and it all becomes fairly hard to stifle when you're wiping butts and picking up crayons all day. Of course it comes out as "mommy wars" - what other avenue is there to funnel one's drive to succeed? Untapped potential gets channeled into competitive mothering - or a need to be "the best" mom in town who is up-to-date on all the latest info/fads.

It's a dilemma. I don't know what the answer is. Obviously it's not cool to try to make others feel badly about themselves. But I think competitive mothering has less to do with making other women feel badly and more to do with trying desperately to make oneself feel validated.
I think this article is a good commentary on the newly developed and highly marketed baby-rearing rituals.
Women who lack professional achievements may have fallen back on valorizing biological functions like childbirth and breastfeeding because those are the only "achievements" they are ever going to have.

Ah. So, I suppose you've figured out exactly WHO is going to have the babies then? Since men CAN'T have babies, it follows the natural progression of logic that if the human race is to continue, women must continue to be the bearers of children.

How can you possibly justify the phrase quoted above? Valorizing biological function? Really?

Many women have discovered the middle road necessary for them to be both mothers and employees. I see it all the time - ALL THE TIME. It does not make them any less of a parent because they work, and it further does not make them any less of a productive worker because they are a parent.

Regardless of its origin, biological essentialism, expressed as an emphasis on the physical aspects of mothering, does serve to limit the autonomy of women.

How so? Who else can bear the child? Who else can breast feed the child? HOW in God's name is this "limiting the autonomy"?

Let me know when it is physically possible and socially acceptable for men to become to pregnant and bear children. Then we can talk.
"I suppose you've figured out exactly WHO is going to have the babies then?"

No one is suggesting that women should have babies. The issue is whether childbirth and childrearing should be based on personal choices or whether there is a prescription for how to do it "right."
The point, though, is that regardless of whether there is a prescription for doing it "right", there is no one else to do it EXCEPT women.

At least, the having babies and the breastfeeding part, anyway.

Is it men, who fear the loss of their traditional dominance as Badinter implies, or is it women who have not achieved professional success and therefore discount its value?

What if it's neither? Having children is a personal choice. Whatever sacrifices a woman wants or doesn't want to make (once having made THAT choice) are entirely her business and strictly personal.

There is no "formula" for doing it right BECAUSE it is personal.

I am soooo going to purchase Ms. Badinter's book.

I'm a single mom who had a c-section (need I say more?)

Anyway - I have always wanted to run around replacing those damn bumper stickers that say "Every Mom Is a Working Mom" with ones that say "Every Mom is a FULL-TIME Mom." I also long to ask the women who drive those cars who makes the damn car payments.

Thanks again, Doc!
I'm always frustrated when people like Ms. Badinter completely ignore the profound satisfaction some of us get in defining ourselves as mothers. Who is she to dictate what I should value? While I appreciate her objection to some of the self-imposed pressures of perfect parenting that our society seems to have embraced, I think she goes too far. I don't like it when feminists tell me that choosing to find a mate to support me while I raise our children is anti-feminist. What silliness to discount the biology that drives us. She and her ilk will go to their deathbeds without having figured out a way to completely eliminate men and babies.
The problem with framing this as a choice made by individual women is that it doesn't take into account the enormous pressures--social, political, economic, emotional--that are brought to bear on women when they make choices about how to parent. When you don't have safe, reasonably priced, universal childcare, when you don't have paid family leave, when you don't have flextime, when you have a social and political discourse that puts intense pressure on women to martyr themselves to childrearing, then free choice doesn't really exist.
I think we are simply trying to find a median now, between extreme feminism denying all ties of home and heart and a patient, suffering, giving Mother Earth limiting one to home and hearth. Also the recent trend of Breastfeeding and natural birth is the result of improved understanding of these processes. Natural birth speeds up birthing with less distress to the child. Breastfeeding imparts improved immunity and intelligence. Feminism should not mean giving up one yoke for another, leaving home to get tied to the office/career. It should be all about choices. I took a step back after my first child and rewrote my career map. It is more intellectually rewarding than before, less fiscally rewarding. The trade off is my choice!
Maybe women like Ms. Badinter should just stop reproducing. That would be a brilliant strategy for, oh, I don't know, extinction.
Honestly, as someone who thinks kids are foul-smelling sacks of [expletive] and who is married to someone who thinks the same, I'm pretty damn happy this mothering competition is going on. In a competitive economy, there aren't enough jobs to go around, and the women who don't want to work open up more opportunities for me without too much fuss. When I get a new job, I make sure to let my boss know that I don't want a family and I'm devoted to the job, and I tend to get promoted almost instantly.

Hating kids has nothing to do with feminism, though reich-wing types love that battle cry. I'm more of a Betty Friedan feminist, and have no interest in modern feminism, since it is pretty much "victim" feminism, with a couple dashes of anti-transpeople vitriol thrown in for good measure. But reich-wing types have to insist that it is because they can't bear the thought that, no matter how much society tries to tell us we're freaks, 1 in 5 women don't want kids. You couldn't pay me to look like Santa Claus and give up all my joys (liquor, drugs, painkillers, sleep) for nine months, and then my life for 18 years, and make the transition by getting some part of my body ripped open and being in agonizing pain. Luckily, in the 30s and 40s, the childless women and the obsessive mothers go their own ways, so I've never run into the latter group, and thank the world for that.
Anyway, I don't actually hate kids. I hate the parents, like my friend's sister, who's raise her toddler to be a poorly behaved hellion who screams for hours when she doesn't get her way (while she sits back and smirks defiantly, waiting for our sympathy), who locks the child into a small cramped room for hours and ignores her, and who forces other members of her family into babysitting whenever possible. And then, calls those of us who do not fall to our knees and shriek with delight over her child "monsters."

While I am aware that not all children are raised this way, a growing number are, since the current fashion in parenting is to treat the child as your best friend, and regard any type of discipline as an occasion to call the county child welfare department. People without kids are as responsible for encouraging this culture as certain types of parents are, too.
I'm with you here. The idea that women should endure needless pain for the sake of having a "natural" birthing experience seems to romanticize suffering. No thanks. I say "no pain, no pain." And as for essentialism, it confines both women and men in ways that cause both to suffer needlessly.