Nature and its Discontents

France-America and the Culture Wars (not the Mommy Wars): What the Reactions to Elisabeth Badinter’s The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women can Teach us

By Yaëlle Azagury

The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women, by Elisabeth Badinter, Metropolitan Books, 169pp. $25

On a popular radio station, the talk show host recently railed against the hypocrisy of our society which looked at public breastfeeding as slightly awkward, if not downright inappropriate, while most magazines routinely exhibit voluptuous half-naked women showcasing their attributes as nobody seems to complain.  “Why”, he asked in outrage, “ are we so shocked by this most “natural” of practices: a mother breast-feeding her child?”

This is Tartuffe in reverse.  “Cover that bosom that I must not see”, said Moliere’s famous bigot who demanded Elmire cover her cleavage in the name of religious propriety.  While Moliere denounced the hypocrisy of 17th century French society that paled at a décolletage-Tartuffe is in fact secretly lusting after Elmire-, the talk show’s outcry is instead directed towards a society where décolletages are all but too common, a society so relaxed, so degenerate, so “libertine” as Moliere would say that breastfeeding-  the purest of gestures- is now under fire.  In other words, he is urging us to rekindle our original purity.

It is precisely this pedestal elevated for a newly re-anointed “naturalist” ideology that is Elisabeth Badinter’s target in a book that has been wildly misunderstood since its English publication in April.

In a nutshell, the argument is that modern motherhood has become increasingly demanding on women, as a new ecological model has emerged: natural birth is seen as desirable, a new yearning for pain in childbirth has surfaced, and doulas more common than one would think, breastfeeding for as long as one can is viewed as a plus, co-sleeping with your baby a sound practice for mother and baby, organic food and cloth diapers a desirable goal -anything with “chemicals” is frowned upon.

“Attachment parenting” is the idiom coined everywhere in the media as the epicenter of Badinter’s ire.  Never mind the concept is only used once in Badinter’s book, and as part of a more complex argument.  “The Conflict” has been systematically and single-mindedly analyzed in light of the recent trend of “parenting” books such as Amy Chua’s “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother”, or Pamela Druckerman “Bringing up Bebe” : good parenting versus bad parenting. “The Mommy wars have flared up once again”, writes for instance Amy Allen in The New York Times Opinionator column.  This is not entirely wrong. But it is too sketchy to reduce Badinter’s book to a self-help study.

This view is covering up a more profound issue in Badinter’s thesis about the divide between Nature and Culture, and our societies’ shifting thermometer on both.  In fact, the book has been the subject of 2 different kinds of misunderstandings; a cultural/political one and a philosophical one.

The cultural one concerns both the fascination and scorn French and American cultures have mutually honed for each other.  Misperceptions about Frenchness abound everywhere in the assessment of Badinter’s thesis as her ideas are caricatured and the two intellectual cultures (French and American) conflate against each other.

To oversimplify the issue, Badinter’s book has been so poorly received in the United States mainly because she is French.  Here are a few reactions in the press:  Melissa Fay Greene in the Huffington Post condescendingly writes for instance that her analysis is “amusing and insightful”, but “dated” (“it was right 30 years ago”), a widespread cliché on the French who are often dismissed as somehow not “serious” thinkers.  She sets herself as an example of how one can “have it all”, including nine children and four books, as if that wasn’t the exception versus the rule.  Note also that a balance between building a home with children and a career is exactly what Badinter advocates.

In the New York Times Book review, Judith Warner oversimplifies Badinter’s argument against breastfeeding with trite clichés on the French: they are emotionally stunted when it comes to their children and only interested in seduction.  She pins down a few quotes from Badinter’s, but they are out of context or part of a more complex argument: “ a nursing mother is not necessarily an object of desire for the father watching her”, or the practice (of breastfeeding) “may well obliterate the woman-as-lover and endanger the couple”. Never mind Badinter is right when observing that modern women are constantly under pressure to live up to estheticized ideals of physical perfection.  More than ever, our hedonistic society emphasizes this self-consciousness.  So vane thoughts like these would certainly be on their minds.

At the same time, Badinter’s argument also goes further.  Shouldn’t we at least give her the benefit of a serious debate?

She traces the resurgence of the nursing ideology to the late 50s and the creation of La Leche League, her bête noire: created in 1956 by seven Catholic mothers members of the Christian Family movement, known for its traditionalist views, the organization thrives on four major themes: “the moral authority of nature, the advantages of breastfeeding, the superior status of the mother, and her essential role in the moral reform of society”.  For Badinter, these themes rest on an “essentialist” and “deterministic” view of women (mothers should nurse because Nature made them this way), which is ultimately conservative.  Instead, Badinter sees feminism-and civilization by and large- as a relentless war waged against biology.

To date, there are certainly still areas of uncertainty on the advantages of breastfeeding, as Badinter reminds us using the results of a report by the Society of French Pediatrics: for instance, the claim that mother’s milk is superior for the child’s intellectual development is unfounded.  Other advantages, however, are well-known. In the United States, it is hard to find a doctor who doesn’t encourage the practice.

Among direct benefits, American studies are unanimous:  Breastfeeding for the first six months of an infant’s life not only provides enhanced immunity, but is better for gastrointestinal function and prevention of acute illnesses (e.g. acute otitis media).

Although Badinter admits there are advantages to breastfeeding for at least the first six months (especially enhanced immunity), she is rather brief on the matter, lumping together La Leche League’s biased long list of benefits (she construes the League’s ideology as an unrealistic desire to create a “perfect mother”) and serious medical studies. In other words, her ideas, as the French daily newspaper le Monde pointed out, at times come across as “heavy artillery”.

However, her argument is hardly “outdated”, as it has often been called in the American press, especially by Jane Kramer, the first one to use that word in a profile in the New Yorker of June 2011.  Kramer’s article is full of cultural clichés: she presents Badinter as a “made-in-France intellectual” (other than being a stereotype, the expression is all but specific), a quaint “extravagantly entitled philosophe”, frozen in the eighteenth-century (“armed with the precepts of a candlelit past”) her area of expertise along with feminism- she wrote a famous book about maternal instinct arguing it doesn’t exist.  Kramer weaves her narrative with a tinge of scorn, amusement, even slight disrespect: in her words, Badinter likes to shuttle between her house in the French countryside where she has all her eighteenth-century research, and her bourgeois Parisian apartment where she keeps her feminist papers “in boxes”, like commuting between two centuries, and attends brainstorming sessions in an “old Renault hatchback” (how “French”, shall I add), deciding on major intellectual debates dividing the country like the Parity Law which aims at promoting the participation of women in politics in her bathtub.  Kramer obviously sees this as a sign of imbecility.  She also does not fail to remind us, that as the daughter of Marcel Bleustein-Blanchet, an advertising magnate who built the Publicis Group in France, Badinter acts “from the cool remove of money, family and uncommon privilege”.  The same cliché is often applied to Bernard Henri-Levy, for instance, another French intellectual with a large fortune, as if sitting on a sizable bank account impaired one’s ability to think, or made it frivolous.

Far from being out of touch with the realities of contemporary mothers (she has been called “anecdotal”), Badinter is in fact voicing an entire generation of women born in the 1970s who have recently come to motherhood and stumbled on the new demands weighing on it:  writers Eliette Abécassis, Nathalie Azoulai, Marie Darrieusecq, Pascale Kramer, who all say they only realized the requirements of the job after the fact (“No one warned us” is a common theme).  These are all household names in France, but may not be known by the American public.  Anne Enright, an Irish author whose 2004 memoir “Making Babies: Stumbling into Motherhood” (Norton and Company) has just been published in the United States, makes a similar argument as Badinter yet has avoided literary execution.  She speaks for instance of “the womb police” who makes us believe we are doing everything wrong: “ They keep on preaching to the converted, and now that we are all eating our lamb’s lettuce and getting our folic acid, they have homed in on those most prevalent of middle-class vices, a cup of coffee and the occasional glass of chardonnay.”  Enright is refreshing when deriding the jittery mothers many of us have morphed into: “You must always check a silence”, she writes “not because the baby might have choked, but because it is in the middle of destroying something, thoroughly and slowly, with great and secret pleasure. It is important to remember this.”

Badinter, like Enright, plays agent provocateur, lifting taboos about motherhood.  She notes for instance that many women may not be cut for a job that is more depressing than exalting on a daily basis (the writer Judith Newman speaks of the “mind-numbing boredom that constitutes 95 percent of child rearing”) and the model of an “exclusive” or “intensive” mother may not work for them. That model however is insidiously more prevalent according to the author.  Although Badinter often proceeds by gross exaggeration, she puts her finger on a real issue.

The problem is the political disconnect between French and American intellectual cultures.  Elisabeth Badinter is considered in France as an intellectual from the Left.  Yet her American detractors criticize her from the same end of the political spectrum.  Why has she been so poorly received?

French and American democracies are based on radically different models.  The ideals of the French left are rooted in the “Declaration universelle des droits de l’homme” of 1789 (the equivalent of the Bill of Rights), and in the fundamental notion of “universalism”.  Universalism means that the right of men supersede cultural differences. American feminist philosopher Joan Scott calls it “the principle of the abstract individual”.

Universalism translates in the public arena as a centralizing movement, erasing (or at least putting on hold), not enhancing, cultural, ethnic or religious differences.  French democracy, or the French Republic, as it is called, is then a res publica, as is emphasized by its latin root, meaning a public matter.  In the public space, every individual is leveled with another.  An exception or a difference is publicly unacceptable (relegated to the private space) because it could potentially alter the neutrality of the space.  That is why the principle of laïcité, or secularism is so crucial to French democracy. For instance, the Burqa ban passed in France because the veil was ultimately perceived as disruptive in the transparency of the public space.  Gender difference is viewed in much the same way.  So the idea that women may have a special vocation just because they are women is equally unacceptable.

American democracy on the other hand rests on a de-centralizing movement –the country’s size playing no small role in that.  Differentialism (the celebration of differences) is at its core, due in part to the country’s immigrant history.  Minorities are viewed as enhancing the public space, rather than disrupting it and the difference between public and private less marked.

Furthermore, the French Left, shaped by the country’s staunch cartesianism ( “I think, therefore I am”, with the ensuing divide between mind and body) is by essence culturalist (roughly put, thought or artefact operates for the betterment of humanity), whereas the notion of natural belongs to the progressive imagination of America.  The discovery and exploration of the country’s natural majesty is inherent to the country’s beginnings as a new nation.  Thinkers such as Emerson and the Transcendentalists believed for instance in the inherent goodness of nature: Nature is God’s immanent presence in the world.

Furthermore, Badinter is spiritual heiress to Simone de Beauvoir’s assimilationist feminism.  De Beauvoir urged “ that the similarities of the sexes called for politics of equality and integration” : what united them was greater than what set them apart).  Contemporary American feminists are more prone to embrace the ideas of a feminist approach that emerged between the 70s and the 80s, which viewed the devalued qualities traditionally associated with femininity as strengths rather than weaknesses (menstruation, pregnancy and childbirth for instance are glorified).

All of this may explain why one of the central and most interesting contentions of Badinter’s book has been so flagrantly obscured and overlooked.  Here comes the philosophical misunderstanding.

She argues that the new model of motherhood discussed above has been propelled to the limelight thanks the resurgence of an old ideology, namely naturalism.

In the last forty years, naturalism, a forgotten ideology which “had at its core a belief that the world is governed by natural principles” (Badinter), or as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, “the philosophical belief that everything arises from natural properties and causes”, has sprung back, prompted by an increasing wariness towards science and scientific discourse.  Badinter, like the overwhelming majority of the French left, is a culturalist.  For all the follies and hiccups of scientific progress, she believes that science has translated into astonishing medical achievements.  We owe to it Promethean conquests, longer life expectancy not the least of them.

And what is often viewed in America as progressive practices (breastfeeding, natural childbirth, organic diapers, organic baby food…) is in fact for Badinter, a step backwards, eating up at women’s hard-won freedoms, and propelling us into a regressive worldview whereby “natural” is always deemed better than “artificial”.

Take for instance modern attitudes towards the contraceptive pill.  The main grievances of women in their thirties are, as noted by Badinter: “fear of weight gain, rejection of chemical products.”  The risk of cancer, possible hormone imbalance, and the fear of sterility are also among the reasons given.   Dr Erin DuPree, an Obstetrician/Gynecologist and The Mount Sinai’s Medical Center in New York Chief Medical Officer, confirms the trend on a recent interview.  She also pointed out to me that taking the pill raises a woman’s hormone  levels, thereby mimicking the most “natural” state of women in their reproductive years, namely pregnancy.  So ironically, what is viewed as “artificial” is the closest those women will get to “natural”.

This vilification of chemicals, “linked as they are to poison and death” (Badinter) is what New Yorker journalist Michael Specter calls in a recent book our current fear of science and leads to what he offers to name “denialism”, a trend he also identifies as wishful or “magical” thinking.  According to Specter in a book entitled precisely “Denialism”, Americans mistrust science more today than ever before, often believing that serious health issues can be solved in more “natural” ways, taking medicine into their own hands (partly because for so long medicine was in the hands of unquestionable authorities, partly because the Internet fosters a sense of entitlement and expertise on all matters) or plainly rejecting it.  General wariness towards “evil” pharmaceutical laboratories suspected of being in for the money is also a common theme detected both by Badinter and Specter.

Similar attitudes towards childbirth are examined by Badinter.  She notes that a growing number of women opt for natural childbirth, claiming that epidurals, Caesarean sections and medicated births dispossess them of the uniqueness of the experience.

A recent article in The New York Times Magazine entitled “Mommy wars: the Prequel” by Samantha M. Shapiro confirms the diagnosis.  The article is about Ina May Gaskin, a midwife and home-birth evangelist from Tennessee who is, according to the article’s subtitle, “ finally winning converts in the mainstream”.  Shapiro shows not only that Gaskin’s books  -“Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth” or “Spiritual Midwifery”- are “a standard part of the pregnancy canon” in her well-read Brooklyn neighborhood, but that she is also winning more followers among a growing minority of white women (Between 2004 and 2009, “giving birth at home increased 29 percent”).  Gaskin is a vocal critic of American maternity care.  She claims for instance that C-sections are often unnecessary, and that many women and babies die due to post-operative infections or hospital errors.  She believes that giving birth is a natural life experience, not a medical or surgical event.  The Farm -the property where Gaskin delivers babies, whose very name stresses the “natural” features inherent to the place – is more than an hour away from a top-level N.I.C.U ward in Nashville. Childbirth is the ultimate means towards female empowerment and should occur while “laughing joyously”, not whining or under sedation.   She belongs to the trend in feminism that views female idiosyncrasies as strengths rather than weaknesses: vaginal, unmedicated births are opportunities for transcendence and communion.

Although many of Gaskin’s ideas are inherently rational, they are also the symptoms of a utopian yearning, a desire to view nature as a pristine state of perfection whereof no evil could arise. Many of Gaskin’s followers, attempting to escape the anaesthetized comforts of modern society long to feel pain again. Viewing it as a regressive fantasy, it is precisely this idealization of nature Badinter finds so disturbing. Could we have forgotten Nature’s double edge, both nurturing and unsparingly destructive?

Since the Industrial Revolution the idea of progress has been synonymous with the exploitation of nature.  It is generally associated with liberal ideas. Conversely, ideologies valuing nature have often been channeled by conservative discourses such as Fascism: closeness to nature, physical work, deep-rootedness in the land, wholesomeness of the earth, idealization of a pristine past are some of its most common themes.

The crucial ambiguity of the new ecological movement hinges on the following:  it presents traditionally conservative themes like the idealization of Nature under the guise of a new progressive ideology.  It blurs the lines between Left and Right because it borrows themes and ideas both from Left and Right.  It denounces our society’s selfish, amoral, pleasure-seeking consumerism.  Industrialization, science and technology are viewed as man’s worst enemies.  Nature is admired for its simplicity and wisdom.   In “The Conflict”, Badinter is essentially alerting us to a complete reversal of values operated by ecology as a political doctrine: “rather than mastering and using nature to address human needs and wants, humans are instead called to submit to the laws of nature.” And what appears as a benign, fundamentally decent, politically correct discourse, may well be one of our future’s veiled threats, as it destabilizes the very foundations on which our world is built.  Our society, says Badinter in other words, is focused on unmasking the evil done by science and industrialization, but it is that very focus that may be the real threat.

So any calls to purity, to Nature and its “simple” laws, including the seemingly innocent one proclaimed by the talk show’s host mentioned in the beginning should be examined with prudence or circumspection, at the very least, as politically correct discourses of the sort could potentially morph into devious forms of conservatisms long vanquished by contemporary societies.  Elizabeth Badinter’s book should then serve as a wake-up signal alerting us to these disturbing deviations threatening to blur the lines between progressive discourses and reactionary ones.

Merci, Madame Badinter, for your intellectual integrity.

One thought on “Nature and its Discontents

  1. Dear Dr. Azagury,

    Thank you for your absolutely profound and out of the “local thinking box” analysis of the book. Indeed, we are products of the socio cultural environment in which we have been brought up and live. Your juxtaposition of some elements that have shaped the French and American cultures clarifies the different approaches of these two societies to the central issue in Badinter’s book, and explains the reasons for the criticism with which it has been received here.
    Elise (Alicia) Sisso Raz

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