Is the cult of perfect motherhood killing us?

A French author makes the case for ignoring the kids and lighting up a smoke

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published March 22, 2010 8:07PM (EDT)

Was Betty Draper on to something? A controversial French best-seller takes on the cult of perfect motherhood and says that women should feel free to chill out, heat up a bottle of formula and, if they are so moved, fire up a Marlboro. In a Sunday Times UK profile of Elisabeth Badinter, author of "Le Conflit, La Femme et La Mère (The Conflict, The Woman and The Mother)," writer Adam Sage meets the woman who provocatively says, "The baby has become a tyrant despite himself."

Frankly, if you've ever been around babies you know they've always been tyrants – it's just take, take, take with them and their needs to be fed and cleaned and kept alive. But the mania for perfect motherhood is a problem imposed by grownups, one that gives up every mom a new way to fail every day of our kids' lives. Did you breastfeed for less than a year? Give them gender-stereotyping toys? Microwave their chicken nuggets in a plastic container? Please, let Caitlin Flanagan explain why you suck in a lengthy essay. 

Badinter is spot on to advocate that women keep on being women when they become mothers – women who can move comfortably between sex, work and a nicely chilled glass of sauvignon blanc. And when she says, "It may seem derisory but powdered milk, jars of baby food and disposable nappies were all stages in the liberation of women," the 66-year-old grandmother is speaking honestly about a revolution that has been a tremendous benefit to working mothers of today. Moms don't need to be guilt tripped every time we lower a bar that permits us to leave the house now and again. Or as a friend once said, "As long as there are jars, I will be there to open them."

But where Badinter starts to go off the rails is when she says that she doesn't buy the "1001 claims in favor of breastfeeding" or shrugs that the French have "always been mediocre mothers, but we’ve tended to have happier lives." Plenty of devoted mothers actually do have happy lives.  Badinter seems to have overlooked the possibility that nurturing may not be an instinct all women share, but for many, the challenge is still a joy. She also ignores the possibility that fathers can parent, too. Don't want to be held to the drudgery of pureeing organic apples and changing those hemp diapers all day? How about involving your baby's dad in the process? When she says that motherhood "shuts the sexes in different circles," maybe the solution isn't just storming into men's -- but likewise inviting them in to ours.

The author declares that, "Between the protection of trees and the liberty of women, my choice is clear," but the question that raises is – why shouldn't we aim for both? We'll fall short a lot, and that's OK. Our children – whose physical and emotional needs, by the way, Badinter blithely sidesteps in her interview, deserve loving parental attention, nutritious food, and a clean planet on which to grow up. We mothers can't provide it for them by ourselves. We all have to step up – fathers, friends and family – if our kids are to have healthy, happy childhoods. But Badinter is correct that we can't always save the world and ourselves. And sometimes, the best thing we moms can do for our kids is let somebody else take care of them a while so we can grab a nap -- or even a drink.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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