attachment parenting

French Feminist: Natural Mommies Have Gone too Far

Think the “mommy wars” are the exclusive domain of America’s over-educated, suburbanites? Think again.

This week’s New Yorker profiles Elisabeth Badinter, a Jewish feminist with strong opinions about epidural-rejecting, cloth-diaper-embracing lactivists — and she doesn’t hail from Berkeley or Montclair. Badinter is French, and resides in Paris.

Stateside, where the policies that could have the greatest impact on the lives of mothers and children — paid parental leave and affordable childcare, among them — seem too politically cumbersome to tackle, it’s easy to understand how pain meds and diapers and bottle-feeding would become maternal diversions. It’s harder to understand in France. There, many of the major feminist battles, as they pertain to motherhood (if not to government representation and skirt-chasing spouses) have been won: Eighty percent of Frenchwomen work fulltime, paid maternity leave is mandatory, and daycare is heavily subsidized.

Still, France is apparently not immune to the mundane skirmishes that pit mother against mother. And Badinter’s tough assessment of her country’s recent parental preoccupations has made her an alternately esteemed and reviled figure.

In her latest book, Le Conflit: La Femme et la Mère, slated to be released in the U.S. in January, the self-described “ideologue” takes aim at “motherhood fundamentalism” — a movement, she said, “dressed in the guise of a modern, moral cause that worships all things natural.” She sees it as regression cloaked in ecology or, worse, in biology. (Badinter, a mother of three grown children, made a name for herself three decades ago by rebutting the idea that women are born with maternal instincts.)

“These young women, they’re being told to use cloth diapers; paper diapers aren’t ‘natural,’” she told The New Yorker. “For me, the epidural was a victory over pain. But they say no, they want to feel what it is to be a woman. Their idea is that if you’re not suffering, you have failed the experience of maternity.”

The profile’s writer, Jane Kramer, rightfully points out Badinter’s economic interest in writing Le Conflit. Her father — a Russian Jewish immigrant to France, who flew reconnaissance missions on behalf of the French Resistance — went on to become the founder of the global advertising and communications firm Publicis. Badinter is now the controlling shareholder for Publicis; and the firm represents the manufacturers of Pampers diapers and Nestlé baby formula.

Whatever Badinter’s motivation, and she says it’s not Publicis’ bottom line, her thesis, on one hand, provides a welcome counterpoint to the messages that have bombarded this nine-months pregnant Park Slope resident. On the other hand, despite Badinter’s insistence that all she wants is for women to exercise their choice when it comes to giving birth or feeding their babies, she comes off sounding as doctrinaire as the Brooklyn stroller mommies who equate epidurals and bottle-feeding with parental failure.

Gabrielle BirknerGabrielle Birkner is the director of digital media for the Jewish Daily Forward. She is also the founder and editor of the Forward's women's issues blog, The Sisterhood. Her writing has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, More, Moment, Haaretz and Women's Wear Daily, among other publications.

The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. Comments are moderated, so use your inside voices, keep your hands to yourself, and no, we're not interested in herbal supplements.

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