This past year, two significant feminists have spoken out against an increasingly popular trend in parenting. French philosopher Elizabeth Badinter says that today’s mothers are experiencing a “relapse to times long past.” American essayist Erica Jong writes that contemporary motherhood is like a “prison.” Are we truly experiencing a devolution in women’s liberty?
The trend in question, attachment parenting or, a similar variant, green-parenting, encourages mothers to breastfeed, make baby food from scratch, frequently carry them around in a sling, and to generally not be absent the first 3-5 years of the child’s life. Badinter and Jong both see this as severely restricting of a mother’s time. But that is not enough to warrant criticism. On their view, this trend is problematic insofar as it has become so popular and in cases so self-righteous as to eliminate alternate ways of mothering. Women are pressured to always be at their baby’s side, and if they’re not, then they’re made to feel guilty. In this oppressive environment, argue Badinter and Jong, mothers are likely to toss out their ambition with the bath water. In short, Badinter and Jong believe that the ideal for mothers today is counter to the feminist ideal of self-actualization. But is this true?
Not according to everyone. There are some who argue that being a mother is a political act. For instance, these mothers extol breastfeeding because by denying to buy formula, they are shunning consumerism and so sticking it to the man. Similarly, they reject the medicalization of birth, in which hospitals and pain killers alienate women from their bodies. For these women, being a mother is empowering because it allows them to take back control over something that they feel society has progressively taken from them: their bodies and their relationships to their babies.
Who is right? Badinter and Jong have us believe that in the current climate, motherhood keeps women from acting in the world, whereas the other school of thought tells us that motherhood can have a significant impact on society. Yet both sides argue that they are feminists fighting the good fight against oppression. In a way, this is an iteration of the age-old battle in feminism between defenders of women’s individualism and defenders of women’s ability to nurture others. It seems that the question of whether motherhood is liberating or not requires us to answer a deeper question: are we best defending women’s liberty by advancing their individuality or rather their woman-ness?