Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Conflict Revisited (via Alain de Botton)

Today, Alain de Botton, a writer and public intellectual whom I follow on Twitter, tweeted the following:  
Being a house husband is usually only as attractive to men as it is to the women whose respect they depend upon.
 As a thought experiment, I switched the genders around and wrote this down on a piece of paper:
Being a house wife is usually only as attractive to women as it is to the men whose respect they depend upon.
Hmm, I thought. Doesn't quite have the same ring. In fact, it doesn't work at all because in our culture the words "housewife," "attractive" and "respect" don't belong in the same sentence. Which got me thinking again about Elisabeth Badinter's controversial book, The Conflict. Not long ago, I was invited to comment on the book for the New York Times Motherlode blog, edited by KJ Dell'Antonia. Part of my comment ended up being included in a longer post Dell'Antonia wrote, which incorporated the perspectives of three stay-at-home moms. After reading De Botton's tweet today, I decided I would post my comment in its entirety here. By way of explanation, Dell'Antonia had asked us to consider the book in light of what she termed "The Eternal Internal Mommy Wars." I sent her my response in the form of an email.

Hi KJ,

You said in your email that you hoped someone would work Kate Chopin's
The Awakening into the discussion of The Conflict, and since my studies and degrees have been in English, I thought I should volunteer to use that angle as a potential conversation starter. You cite Chopin's book as evidence that the "conflict" between the mother and the woman, which is the subject of Badinter's book, is eternal. And I can see why you say that. Certainly, the heroine of The Awakening, Edna Pontellier—an upper middle class mother from New Orleans—is faced with a dilemma (or inner conflict) that would be familiar to many of us and still rings true, though the novel was written in 1899. Awakened by an unexpected attraction to someone outside her marriage, she gradually re-examines her life and and considers the options available to her, all of which she finds wanting. These options are represented in the novel by two key secondary characters: Edna's friend, Adèle Ratignolle, an example of what Badinter calls a “true mother,” who tells Edna that she must put her children's needs ahead of her own, and Mademoiselle Reisz, a pianist who is childless and though seemingly fulfilled by her art, is ostracized from society because of the path she has chosen. And, of course, the ending is bleak: Edna, seeing no satisfying resolution to her "conflict," drowns herself in the Gulf of Mexico.

So is the "conflict" of which Badinter writes, and which is the purported cause of the "mommy wars," eternal? Actually, I don't think so. Since the publication of
The Awakening, three waves of feminism have washed over us as a culture (though Badinter seems to consider the third wave largely reactionary). Surely they have had some tangible effect. I do think that the trope of the "natural mother" may be eternal (perhaps in a Jungian sense), but the degree to which that ideal affects individual women varies according to socio-cultural factors. For instance, as you point out, there is in fact no great divide between stay-at-home mothers on the one hand and mothers who work outside the home on the other. It is, as you say, a "continuum," with women crossing over from one side to the other as their life circumstances change.

But on this issue of the origin of the “conflict,” it strikes me that there is a contradiction at the core of Badinter's argument. On the one hand she seems to be saying that economic factors have led to a resurgence of the ideal of the "natural mother": since there are not enough jobs for all potentially employable women, the ideal has re-emerged as a means of both inducing a certain proportion of women to stay in the unpaid labor market (motherhood) and making them feel happy and proud to do so. But alongside this argument, and in tension with it (or so it seemed to me, while reading The Conflict), is a claim that the “naturalist” model of motherhood, which has emerged from essentialist strands in third-wave feminism, is itself to blame for women's new enslavement, whether they work outside the home or not.

For me personally, the socio-economic argument is more persuasive. At the time I got pregnant with twins, my career prospects in academia were grim, and since my husband's salary was sufficient to support us, it was not difficult for me to make the decision to stay home with the babies. (Badinter writes at one point, echoing the thinking of women influenced by the new ideal of motherhood: "How can you take proper care of a baby while you're writing your thesis?” I admit, those were my thoughts exactly!) Once at home I was influenced by the the new ideal of motherhood, in that I felt I had to be on top of every environmental threat (somehow I knew about BPA back in 1999, and ordered glass baby bottles over the internet in preparation for weaning), and involved in every aspect of the girls' care. But even for me, it was not a zero sum game. I accepted certain facets of the ideal and rejected others. I did not co-sleep or breast-feed on demand, though I did breast-feed for eleven months. As the girls got older, I rejected the idea that they had to be involved non-stop in enriching activities, and I encouraged free play instead—in part because it was far easier on me! I think what I'm getting at is that my "internal conflict" not only encompassed and acknowledged external factors, it was accompanied at every stage by a self-awareness (of choices available but not exercised, for instance) that was in part made possible by the three waves of feminism that have occurred since Chopin wrote her seminal (!) novel.

And this brings me to my main problem with Badinter's book (which I should note, I enjoyed reading and found to be full of interesting, thought-provoking propositions): her apparent assumption that mothers—both those at home with their kids and those who work outside the home—are afflicted by a debilitating false consciousness. In her discussion of the rise of "naturalism," for instance, she downplays the significance of science-based environmentalism and the very real concerns that parents share with non-parents about our species' survival on a degraded, warming planet. She also makes the claim that women who choose to have children often don't make the choice consciously or rationally, taking into consideration all the downsides with respect to career potential, romantic life, etc. Well, I did weigh the pros and cons, and I waited until I was 37 to have kids. Friends had told me "prepare to put your life through the shredder," and in some ways they were right. So I was forewarned and fully aware, but I made the decision to go ahead anyway. I love my kids to pieces, of course, but when it comes to having children, one can never know if one has made the right decision, because we can only ever see one of the two possible scenarios playing itself out. Similarly, I can never really know if I made the right decision to stay home with my kids for twelve years, which is why it has never occurred to me to judge women who've made different choices. And today, as I guiltily attempt to carve out more space for myself in an effort to revive a nearly-defunct career, I'm less inclined to judge than ever.