The Regulation of Motherhood: Good mothers, bad mothers & feminists

Lots in the media lately about motherhood, following publication of Elisabeth Badinter’s The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood undermines the Status of Women(publisher’s blurb:

In the pathbreaking tradition of Backlash and The Time Bind, The Conflict, a #1 European bestseller, identifies a surprising setback to women’s freedom: progressive modern motherhood.  Elisabeth Badinter has for decades been in the vanguard of the European fight for women’s equality. Now, in an explosive new book, she points her finger at a most unlikely force undermining the status of women: liberal motherhood, in thrall to all that is “natural.” Attachment parenting, co-sleeping, baby-wearing, and especially breast-feeding—these hallmarks of contemporary motherhood have succeeded in tethering women to the home and family to an extent not seen since the 1950s. Badinter argues that the taboos now surrounding epidurals, formula, disposable diapers, cribs—and anything that distracts a mother’s attention from her offspring—have turned childrearing into a singularly regressive force.   In sharp, engaging prose, Badinter names a reactionary shift that is intensely felt but has not been clearly articulated until now, a shift that America has pioneered. She reserves special ire for the orthodoxy of the La Leche League—an offshoot of conservative Evangelicalism—showing how on-demand breastfeeding, with all its limitations, curtails women’s choices. Moreover, the pressure to provide children with 24/7 availability and empathy has produced a generation of overwhelmed and guilt-laden mothers—one cause of the West’s alarming decline in birthrate.”)

Some of the media reaction just feels like baiting (Time magazine’s Are you mom enough cover, for instance).  What, had the so called mommy wars died down so much that the media was compelled to light a match? The New York Times put the issue on its Room for debate page under the headline “Motherhood vs. Feminism“, with gems like “…the present feminist climate pressures women to work,”

After reading that, I became convinced that the whole “issue” is a desperate attempt to distract feminists from something really important that’s happening.  Like, say, inequality,  wage stagnation, lack of good jobs, and the persistent failure to close the wage gap.  Or maybe they were worried all the focus on inequality was edging dangerously close to thinking about class and race seriously, so they had to put us back into more familiar territory.

Anyway, I’m too busy to read these kinds of so called debates, seriously, I have kids!  The endless capacity to judge harshly is particularly devastating in these kinds of contexts, though.  These people need to read some Joan Williams (her book, Unbending Gender: Why Family and Work Conflict and what to do about it” and great article available on SSRN (open to all) Implementing Anti-Essentialism: How Gender Wars turn into Race and Class conflict).  Who else should we be reading on this?  There is a NYT oped which makes a similar point (focus on the conditions of work, not motherhood, will produce a very different set of ideas).

Anyway, along the same lines the NYT Mag did publish an amazing and terrible story,The Criminalization of Bad Mothers, it’s definitely recommended reading.

Personhood advocates regard fetal rights as a civil rights issue, and they often compare themselves to abolitionists. “I think it would be unequal protection to give the woman a pass when anyone else who injects drugs into a child would be prosecuted,” Ben DuPré, director of Personhood Alabama, said. “What it boils down to is, aren’t these little children persons?”

And to cap off, this morning, Joanna Birenbaum of LEAF sent me a link to this article, Bei-Bei Shuai released from Jail and the Politics of Motherhood (Slate) which details another kind of tragedy in Indiana.

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