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Is Natural Parenting Setting Women Back?

Taylor Hengen Newman

For Elisabeth Badinter, a French philosopher and the author of The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women, ‘natural parenting,’ and all it connotes, means throwing one’s equality and identity as a woman away. Stay-at-home-moms, in her opinion, are feminism’s worst offenders, but she believes all mothers who snub the ‘gains’ of the past century—epidurals, formula, disposable diapers, to name a few—are making a grave mistake that will haunt them once their kids are out of the house (or simply hit preschool), when they try, in vain, to re-establish their professional lives. In reading what she had to say in this interview, my mind's raising red flags all over the place; she oversimplifies the nature of parenting today, which is full of subjective grey areas each family must navigate for themselves. And frankly, I think her attitude toward women, and their choices, is far from feminist.

We’ve all met extremist moms who’ve lost touch with reality, along with their identities. They’re a go-to and often-referenced stereotype (seen Away We Go?) – one even self-described crunchy moms can laugh at – but they don’t represent the majority of parents making ‘natural’ parenting choices. Most parents who lean toward green also have that crucial ‘flexibility’ gene that parenting brings out in us as a matter of real-world survival. In Badinter’s world, however, all natural moms are of the cloth-diaper-or-die ilk, and they’re suffering for it. They’re “full of anxiety and guilt that they never do enough for their children,” she says. “And I find that incompatible with the desires of women today. The majority of women in Western countries want to have economic independence, too.”

Guilt and anxiety in parenting are definitely not helpful (though sometimes inevitable, for everyone, no?). But to ascribe pervasive negative feelings to all parents who—in this quote’s context—aspire to spend more time with their kids than, say, their own parents did, is ridiculous. Badinter assumes that parents are making natural choices out of some compensatory compulsion, and I think that’s an inaccurate generalization. Let’s give women some agency in their own decision-making processes, yeah? Is it possible parents choose to prioritize time with their children because they value and – *gasp* – enjoy it?

That Badinter sees women wanting to spend time with their kids, and parent more naturally (by which she means breastfeeding, making baby food, cloth diapering and so forth), as incompatible with the desire to earn money is also, um, not feminist. She paints a picture in which women MUST decide between the two, and in which the former is possible only at the cost of the latter, which doesn’t actually represent the range of choices available to moms (including breastfeeding, cloth diapering, etc. moms) today. To say that women’s desire to parent in a certain way conflicts with their economic aspirations denies women their (our) ability to find options that work for us, and create the full, balanced lives we imagine for ourselves.

For example, she says, “While we're waiting for biodegradable diapers to reach the market, I would choose disposable diapers [instead of washable ones]. Between the protection of the environment and the protection of the liberty and free time of women, my choice is made.” As it happens, biodegradable diapers have reached the market. I’ve used, and written about, them. I’ve also tried cloth diapering, to the detriment of neither my liberty nor my free time. Companies increasingly recognize (because women increasingly articulate) that moms want green options that stand up to busy schedules. If women stop believing they can have the best of both worlds, these kinds of options will cease to exist. Either/or dichotomies are not the path to progress. And progress continues to be made – in all spheres – because women continue to refuse to choose between unsatisfactory extremes.

Here’s another Badinter gem, aimed at stay-at-home moms: “Life expectancy keeps increasing—85 years for women. And taking care of kids is just 18 years. What do we do after that, when the children leave? It's much too late to be able to make a living in the workplace.” For a feminist, Badinter sure does harp on women’s limitations, does she not? On the one hand she’s pointing out how fleeting our time on active parenting duty is in the span of our entire lives, and on the other she seems to think it’s a significant enough block to bar women from doing anything of value afterward (or, hey, during). In reality today, people (men and women alike) change careers several times in their lifetimes. Many women create entirely new careers in the midst of parenting; I know one SAHM who became a craftsperson when her kids were in high school, and then put them through college by selling Christmas ornaments made of Sculpey clay (for real). Badinter’s arguments are particularly aimed at highly educated women who have promising career potential. Aren’t these, then, women who’ll have the required ambition and resourcefulness to create opportunities for themselves, even if they have taken time away to be mothers? My feeling now is the same as it’ll be when I’m 40-something, when Kaspar goes to college, or even 80-something: don’t ever tell me it’s ‘too late’ to do something with my life, especially under the auspices of feminism.

Badinter also argues that women are shortsighted in leaving their careers to have children, saying they won’t be able to re-establish themselves at the same level even just a few years later. If women feel they want to shift their focus to raising their kids, though, that’s their own decision to make. Financial reward doesn’t directly correspond with an activity’s inherent value, by any means. Having children often initiates a re-adjustment of priorities, in this respect, for moms and dads. (I know lots of dads who stepped off the professional gas – turning down promotions, traveling less, and so forth -- when their kids were born in order to be actively present in their lives). Before I had Kaspar, I worked in corporate New York, and was invested in my title, status, and so forth, even though most of it was pretty meaningless in the grand scheme. Once I had Kaspar, however, I traded my title for a more flexible, part-time position elsewhere, totally interrupting my resumé’s outwardly impressive trajectory. This move also initiated a successful writing career (something I always wanted to do, deep down), and I enrolled in massage school, on a whim (something I’d never have had the time or money for in New York). I owe the ongoing realization of my personal and professional dreams to motherhood’s 'negative' impact on my pre-motherhood career. I knew I wouldn’t be the mom, or the professional, I wanted to be if I continued climbing the corporate ladder. Valuing time with my child, and our lifestyle preferences, is what forced me to seek and create options that let me have the balance I wanted. My professional title just didn’t do it for me in the same way anymore. If some women want to work in corner offices, that’s awesome. If others want to be stay-at-home moms, that’s also awesome. Assuming that an inflexible, one-way professional track is either the only, or the most fulfilling, option available to women is not awesome. Or feminist. It’s outdated, at best.

Badinter hails from a country that boasts family-friendly policy, and affords government money to families based on how many kids they have (check out the details-- and look at the maternity benefits, too!-- here). The United States is, as far as policy goes, one of the worst places to have kids. (Read this book and you’ll see what I mean.) Natural Parenting choices like breastfeeding, however, are increasingly recognized as public health issues, rather than simply women’s issues; the AAP’s recently updated breastfeeding recommendations  are directed at women and workplaces alike. To assert that women undermine their own power and positions by making natural parenting choices because society isn’t conducive to those choices is all kinds of backwards. A recent study did show that women suffer economic loss in direct proportion to breastfeeding duration, but that’s on society, not women. Badinter’s totally missing that more women would probably balance careers with parenting if doing so were literally more possible and palatable, economically and otherwise. To suggest the solution to this quandary is for women to place less importance on family time, breastfeeding, and other parenting choices they clearly value doesn’t reflect an interest in our empowerment within society; it reflects a belief that women need to conform their own interests and desires to existing social limitations. Feminist? No. Sorry.

Speaking of breastfeeding (one of those ever-controversial natural parenting topics), Bardinter believes women should not feel forced to do it. I agree! Totally! But that breastfeeding creates a wedge between couples, disrupting their intimacy and tearing families apart? Um... she lost me at 'wedge'. She says, “If 24 hours a day the woman is reduced to her role as a nursing animal, even putting the child in the bed between the father and the mother, the father is completely put aside. I think this is very hard for men, and I think the child becomes a factor in the separation of the couple.” Although she claims to be concerned with mothers’ rights to satisfying sex lives, what I’m seeing here is an argument against breastfeeding, emphasizing the difficulties it creates for… men. Give me a break. Women have been breastfeeding since, well, forever, and couples have dealt -- or not dealt -- with the immense changes that having kids create in their relationships for just as long. This isn’t about about men’s versus babies’ access to boobs. Having kids challenges relationships; couples transition overnight from focusing entirely on each other, finishing thoughts, sentences and meals, and enjoying leisure time (and sleep) to, well, not doing those things. It’s hard! But natural parenting has nothing to do with how well a couple will or won’t cope with those changes. Parenting requires immense patience, flexibility and compromise, no matter how you slice it. We parent pretty naturally in our home, and my husband is absolutely a co-parent in this equation, rather than a by-stander. Our son lands in our bed, or we land in his, almost every night. Yet we have plenty of sex; our house has other rooms, and our days have many hours, beyond those designated for sleep...

Lastly, Badinter states that SAHM’s are essentially setting themselves up for ‘enslavement’ in the event that their relationships head South. But again, she’s talking about educated women who likely have the foresight and ability to get some earnings in the mix if they see their stable situations eroding. Choosing to stick with a work situation that isn’t meeting one’s needs (family time needs, or otherwise) as a safeguard against a family/financial situation that could happen, leaving other needs potentially unmet, is pointless. If being a stay-at-home mom feels right for a woman and is financially doable – and mutually agreeable -- for her family, should she refrain from doing so because her relationship could sour? Living in fear and making choices that don’t feel right in the current circumstances isn’t… practical. Or empowering. And wasn’t ‘anxiety’ one of Badinter’s main modern motherhood qualms?

Anyway, you know how I feel about natural parenting (options are a good thing—take your pick!), and about Badinter’s take on it all (NOT feminist). What do you think??? SAHM moms, I’m particularly curious about your thoughts on this one!