Motherhood: is it holding mothers back?

“The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women,” is the latest release of self-effacing mom lit, by prominent French intellectual Elisabeth Badinter. From her recent piece in the Huffington Post:

Today’s ideal of motherhood requires that we give birth in pain, without benefit of an epidural, since this robs us of our first act as a mother. We are enjoined to nurse for six months, a year, or longer, day and night, whenever our child wishes, regardless of the mother’s situation. We are advised to practice co-sleeping, at the risk of sending numerous fathers to the sofa. The good mother who wants the best for her child is urged to forswear processed baby food, which is eyed as a health hazard, and to avoid daycare as injurious to her child’s healthy development. With all of its demands, the naturalist ideal of the 21st century means that it takes a woman as much time and energy to raise two children as our grandmothers spent raising four.

We’ve heard these types of arguments before from Erica Jong and countless mothers before her. Frankly, I’m tired of it. Prescriptive parenting, whether pro- or anti-naturalism, is at the heart of the issue. As Badinter herself agrees, when we look to gurus, whose opinions change with the mood of the times, we lose our way. Believing that there is a right way to parent, especially when that way contradicts with your own instincts, is the real prison modern mamas are facing.

Badinter continues: “Daughters have reacted against the feminism of their mothers. Most of all, we have seen the return of a naturalist ideology not much different from that of Rousseau, which kept women at home for almost two centuries. Its message was simple: ‘Ladies, your duty and your great achievement is to make the adults of tomorrow. You need only look to the teachings of nature and devote your days and nights to the task.'”

I’m concerned by this idea that modern or attached motherhood is setting back the feminist movement. For me, and for many of my generation, the lasting gift of feminism is the right to choose what we do with our lives: the right to self-determination. Not the right to sit in a cubicle all day, then pick up our child from day care and call ourselves liberated. Not the right to hate your life as you wash cloth diapers and puree baby food because someone told you that’s what “good” mothers do. For me, feminism means choosing how we navigate motherhood, whether we dress Junior in cloth diapers, disposables or none at all. In other words, if it’s not for you, just skip it!

Now to the valid issue Badinter raises about mothers whose lives revolve entirely around mothering. “We …fail to remember that raising a child doesn’t last forever, that when children grow up we have thirty or forty years left to live. To make a child the alpha and omega of a woman’s life deals a terrible blow to women’s autonomy and to the equality of the sexes.”

I’ll start by pointing out that this issue – identifying so completely with a particular role, always has the potential to leave our worlds completely rocked. A close relative recently told me about the best job she had. She loved it – the work, the people, everything about it. And she was there for a long time. But then one day she was let go. And she swore to never again identify with a job so completely. Work is work, she said, and that’s all it is.

So maybe identifying so completely with one role, to the exclusion of others, isn’t just a pitfall of motherhood. It’s a danger of completely identifying ourselves with what we do, rather than who we are. The danger is identifying as anything but our true selves, whatever that means to each of us. As long as we stand in our own truth, we’ll make the best decisions possible – for ourselves, for our families and for our careers. And if the highlights of our lives change suddenly or over time, we’ll be equipped to ride it out.

Miriam is a self-described feminist who literally can’t stop kissing Dalia, her delicious 2 year old. Miriam’s other loves are her husband Misha, and escaping the Boston winters with friends and family in Israel. She loves reading parenting books, Iyengar yoga, crafting and helping others find their paths through life coaching.


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16 thoughts on “Motherhood: is it holding mothers back?

  1. I think I may have a new life mantra… “If it’s not for me, just skip it.” Thank you. Wonderfully said.

  2. It really gets my goat personally, the women who claim motherhood is a form of shackles when I see it as a sacred vocation. Having worked in the daycare industry, I see the impact it has on children and I feel that the choice to focus on a career instead of raising children personally should not be taken lightly. Everything has its price. To say that those who choose to take on the job that career-oriented women pay others to do for them is an insult to the work that it involves and the impact it has on the very children themselves. Devaluing what mothers (and women in general) do has been ongoing for centuries, why is it okay for women now to do so to each other as well? If anything, those that think this way are the ones who are limiting themselves still, believing that a woman only has worth if she is ‘playing with the big boys’ rather than doing what many women intuitively feel is their calling: to be dedicated mothers to their offspring. Why is it that the qualities that differentiate a woman from a man are seen as weaknesses rather than strengths (albeit different than a man’s but EQUALLY valid)? Is it because they are not valued in the current workforce? Not all women have an interest in spending their time and energy in accumulating status and wealth, but would rather consciously create a happy and comfortable home-life which is also admirable and VALUABLE.

    1. I absolutely agree! In Badinter’s piece, the reason she gave for mothers staying home to raise their children is that we view it as a “noble” pursuit. What about the joy, the magic of spending your days with a child who reminds you what it is like to see the world anew? Someone for whom you have unconditional love and gain joy and pleasure? Someone who stretches you to your limits, physically and emotionally, much as you’d experience running a marathon or climbing a mountain, to discover that you *can* do it? The act of loving in general and mothering in particular is incredibly healing. Love is the real point of mothering, not some far fletched quest for nobility.

  3. I have always seen feminism as the right to choose what our life looks like rather than having others choose for us. I worked for many years and then made the choice with my husband to stay home with my children. It is a choice I have never regretted nor ever felt put down for. I love it. I do not think every woman has to make the same choice I do, I also realize that for many women there is no choice, they simply have to work outside the home for financial reasons.

    I can’t believe that we are still debating this issue. I grew up with a mom who was taught to go to school, get married and have babies. She showed my sisters and I that that was not the only choice and went on to have a career that she still loves.

    As for putting our whole selves into raising our children, why not? It goes so fast and we never get that time back. I realize I’m more than just a mom, but I also know I am a better woman because of what I’ve learned as a mother. It’s an experience I worked hard to have and one that I feel so blessed to get too enjoy Thanks for a great post!.

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful reply! Putting our whole selves into mothering – yes! That’s when our best work is done, in any arena. But identifying our whole selves as mothers is the issue. When we see ourselves only as mothers, we are at risk of missing the forest for the trees. Motherhood is beautiful, and at times, all-consuming. But it’s valuable to take the time to step back and remember all of ourselves, and feed those other parts of ourselves that need our attention.

      1. Of course it is. But why is it assumed that if we put our whole heart into our jobs as mothers we can’t still retain ourselves? I’m a 46 year old full person with a lifetime of experience behind me. The 13 years I’ve spent as a mother to three children is not the whole of me, but it is a precious part of me that I fully enjoy. Thank you for your comment back.

  4. How ironic that Badinger insists that women are obviously too stupid to make up their minds themselves and just rely on prescripted dogma to lead (and imprison) us. The idea that we do what we do because we are guilted or tricked into it because an expert told us it is “right” is ridiculous and condescending. Attachment/natural etc parenting speaks to a lot of mothers and so we, as strong and ambitious women, set high goals for ourselves. The other side of that strength and ambition that we often forget is knowing your limits, and when to take a break from working towards those goals, not simply throwing them out/bashing them when it gets too hard. She offers no support which is what women need, not lesser goals (or the ones she thinks we should have)

    1. Yes, knowing your limits is crucial, whether at home or at work! And especially when balancing the two. We don’t have enough support in knowing when to say stop in this achievement-drive culture. Thanks for contributing this excellent point to the conversation.

  5. What I find irritating about the post and all of the ensuing comments is the unstated assumption that every mother has a choice whether to work outside of the home or not while raising children. This is simply not the case for the majority of mothers in this country. We may not be visible to you, but to believe otherwise reflects a limited world view in terms of privilege and socioeconomic status. To me, as a feminist, it is critical that we each own our relative privilege and recognize that it is not just a matter of “lifestyle” choice for most women. My income and the health care benefits that my job provide are crucial to my family’s survival, not just a nice bonus or reflection of my desire to put my career before my role as a mother.

    1. An excellent point. Yes, since the debate is whether motherhood is a feminist pursuit, I wrote the post about mothers who are choosing between family and career. But you are absolutely right, the majority of American and Western women must work in order to support their families. This, in itself, is another feminist issue – since we don’t have choice in the matter. Not to mention our feeble maternity leave policy in the US.

  6. Thank you for your post, a great read! I agree that people who seem to view being a stay at home mum as anti-feminist are missing the point. Thanks to feminism we now have the right to choose to work but this does not mean that every woman will want to choose work outside the home. Personally, I choose to stay at home and raise my son, not because it is the noble thing to do but because I haven’t found a job that I value more than looking after my son and this is what works for our family.

    You made a good point that our time at home with children is finite and it is important to retain a sense of self that extends beyond ourselves as mothers. This is something that occoured to me recently. I adore being a mother and devout myself entirely to the task but sometimes I need to remind myself that this is not all that I am. I am also a writer, my partner’s best friend and lover, a friend and an individual with my own interests that do not revolve around mothering. I wrote about this here ( when I realised that I needed to step back from attachment parenting and find a moment for myself to remind myself that I am more than just a mum, as much as I do love embracing motherhood.

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