Here is a very interesting critique of Elisabeth Badinter’s arguments on motherhood from Anne Manne in The Monthly. (I’m not sure for how long they provide free access to the article so read it sooner than later). I find some of the analysis a little muddled, but in essence I think Manne and I are in agreement, we both have concerns over the scapegoating of babies in the tensions women experience between motherhood and the patriarchy.
Whenever a cultural flashpoint occurs – and Badinter has clearly struck a chord – it is worth travelling upstream to find the head of the river. If the history of parenthood is a history of ambivalence, then where do we sit in the continuum? Ambivalence towards children is mounting. Last year Jennifer Senior caused a stir with a story in New York magazine, ‘All Joy and No Fun: Why Parents Hate Parenting’. It backed surveys showing that parents were less happy than their childless counterparts, a contention that Badinter also brandishes. Parents, Senior argued, might love their kids but they hated their lives. Life shrank to the size of a teacup. Everything turned to shit. Senior herself arrived home only to be pelted in the head with wooden blocks. She based her article on a Texan study which showed working mothers were happier doing almost anything other than childcare, even housework.
Recently I was interviewed by a feminist writer about my thoughts on where the resurgence in attachment parenting fits with feminism. I raised a number of challenges but I also higlighted what I see as harmonies between feminism and this style of parenting. There are two significant areas of overlap in my opinion. The first is that attachment parenting, at least in theory, is a style of parenting allowing women to perform parenting within their everyday lives. When babies are breastfed, co-sleeping and carried they’re potentially very portable. You can be caring for your baby while also getting shit done. In practice this isn’t always the case. The workplace, and public space in general, can be pretty child unfriendly and not every mother decides this is how she wants to live her life. But in theory it should be possible – women should be able to be full participants in life without being marginalised by their gender. And that’s feminism.
I think Manne believes the same to be true.
What is going on here? We all know of the women’s movement as one of the most important and compelling social movements of the 1960s. Less recognised is that another movement, one championing the humane treatment of children, was born in the ’60s. Like feminism, it has fearless and profound thinkers, passionate advocates as well as the usual crackpots. Unlike women, however, children cannot speak for themselves. As a consequence, the discourse bringing greater sensitivity and a new ethic of care towards children has emerged hesitantly, uncertainly, through the last century. It has run parallel to but is often overshadowed by the struggles over gender. Like feminism, it has at its core something deep and humane. It depends upon the same kind of ‘putting one’s self in the shoes of another’, of overcoming a sense of difference to extend our empathy, imagination and capacity for identification.
At its best, feminism is about justice. It calls us to a certain kind of attentiveness. So, too, is the movement for better treatment of children. Here lies ‘the conflict’. At the very same moment when we are offering women long-overdue opportunities, we also expect them to enact the new ethic of care, but with minimal help. One consequence of this conflict has been the revival of deeply flawed arguments about what is ‘natural’.