“Gender equality is linked to the role we give to motherhood,” said Elizabeth Badinter after the release of her book “Conflict” two years ago. It’s recently been translated into English, which is why I’d like to talk about motherhood, in part because it’s causing a lot of debate in the US, and also because we’ve just celebrated Mother’s Day – or “a celebration of capitalism” as my rugby-player son of 18 describes it, conveniently giving him an excuse for having forgotten to buy me a gift, showering me instead with bear hugs and sloppy kisses!
Badinter goes a bit far when she claims “that macho men succeed in continuing to dominate women with children by instilling motherhood guilt.” She speaks of “voluntary servitude”, where the man’s place at the head of the family has now been replaced by the child’s. It’s true that it’s mainly mothers who are victims of perfection when it comes to motherhood. It starts with pregnancy: no more smoking, drinking, or working too hard, as it might harm the baby; you must go for natural childbirth (especially if you suffer) ; it’s better to breastfeed; prepare home-made organic dishes; feed them on demand; be attentive to their every need (and desires too?), support their intellectual, physical and emotional wellbeing. In short, forget you’re a person, let alone a couple! I find these ideas a bit exaggerated, that said, they’re extremely thought-provoking, as it is always the case with Elisabeth Badinter, whose ideas make us question ourselves.
Is our female identity associated with motherhood?
You would think so, given the negative response women who don’t want children get, or the compassion towards those who can’t have children, receive! Ever since we’ve had a choice, motherhood is seen as the Holy Grail. The ultimate and essential step for self-development. The masterpiece of a lifetime. But, if we delve deeper, you’ll find that those countries who strongly value the virtues of motherhood are those with the lowest birth rates. Let’s take for example Germany, Italy and Japan, three countries where mothers are put on a pedestal: child support is virtually non-existent (because their societies believes it is a mother’s duty to stay at home) and parental roles are completely imbalanced. It’s no surprise that being a good mother is perceived as a full-time job! In such countries, women first dedicate themselves to their education, then to their careers and, only as late as possible in life, to motherhood, and then only having one child. In such societies, the female rate of activity is rather low because mothers leave the workplaces or greatly reduce their working hours, and the birth rate is extremely low too! It’s as though women are saying, “As being a mother is so demanding and self-sacrificing, I’m only going to have one child, and only be a mother!”
Motherhood is a part of our identity only if we choose it to be.
The sacrificial mother, which goes hand in hand with the “king child”, is equally harmful for our own personal fulfillment, the happiness of our couple, as well as for the economy and the collective wellbeing. Motherhood is a part of our identity only if we choose to become a mother. It’s not the basis for our identity, just as infertility (or not having children) is not the failure of our femininity; you can be one without the other. I would even go as far as to encourage mothers to first develop themselves (emotionally, socially and professionally) so that they can give their best beyond motherhood.
First, rebalance parental roles, and give equal importance to the father and mother: second, stop assuming it’s the mother who’s going to take on most of the parenting, and third, stop stereotyping and get away from cults who believe in maternal perfection; only then will we empower fathers and liberate mothers.
We’re good mothers because we aren’t perfect and by accepting we’re not perfect we’re also giving our kids a wonderful gift: accepting them for whom they are!