Stay-at-home, breast feeding, “naturalist,” and/or cloth diaper-using moms, be forewarned: the old guard feminists have it in for us, apparently.  We’ve set women back decades with our hippie earth mother garbage, and at least one French Feminist, Elisabeth Badinter, is actually willing to say so publicly.  In an article for Salon, Madeline Holler writes:

Sure, children have been ruining their mothers’ lives since we evolved from chimps. But what makes this snapshot in time so different, according to Badinter, is the fact that modern, emancipated mothers are so complicit in their own destruction. Lactating, co-sleeping, time off from work – that’s a bunch of “naturalist” mumbo-jumbo and a distraction from a woman’s duty to herself and a society that wants to see her as equal but can’t quite get past the milk stains on her blouse.

Men don’t need to keep us down, Badinter claims.  We’re doing the work for them.

For my part, I throw my lot in with Holler and most sane people:  What’s important is not what a woman chooses, but that she has a choice.  It is the perception of most women and feminists my age that the choice was the reward object of our predecessor’s hard work, not the privilege of being castigated by them for taking advantage of it.

Where modern women do undermine themselves is the constant questioning of their choices and allowing for an onslaught of guilt. No matter what we do, it’s wrong in someone’s eyes – so why do we take any of this criticism seriously? Instead of doing as we please and moving on, as Badinter praises French women for doing, we do as we please and then punish ourselves with guilt.

Maybe the bottom line is simply that wherever two very equal options exist, we will always perceive the one that is more difficult to obtain as having greater value.  Maybe old tropes about women are true:  We just want whatever we don’t have.

Holler ultimately concludes, more or less, that this is just the circle of life.  To us, our mothers are out of touch; to them, we are ingrates, intent only on doing the opposite of whatever they say, but ultimately, we’re just doing what we need to do in our time.

My mother and I both reacted to the demands of our time. In this book-length attempt to scold the young’uns for screwing up progress, Badinter, like others before her, fails to see that what her generation gave us were real choices.

She only sort of touches on the fact that it is currently more necessary to be a working mother than it used to be and that to be able to afford to stay home, not to have the privilege of venturing out into the world in a career, is the greater luxury.

Not at all subtly, as any mother who cannot afford to stay home will tell you, this is a pretty obvious class/income bracket issue.

The fact of the matter is that for most women, particularly those of the middle-middle class and below, giving birth in the current economy and job market where anyone with a job had better hold on to it for dear life, there still isn’t actually any “choice” between working and staying home and there never has been.

But this is seen as an economic, rather than a feminist, issue, and maybe that is the greatest travesty: Because actual choice exists for the microphone-wielding, yet not-technically-wealthy women of the upper-middle class (women like Holler), there is an illusion that the same choice exists for everyone.  As such, feminism is increasingly convinced that except for the very poorest of social classes, there is little more to be done but to stop bickering amongst ourselves about which among her bountiful options a woman should choose.

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Becky Palapala BECKY PALAPALA is the author of many unpublished poems, diatribes, and terse letters, which she holds captive in a homely tote bag in her bedroom. The poems that escaped can be found in online publication at Strix Varia, Paper Darts, and in other nooks and crannies of the internet. In 2008-2009, she served as a poetry editor for Ivory Tower. After an iliadic battle with higher education, Becky graduated with a B.A. in English Literature in the spring of 2010. She currently lives with her husband, daughter, and dog on the outskirts of the Twin Cities, where she pines for her rivertown home and attempts to befriend the rabbit that lives in her yard.

16 Responses to “On The Mommy Wars and the Illusion of Choice”

  1. Gloria says:

    I definitely don’t have the choice to stay home with my children, but if I did, I would do it in a heart beat – and they’re ten, not infants. And yes, this is about economics. To even be having this conversation implies that some sort of choice exists, and it doesn’t – not for a lot of us. Of course, I’m just repeating what you said.

    From a feminist perspective…this isn’t about feminism. This is about the fact that I have a finite amount of time to raise my sons into men. This isn’t about me. This is about them. It’s a humanist stance, not a feminist one. If I could stay home with my boys and raise them and quit sending them to daycare and be more involved with their school and be there to feed them snack everyday when they got home – it would be good for the group and not for the individual (though, it would ultimately benefit me as an individual). To imply that you have to be selfish to be a proper feminist is ridiculous.

    But, again, this is all moot because no such choice exists for me in the first place.

    • Becky Palapala says:

      It would benefit the individual in the evolutionary sense. If your being home helps your kids to be safer, more well-adjusted, more understanding (and therefor appealing to) the opposite sex or anything at all that might help them to live longer and procreate more, that’s an individual benefit to you because it acts in support of the perpetuation of your genome. Or half of it.

      In evolutionary (as opposed to psychological) terms, benefit isn’t a matter of feeling good or happy or fulfilled or anything like that. As far as evolution is concerned, our consciousness is just part of our genome’s human suit.

    • Ruby Roberts says:

      Well, it bloody well should, Gloria. I agree. This isn’t necessarily about feminism. I don’t care if it’s mum or dad making the snacks. It’s the fact that it’s not an option for so many people.

  2. Richard says:


  3. Erika Rae says:

    Note to self: milk stains on blouse…not sexy.

    The “guilt” part of this is interesting. I definitely feel it. When people ask if I stay home with my kids or work, I always answer very rapidly, “I stay at home with them…but I work from home, too.” Somehow I find the need to explain that I am not *just* a mommy at home all day ankle-deep in playdough and diapers, as if that’s a bad thing. Truth is though, I’m often so scattered trying to do both that I do neither well. And if my answer was that I went to an office all day I’d feel guilty, too. There is no right answer for the American woman. Sad, really. Pah. I want to be French.

    • Becky Palapala says:

      Well, right. Exactly. It’s a damned if you do or don’t situation. Mostly because, I think, it tends to be so one way or the other for most people.

      Women find themselves in a situation where they’re either home all the time or at work all the time, just because practical considerations conspire to make it that way.

      If you need day care at all, you need to make enough money to pay for it, so part-time work, which seems to me like it would feel the most balanced, is sort of self-eliminating.

      Honestly, I don’t know if I could handle being home full-time. I’m not a super nuturing person (shocker) or someone who really gets off on the daily business of being a mom. But I do feel like the conversation surrounding SAHM vs. Working Moms is taking place on some other planet most of the time.

      Some planet where all a women needs to do is CHOOSE to be home. Maybe sacrifice a mani-pedi or something. Shit, man. I’d have to give up eating.

    • JJ Keith says:

      I have much the same situation as Erika: I wasn’t clearing enough dough as an adjunct to pay for childcare for two wee ones, so I stay home and freelance my butt off to try to make up some of my lost income. I also do the same “I stay at home with them…but I work from home, too” hemming when people ask what I do.

      Though there are problems with Badinter and Jongs clucking about Moms Today, there’s a fundamental point that I agree with. I watch a lot of moms here in Los Angeles obsess over parenting in a way that fills every nook and cranny of their inner world. I love my children ferociously and enjoy the many hours we spend drawing letters in the dirt or going to the zoo, but with equal ferocity I preserve my intellectualism and independent self. I do this with a lot of prepared meals from Trader Joe’s, an equal parenting buy-in from my husband (when he’s with my kids I neither henpeck him nor race to Facebook to post, “ZOMG! My kids have the best dad!”), and a refusal to pursue perfection or obsess over methodology. If you can shut out parenting rhetoric tightly enough, co-sleeping can become That Thing That Happens When Your Kid Prefers To Sleep In Your Bed and not a moral or class signifier. In other words, the problem is not Attachment Parenting, but Attachment Parenting message boards.

      • Ruby Roberts says:

        “If you can shut out parenting rhetoric tightly enough, co-sleeping can become That Thing That Happens When Your Kid Prefers To Sleep In Your Bed and not a moral or class signifier. In other words, the problem is not Attachment Parenting, but Attachment Parenting message boards.”

        That’s so fucking funny! And so fucking true! That’s a mini-blog right there.

      • Becky Palapala says:

        Extremely important points there, not just about the consequences of naming our choices (suddenly there’s an “us” people and a “them” people) but about the impact of “communities” (and the accessibility of such communities when the internet is involved) which easily (inevitably?) become cults or cliques.

        I sort of wonder if this places an insurmountable roadblock to understanding between generations of feminists. Would be interesting to think more about that.

        I’ve certainly found a great deal of information on message boards and been relieved they’ve been there in some of my more paranoid moments, but I’m also frustrated by it. 30, 40 years ago, I would have assuaged my fears with a call to my mother. Or a doctor. Someone who may represent just one perspective, or who may represent, mercifully, one perspective.

  4. As a child psychologist and a mom, I’ve spent lots of time discussing what I think is “wrong” with our generation of parents (myself included). Here’s one of the biggest differences that I think exists and that is that we are the generation who have all been to therapy and blame our parents for our mistakes. So, when the table is turned and we have children of our own, we are terrified of “damaging” them in the way we feel our parents “damaged” us. I’m pretty sure this is responsible for much of what Badinter discusses in our current trends. I talk more about what is wrong with us here:

  5. Ruby says:

    I ummed and ahhed about this comment because I thought people might might feel I am ‘rubbing their noses in it’ and get mad. I’ll say it anyway… I feel very lucky to live in Australia when I read stuff like this. Our tax system is set up so that families on lower incomes can have one parent home, or at least working only part time. We have a family tax benefit, another ‘income’ if one parent wants to stay home. I know a few women who chose to work part time and quite a few who stayed home. As a single parent I stayed home full time – we get a pension here, but then I worked full time because the government of the time was talking about phasing the pension out and I didn’t want to be locked out of the job market it that happened.

    Now my son is at school, I work part time. My partner also works part time from home. We drive a dinged up old car and buy second hand things, but it’s totally do-able. I know our minimum wages are much higher than yours – the pay-off is, we pay higher taxes and there are less jobs so we have much more of a welfare state than you guys do. A lot of the more right wing pollies want to get rid of this two-tiered system and drive the wages down – yes, we would have more people employed but life would be a whole lot shittier. So the situation you guys are in could so easily be us in a decade.

  6. Ruby Roberts says:

    I hope you’re right but I’m not so sure, Kate. All I know is, I feel very lucky to have a choice to work part time, or even not do paid work (as if looking after children is not hard work!).

    No doubt in some more expensive parts of Australia, a full time double income is probably necessary – but then I tell myself, ‘Well, those families choose to live there and pay that exhorbitant mortgage’.

    We all can choose a pretty comfortable lifestyle here. I mean I have a pretty good life, I think, but we are conscious of our spending. I hope that Aussie politicians look at what happened in the States and make wiser choices. I also hope that the tide turns for people living over there. It sounds like it’s an absolute shitfight for a lot of people. This really unregulated economy has proven disastrous for parents. Here’s hoping things improve foe everyone and Australia doesn’t ever take that path.

  7. Ruby Roberts says:

    Also, our population is much smaller than the US, so of course it’s much easier to manage – particularly as most of us pay a pretty generous amount into the public purse.

  8. Becky Palapala says:

    It used to be the case, when the U.S. economy was even less regulated, that a single income was sufficient completely without any governmental support. Generally prior to the sexual/cultural revolution of the mid-to-late 60s.

    There are certainly those who would argue that increasing government intervention in the U.S. economy actually caused this turn for the worse and that it has been on a slide ever since, leaving heavy taxation and social programs as the only solution to a problem caused by government solutions. That is, there is the argument that greater governmental involvement is self-perpetuating. The more involved they are, the more they must be, and that we are snowballing towards utter dependence on the state.

    What’s that demotivator I saw? “Government: If you think the problems we create are bad, just wait until you see our solutions.”

    Anyway, I’m not an economist, let alone a forensic economist, so I’m not going to go there. Politics are not really at the crux of my argument anyway. Something in the way I’ve worded it seems to be making people think I wanted to emphasize the economic component, but that is the opposite of what I wanted. I wanted to emphasize the feminist part of it, and the idea that much of feminism is woefully out of touch with most women.

    I don’t know WHY it is this way from an economic standpoint and frankly I don’t have any interest in fighting about it.

    I just want to make sure that people, and especially women, realize that the luxury of the SAHM vs. Working Mom debate is reserved for only a small group. For the rest of us, it is not an intellectual game or a moral/ethical/feminist/generational pissing contest, it is simply Whatever We Do To Do Our Best, and the continued emphasis on who is right looks more and more like a betting ledger over whose kids will get into the better private school. Totally alien and not a conversation most women can even identify with.

  9. Ruby says:

    I also wouldn’t want to get into an argument about economics, but I will say this: the way things are for mothers in the US totally sucks balls, but it’s not how it is for mothers in most countries where there is a reasonable standard of living. I have a friend who works teaching English to sex workers in Thailand and she said over there quite a few women leave their kids on fanily farms with grandparents and only get back home to see their kids a few times a year, if that – they can’t afford to spend any more time with them.

    I think you guys have been given a complete bum deal, whatever the reason. Possibly doing it through the tax system works well in Australia and much of Europe because the economies are smaller. All I know is that the capacity to stay home where I live us not a class issue – most mothers can stay at home if they choose. Actually, I think it would be the more affluent mums here who might be locked out of the debate. I’m not trying to have a contest over which country is best, I swear.

    There are so many feminist organisations like the one my friend in Thailand works for, campaigning for a more humane life for women. These women believe all families should have the right to choose a stay-home parent. They are already aware that this luxury is not available to all women. It is very much a feminist issue. As you know, feminism itself can be broken into so many categories.

    I’m writing this on my phone so here’s hoping it’s not a garbled mess! I agree with you that the ‘mummy wars’ are beside the point.

    Anyway I hope your government or someone can sort things out a bit better – this should be a choice for all women, regardless of income.

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