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The Neo-Masochism of Motherhood and Femininity

Elisabeth Badinter’s important and arousing polemic, The Conflict: How Overzealous Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women, is now out in paperback in the U.S.  Prospective mothers (as well as those who scratch their heads over 21st-century parenthood): You should read this book.

Whether or not you agree with Badinter, she is raising points that are largely muted in feminism, and need to be heard—because once you’re pregnant and have a baby, you’ll probably be confronted with peer pressure about motherhood that Badinter’s work will help you manage. You’ll encounter some people, hopefully not many, with inexplicably didactic, almost evangelical, philosophies about how to mother. Sometimes their voices can be so loud that they override your instincts and common sense, make you anxious, or just render your parental life less satisfying and joyous than it can be, and less of your own invention.

A prominent French feminist, Badinter courageously names the problem that she argues holds otherwise powerful and self-reliant women back: “modern motherhood.”

Badinter asserts that the women who benefited from their mothers’ efforts to expand education and career opportunities paid lip service of thanks and then insisted that once they became mothers, they’d do it differently, way better, and more obsessively. They’d crawl off and give birth without medication in a cave to prove their mettle, breastfeed until high school, wash cloth diapers by hand, grow and mash their own baby food with their very own feet, co-sleep with their children for years, all under the aegis of progressivism and the enlightened quest for perfect parenting.

There is a strange and malodorous alchemy of competition and neo-masochism in these standards.

Women define their worth as mothers by their ability to suffer, and to subordinate their multi-faceted subjectivity to a uni-focal emphasis on extreme mothering. The enjoyment of suffering that the term “masochism” demands comes perhaps from the competitive achievement of outdoing friends and acquaintances in maternal extremism. Remember that obnoxious Time magazine cover with the supermodel breastfeeding her long-in-the-tooth child, with the taunting headline, “are you mom enough?”

I was thinking about Badinter’s book recently while chatting with a woman whose sister was having her first baby. Her sister was adamant that she wanted natural childbirth.

There’s that word again.  I wrote a column about how the word “natural” allows a speaker—of any political stripe— to assert a strong ideology while appearing to do absolutely nothing of the sort. “Natural” disguises ideology in the garb of ahistorical inevitability. Yet it is a concept brutally cherry-picked by the machete of our prior convictions.

We should have great, vigilant suspicion toward “natural,” whether we’re reading the ingredients on a soft drink label (natural flavors!) or contemplating childbirth. (Incidentally, lest you think I’m questioning natural childbirth owing to sour grapes, having lost out in the masochism competition, I did have a 36-hour unmedicated labor and birth, owing to confusion as to my intention, a high tolerance for pain, and because I missed the window when an epidural might have been helpful. I didn’t vow to have a “natural” childbirth beforehand, and the fact that I did, I’m convinced, in no way impacted the long marathon that is parenthood).

In any case: My acquaintance’s sister had no particular rationale for tying the quality of her childbirth to an unmedicated experience of suffering.

Instead, one of her friends had seized on to the idea, and bragged about how she’d made it through childbirth without medication. Consequently, other women in the peer group wanted to do the same thing. It went viral as a gold standard of maternal “success” (another strange metastasis of the workplace into the home). The preference had as much to do with competition and the Keeping Up with the Janes style of 21st-century rat race motherhood as it did with zealotry.

Badinter observes that you’d have to go back to the 1950s to find an era where mothers were tied this closely to the home. She’s right, but as I point out in my book, you’d probably have to go back even further than that. At least the 1950s believed in Twinkies, television, aspirin, the cocktail hour, and vaccines.  But to find an era without medicated childbirth, extensive breastfeeding, co-sleeping, cloth diapers, home-grown food, arts and crafts amusements, lack of electronics or “screen time,” home schooling, an aversion to vaccinations, and a voluntary rollback of modern medicine, you’d have to go back to mid-1700s America.

We might provisionally extend the neo-masochistic mystique beyond motherhood, to other relationships.  A few examples:  The most insanely lucrative, bestselling fantasy of the age is an atrociously-written trilogy of sadism and female submission which, as the “bottom” line clearly proves, appeals to middle-aged women. Research finds that the more wives gain by way of salary and professional clout, the more they end up cleaning and scrubbing pans at home, doing more, not less, of the chores, and some argue that this expiates their guilt over their own power and earning clout.

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Freudian disciple Helene Deutsch theorized on “feminine masochism” in the 1950s, and was criticized by feminists for it in the 1960s, although her ideas were more complicated than the phrase suggests. Psychologist Phyllis Chesler cautions that charges of female masochism too often are just another form of “blaming the victim.”

Point taken. But in the standards of modern motherhood as Badinter describes them, the term neo-masochism still seems descriptive. In the new version, women enforce standards on other women, rather than being dictated to by men (at least not directly), and “compete” (just as they did before in classroom and career) to sacrifice, and sometimes suffer, more to prove their maternal devotion and mettle, with dubious effects for child, mother, and marriage.

Women, if you’re expecting a child, maybe the best thing you can do is surround yourself with other parents who are fun, laid-back, insightful, compassionate, non-didactic, and tolerant. Motherhood is not a masochism competition.


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