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The tyranny of the Good Mother

Why women are feeling more guilty, stressed and exhausted than ever

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The most recent salvo in the Mommy Wars comes, to North American eyes at least, from a most unexpected source.

It's The Conflict, a bestseller by French feminist Elisabeth Badinter, 68, a professor of philosophy who is recognized in France as a public intellectual. Badinter, who has three adult children, is also one of France's richest people.

The book's subtitle is How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women. Badinter argues the new "natural" motherhood -- natural childbirth, breastfeeding for as long as the child wants, co-sleeping -- has essentially made women slaves to impossibly high standards of child-rearing.

In recent decades, the definition of the 'Good Mother' has become broader. When she's in the delivery room she refuses an epidural. She breastfeeds on demand, co-sleeps with her child and uses cloth diapers. She may not go back to work soon after birth. She may not actually enjoy going back to work.

This expanding definition means women have upped the ante on themselves again and again. The irony is that the baby is the new "master in the home," says Badinter. And women have no one to blame but themselves.

"As everyone knows, there is nothing quite like voluntary servitude," Badinter says. "And men have not had to lift a finger to accomplish this fall. The best allies of men's dominance have become, quite unwittingly, innocent infants."

The tyranny of the Good Mother prevents some women from reaching their full potential. Others have been entirely scared off modern motherhood.

"What we see is that the phenomenon of childlessness is steadily becoming more widespread, particularly in English-speaking countries but also in Japan and throughout southern Europe," notes Badinter. "In 20 years, the number of childless couples in these places has doubled almost without anyone noticing."

More time spent with kids today

Badinter is not the only one questioning how the Good Mother is reshaping society and making women feel guilty, stressed and exhausted.

Glenda Wall, an associate professor of sociology at Wilfrid Laurier University who has studied the demands of intensive mothering on women, says Badinter isn't criticizing mothers. She's criticizing a culture that expects too much of women if they want to be good mothers.

"We have to start thinking about whether this is the way we want to live our lives," says Wall.

In 14 interviews with professional working mothers in southern Ontario, she found that a measure of Good Motherhood is the intellectual and cultural accomplishments of the children. Mothers basked in the approval they got for sacrificing everything and wilted when they didn't meet up to the standards.

One mother described the pressure she felt to make sure her child was not just smart, but smarter than other children. "(I felt like) I need to be providing her with 24/7 stimulation," she told Wall. "If I don't, she'll be lagging behind all the other kids."

Most mothers spend more time with their children today than they did 40 years ago when more women were actually stay-at-home mothers, says Wall.

The mothers she interviewed felt guilty they couldn't spend more time with their children. They felt guilty they couldn't spend more time with their spouses. They wished they had more time for themselves and for doing the things they enjoyed. And they felt guilty that they felt that way.

Some were resentful about expectations that they breastfeed for longer than they wanted to, or felt guilty about giving up breastfeeding. They spoke as though they were competing with other mothers. But the word "resentful" was rarely used.

"They talked about guilt. You can read between the lines," says Wall. "I question if these are the sorts of things we want for ourselves and our children."

Trend traced to mid-1940s

Wall traces the intensive parenting trend to the post-Second World War period. Until that time, advice for mothers was mostly about keeping children healthy and instilling good habits and self-discipline. After the war, parenting advice shifted toward the impact of maternal deprivation and psychological and emotional costs of neglecting children.

Parents were advised to interact more with their children and urged to "invest" heavily in their infant and preschool years. Pregnant women couldn't smoke or drink. Breastfeeding became one of the gold standards of good motherhood.

By the early 1990s, advice was focused on how a child's brain potential could be developed in the early years, says Wall. Not only is the Good Mother responsible for ensuring her child is clean, polite and healthy, but she feels guilty if she misses any opportunity to increase his intellectual potential.

The message to mothers is this: There's no way of knowing if the payoff of your intensified mothering will be worth it. You don't know if you spend more time with your children that they'll be smarter or more successful. So, as a mother, you have to hedge your bets and spend more time with them, says Wall.

"It added more and more layers. Mother's needs were buried under children's needs."

'Investment parenting' may not pay off

Recently, there has been some debate about whether brain potential truly can be expanded with early-childhood interventions, says Wall.

John Bruer, in The Myth of the First Three Years, argues research raises questions about the all-or-nothing approach to the early years.

Bryan Caplan, an economist at George Mason University in Washington, D.C. -- and father of four -- argued in his 2011 book Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids that "investment parenting" doesn't necessarily pay off big dividends as children move into adulthood.

He based Selfish Reasons on adoption research that showed identical twins grew up very similar in terms of intelligence, health, character and success, even if they grew up in different families. It's a triumph of nature over nurture.

Effort is a scarce resource, Caplan explains. If effort doesn't pay off, then refusing to invest in the effort isn't lazy; it's the wise conservation of a scare resource. Kids aren't like clay to be moulded. They're more like plastic that yields to pressure, but springs back to its original shape when the pressure is off. So, for parents, relaxing makes economic sense. "Focus on the stuff that gives you a pleasant experience," says Caplan, who favours "serenity parenting" -- laying off the sports practices and violin lessons and doing what you and your children like, even if that includes a little more television and video games.

"Just because other people are making it (parenting) an unpleasant chore doesn't mean it has to be that way for you," says Caplan, who has three boys -- the first-born were identical twins -- and a newborn daughter who is "the easiest baby we've ever had."

Mothers are own worst critics

Wall points out that, with intensive parenting, her research found it was usually the mothers who took the responsibility or the lead for providing the extra stimulation for children. Some mothers reported that their children's fathers were downright scornful of the advice from parenting gurus.

"If moms acted more like dads, it would be better for kids," says Caplan, who is in favour of "Ferberizing" babies -- allow the infant to cry for 10 minutes, comfort it briefly, leave, repeat if necessary. He calls his method "Ferber-ish."

"After three months of age, there is no biological reason for children not to sleep through the night," he says.

As for the social pressure to be a super-parent, he notes most pressure is internal. Mothers are their own worst critics.

"It's people's own sense of what is required," he says. "We would worry a lot less about what people think of us if we knew how little they thought of us."

Caplan concedes fathers get treated differently than mothers. When he took his twins out by himself when they were infants, strangers would behave as though he was a minor celebrity.

Kathy Buckworth, a Toronto-area mother of four, left a job in corporate marketing about 10 years ago. She's now working on her sixth book, I Am So the Boss of You, which looks at how corporate culture can be used in parenting.

Intense parenting is an idealized goal, says Buckworth, whose children are now 10, 13, 15 and 20. If women feel pressured into being the perfect mother, they're doing it to themselves.

"The problem is that there is a ripple effect, and it's bogging everyone down. So we're seeing the hockey-mom phenomenon. We see kids who can't cross the road by themselves until they're 17," she says. "We have become a child-centric society."

But Buckworth also feels the pressure is overstated. "Most of us feel we have a choice."

'Martyr mothering has its drawbacks'

Can bad mommies save motherhood? Perhaps.

About 40 per cent of French women refuse to even try breastfeeding, says Badinter. This places France second-last in Europe for breastfeeding and in the bad books of breastfeeding advocates. But at the same time, France also has one of the highest birthrates in Europe.

Pamela Druckerman, an American journalist living in Paris, wrote her observations about the difference in French parenting in Bringing Up Bébé: One American Woman Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting.

Among the things she noticed: French children were more likely to sleep through the night, they were less likely to interrupt their elders and more likely to try new foods. French mothers were less likely to spend time obsessively comparing parenting notes. And they didn't feel guilty about taking time out for themselves.

In an article for the New York Times that urged readers to heed Badinter's message, Druckerman argued that "martyr mothering has its drawbacks."

"French mothers don't love their children any less. But the dogma of attachment parenting -- which helped plant the fear of bottles and babysitters in American mothers -- never took hold in France. French moms believe it's unhealthy for mothers and children to spend all their time together, and that kids need a bit of distance to build autonomy and resilience."

And, as Badinter points out, "What are mothers supposed to do when their kids are grown?"

 

-- Postmedia News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 13, 2012 A12

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