Meanings of Words, Psychology

Motherhood: To Be or Not To Be Should Remain the Question

maternal myth

“Surely all women must have a maternal instinct or the human race would die out.”

–Gillian Rossdale

Modern Motherhood & Maternal Myth

Elisabeth Badinter‘s 1982 book, The Myth of Motherhood: An Historical View of the Maternal Instinct” is one of five books she has written that challenge the maternal myth surrounding women lives. It’s forerunner, published in 1980 was “Mother Love: Myth and Reality: Motherhood in Modern History”. In addition to being an author and considered one of the leading feminist intellectuals of Paris, she was also featured in Forbes magazine as a billionaire after inheriting 19 million shares of Publicis Groupe, a public relations company. Her 2010 book, The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women was a topic of hot debate after it became a bestseller in Europe.

According to an article in the New Yorker, she believes that young women are undermining the progress they’ve made in achieving a degree of social, political, and economic equality. The maternal myth is a social construct in which women’s primary value lies in their accepting complete responsibility for child rearing. Her concern is that the resurrection of that myth in modern form will result in a loss of life options for women, including the option not to become mothers at all.

She refutes the importance of the scientific findings of anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy regarding the role of hormones in determining maternal behavior. Similarly, she also questions many of the benefits of breast-feeding, such as increased immunity and potential for increased cognitive development. Neither does she believe that breast-feeding is a necessary element for mother-child emotional bonding. Further, despite our genetic similarities with the primate world, she does not believe that the results of studies of primate behavior translate to human society.

Badinter uses the phrase “motherhood fundamentalism” to describe the development of a new maternal myth in which mothers are all-important in child development. She regards this idea as having originated in the West in response to economic hardship, and supported by the religious right until it became a socially contagious cult. In an article in the Globe, she likens the modern version of motherhood to

“spending all day in the exclusive company of an incontinent mental defective…”.

While her style may alienate many mothers, her level of concern that women’s rights to financial independence and a social identity separate from motherhood is evident.

A piece in The Nation seems to confirm Badinter’s belief that a right-wing backlash against many of the modern conveniences that contributed to women’s freedom originated in America. It points out the maternal myth that childbirth imparts parenting skills rather than the reality that parenting skills are learned. Most American parents live in a different city than their parents and many have no childhood experience with infants. The large number of immigrants also points to a lack of traditional transmission of parenting skills from generation to generation. This phenomenon makes American parents more susceptible to manipulation from child care “experts”, who often present conflicting advice that results in guilt, rather than improved parenting skills.

Badinter uses some disturbing statistics to challenge the maternal myth that childbirth results in maternal love. She makes the point that the pendulum of modern society has swung to the opposite extreme– from not valuing children’s lives at all, to valuing them more than the lives of women. For example, in 1780, wet nurses outside the city cared for 19,000 of 21,000 infants born in Paris, and that more than half of them died before they reached their second birthdays.

In response to the assertion that mothers did not bond with their children due to high infant mortality rates and fear of losing them, she counters that perhaps

“It was not so much because children died like flies that mothers showed so little interest in them, but rather because the mothers showed so little interest that the children died in such great numbers.”

Those same statistics show that the children who remained with their mothers to be breast-fed were twice as likely to survive.

At the heart of her arguments lies the belief that neither children’s lives, nor the ecology, should not be valued more than women’s lives. As the mother of three grown children herself, in her view, modern inventions such as bottle-feeding and disposable diapers make it possible for motherhood to be just one aspect of a woman’s life, rather than consuming it completely.

One common criticism of Badinter’s books is that many view her devaluation of the maternal myth as devaluation of motherhood itself. However, most agree that the concept of motherhood has been often been subject to sentimentalism and maternal myth. That sentimentalism is most evident when society states that motherhood is the most important job in the world, yet provides no financial compensation or social support for mothers doing this valuable and important work.

Despite its benefits to society, the work of raising children remains largely a labor of love. So long as the number of mothers and children living in poverty continue to rise, there will continue to be a need for voices that advocate for a greater number of options for women’s lives.

maternal myth
Mother and Child in a Boat, by Edmund Charles Tarbell
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