Best of 2012: Women chained to the human dairy farm

flickr image by hobomamaWomen have fought the long, hard fight, marching into battle with a baby tugging on one heel and a man hanging off the other. And while the man has largely loosened his grip, the baby — how can we blame it? —never will. Many women are still forced to submit, if not to patriarchy then certainly to maternal instinct. 

And in a somewhat cannibalistic response, their contemporaries have taken offence at those who dare to favour motherhood over career success.

Childbirth and breastfeeding — the only jobs that can still be done exclusively by females — are casualties of these destructive, so-called 'mommy wars', in which liberated women fight among themselves about which is the single best way of being a woman. These magnificent biological functions have spawned the new feminist battlelines: natural versus medicated birth, bottle versus breast, stay-at-home versus childcare.

Much like the educated women of the 18th and 19th centuries, who outsourced the 'distasteful' job of breastfeeding to wet-nurses, modern mothers are being encouraged to regard childcare as some kind of scourge, a shackle designed to hold them back from complete fulfilment.

Simultaneously, they are urged to attend to their appearance so that their visages are pleasing to their male counterparts: Botox, silicone, Brazilian waxes and intensive gym sessions ensure that women remain relevant in an appearance-obsessed world.

It's no wonder they find themselves torn asunder in an oedipal tug-of-war between those who demand their attention most: men and babies.

France's 'foremost feminist thinker', Elisabeth Badinter, claims in her book Conflict: The Woman and the Mother, that the frequent inclusion of babies in the conjugal bed quashes intimacy for the parents and freezes out the father. The act of breastfeeding, she says, has usurped women's sexuality and reduced them to the status of chimpanzees. And the La Leche League's ideological 'fatwas' are responsible for holding women back from professional success.

In short, the pleasure that women might derive from their own bodies, both sexually and in their maternal expression, is excised from this feminist argument; simply, they exist for the enjoyment of men rather than the nourishment of babies.

Badinter, who in an earlier book argued that the maternal instinct doesn't exist, interprets the trend towards long-term breastfeeding and natural parenting as an unfair competition in which the mothers who discard their careers and focus instead on their children are the winners, while those who outsource childcare and climb the corporate ladder are cast as bad mothers. An inversion, in a way, of 18th and 19th century French society, except that career wet nurses didn't have feminists speaking up on their behalf.

Her criticism extends to legislation that gives Western European women extended maternity leave, implying it deliberately holds women back in their careers and locks them into the role of an all-hours, mobile milk bank.

For Badinter, the rallying call for a return to breastfeeding equals a rejection of the feminist gains she and her peers fought so hard to achieve. Mothers, she fears, are being pressured by breastfeeding activists and essentialist feminists into making motherhood the core of their feminine identity.

But real life doesn't always dovetail neatly with socio-political theories: there are mothers who have worked and breastfed, mothers who have stayed home and bottle-fed, mothers who have done any combination or pure form of the above, and women who, through circumstance or choice, have not experienced motherhood at all.

There are women who rejoice in the ideal of being centrally defined as mothers, and those who work as mothers-by-proxy, providing childcare services to women who wish to fulfil their career ambitions. And while they are not well-paid, these women are secretly exalted, for childcare is truly worthy when the carer is being paid for her services.

Perhaps this devaluation of the role of woman as mother is where the real problem lies. Ultimately, arguments such as Badinter's are unconstructive; they simply replace the straightjacket of domestic subservience with one of career success, rather than encouraging women to identify for themselves a lifestyle that appeals to their own ambitions and instincts.

But in the US, millions of new mothers are heeding Badinter's call for a prompt return to work — not because they're radical feminists, but because inadequate maternity leave forces them out of the maternity ward and back into the office.

Jill Lepore, a professor of American history, laments the way in which the competing demands of family and career have increased the burden placed upon women and prematurely disjointed mothers from babies they long to feed. She says in a New York Times article that, in the US, 'Strenuous motherhood is de rigueur. Duck into the ladies' room at a conference of, say, professors and chances are you'll find a flock of women waiting ... for a turn with the [breast pump]. Behind closed doors, the nation begins to look like a giant human dairy farm.'

Lepore's view is diametrically opposed to that held by Badinter: breastfeeding mothers, she says, are being forced back to work too quickly and she fears that babies are beginning to experience the breast at a disturbing remove, via the pump and bottle rather than skin-to-skin contact.

While pumps are undeniably useful, they pose some difficult questions: is it the mother, or her milk, that matters most to the baby? Lapore fears that, with pumps now so sophisticated that they work 'less like pumps and more like babies', women are in fact becoming their own wet nurses.

While Australia can now boast universal maternity leave, Lapore raises a valid point: the herding of women into lactation rooms is one way of ensuring that messy women's business is kept out of the public eye. And one can't help wondering what Elisabeth Badinter would make of this regression to a shameful, secretive practice so redolent of centuries past.

Catherine MarhsallCatherine Marshall is a journalist and travel writer. Today is International Women's Day.

Topic tags: Catherine Marshall, International Women's Day, feminism



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