Weekend Reads: The Choice to Stay Home: No Pressure

By KJ DELL’ANTONIA

MOTHERLODE BOOK CLUB

THE CONFLICT

Elisabeth Badinter’s “The Conflict” argues that the modern natural-parenting movement undermines women.
Motherlode has asked women at different stages of their family and career lives to respond to Elisabeth Badinter’s “The Conflict” by describing how reading it has affected their views or plans for work and motherhood. The following is a continuation of an ongoing conversation.
No one parents in a vacuum. The Motherlode Book Club’s current read, “The Conflict,” seems to say, though, that parenting is all about the impact of culture and society, with little left to personal choice, and not much shrift given even to circumstance. The author and French philosopher Elisabeth Badinter argues that the powerful influence of attachment parenting (breast feeding, co-sleeping, cloth-diapering and the constant call for a nurturing, enriching maternal presence) effectively pushes women out of the workforce: motherhood as the new sexism, and the opposite of parenting in a vacuum. Call it Borg-parenting, as mothers rush to conform to the uber-mom ideal.
Room for Debate asked debaters to consider whether that supposed obsession with perfect motherhood has destroyed feminism. There, Mayim Bialik argues that attachment parenting is feminism, Pamela Druckerman notes the drawbacks of “martyr mothering” and LaShaun Williams provocatively agrees that attachment parenting has indeed damaged feminism — and “good riddance.” If anything,” she notes, pouring oil on the flames, “the surge of June Cleaver 2.0s is a great reminder to career-driven mothers who may have forgotten that family comes first.”
I asked readers of “The Conflict” to consider not how the book could be used to bolster our existing views of how others should parent, but how it affected their own decisions and thoughts about their personal experiences of work and family. Did it, I asked, make you rethink how influential outside forces were on your, and your partner’s, decisions about how to balance home and career?
Three readers who might be expected to resist Ms. Badinter’s arguments most strongly — themselves at home with young children — read “The Conflict” as an invitation to defend, not their choices, but their ability to have made them in the face of, instead of concordance with, social pressures.
Jennifer DeLeonardo, from “the center of the natural-parent universe” in Park Slope, Brooklyn, questioned the very premise of “The Conflict.”
I worked until my son was 15-months-old, she wrote, “I chose to stay home with him:
I did not feel pressured to stay home and purée organic baby food. I did not feel I had to quit my job once I was a mother; in fact, my law firm was willing to and did make many accommodations to make the situation work for me. I quit because I wanted to be the one who understood my child’s garbled early blather, see the manic giggles he gets at music class, watch his eyes light up when he discovers something new and know what he’s looking for when he runs off for his toy bin after hearing a certain word. I didn’t want it to be the nanny who got to see these things.
So, rather than being a brainwashed mother shackled by her wailing infant and societal expectations to be a perfect natural mother, you could say I am a woman who made a selfish choice (I also think my son has benefited from my being home with him, but probably only marginally; our nanny was pretty great). Is Ms. Badinter’s perfect world one where we all get epidurals and go as far as possible in our careers? I struggle to understand how a world where women are compulsorily shackled to their office desks simply because they now have access to previously male professions is so superior to one where women were restricted to the home. Then I would just be a slave to my education and job training rather than a slave to my family.
If anything, Ms. DeLeonardo found the societal pressures to be the opposite of what Ms. Badinter described. “Between my grandmother’s constant ‘you’re a lawyer, go get a job and stop playing with the baby,’” she wrote, “and friends’ polite ‘Oh, that must be sooo nice, you’re home with him’ said in a forced genuine tone and inevitably followed at some point in the conversation with a ‘Do you ever get bored just being at home with him all day?’ – I feel like I must constantly justify ‘wasting’ my years of education and ‘throwing away’ my high-paying job.”
From North Carolina, near Camp Lejeune, Marine Corps Reserve Maj. Erin Gianopoulos says she doesn’t feel the pressure Ms. Badinter writes about to parent in a certain way — and that the one thing Ms. Badinter’s book reminded her of most fiercely is that when mothers make the choice to stay in the workforce, they’re often paying someone else to care for their children, or clean their houses. Did those women really make a choice between work and parenting?
I was on active duty for eight years. I deployed to Iraq. I feel like I’ve done my part paving the way for women in an interesting and traditionally male field. Now, I am at home with my son 24/7. As I gear up for baby No. 2, I question whether I will make the same choices. It has been great to be at home, but I don’t think there is a stay-at-home mother out there who doesn’t occasionally think to herself, after an epic diaper change or tantrum, “If I just went to work, someone in day care would be dealing with this right now.” I do. But I also value my time with him, and I am glad that I haven’t missed a single milestone.
“The Conflict,” she writes, did not help her in considering her decision about whether she’ll go back to work, or stay home, with her second child.
It did make me realize that we need to help women who don’t have a decision to make: who have to work to pay their bills, or who can’t afford to work because day care is so expensive. Women fought hard for the choices that we are agonizing over right now. This is not just about whether or not to make your own baby food or dress your kids in designer clothes. It is not just a question for women in New York and San Francisco. I think the goal of this discussion should not be to encourage women to take one road or the other, or to defend your own choices. It should be to make all roads and all choices accessible in some way to all mothers.
After 12 years at home with young children, Katie Lynes told me that she’s found herself trying to get her “life back” and wondering if she’d really want her daughters to make the choice she did — as much as she valued her time with her children. But for her, Ms. Badinter’s economic arguments reflected her reality more than did the supposed forces of natural parenting:
On the one hand, she seems to be saying that economic factors have led to a resurgence of the ideal of the “natural mother”: since there are not enough jobs for all potentially employable women, the ideal has re-emerged as a means of both inducing a certain proportion of women to stay in the unpaid labor market (motherhood) and making them feel happy and proud to do so. But alongside this argument, and in tension with it (or so it seemed to me, while reading “The Conflict”), is a claim that the “naturalist” model of motherhood, which has emerged from essentialist strands in third-wave feminism, is itself to blame for women’s new enslavement, whether they work outside the home or not.
For Ms. Lynes, the economics prevailed. When her twins were born, in 1999, her career prospects in academia were, she wrote, “grim” and the decision to stay home “not difficult.” But that isn’t to say that the decision was made, as she believes Ms. Badinter assumes, based on “a debilitating false consciousness.”
In her discussion of the rise of “naturalism,” for instance, she downplays the significance of science-based environmentalism and the very real concerns that parents share with nonparents about our species’s survival on a degraded, warming planet. She also makes the claim that women who choose to have children often don’t make the choice consciously or rationally, taking into consideration all the downsides with respect to career potential, romantic life, etc.
Well, I did weigh the pros and cons, and I waited until I was 37 to have kids. Friends had told me “prepare to put your life through the shredder,” and in some ways, they were right. So I was forewarned and fully aware, but I made the decision to go ahead anyway. I love my kids to pieces, of course, but when it comes to having children, one can never know if one has made the right decision, because we can only ever see one of the two possible scenarios playing itself out. Similarly, I can never really know if I made the right decision to stay home with my kids for 12 years, which is why it has never occurred to me to judge women who’ve made different choices. And today, as I guiltily attempt to carve out more space for myself in an effort to revive a nearly defunct career, I’m less inclined to judge than ever.
No wars, and no judgment (which I think we can all agree is more than one could say about “The Conflict”). Just individual women, reading, thinking and reflecting on what it means to have a choice, and to make it, within a continuum of choices.