‘The Mommy Wars’ are Less a Matter of Choice Than of Selective Sacrifice

Why is a woman with a briefcase still so much less appealing?

As Erica Jong noted less than two years ago, American society has been engaged in “an orgy of motherphilia” for the past two decades. Cultural phenomena like Sarah Palin’s “Mama Grizzlies” and Angelina Jolie’s ever-increasing brood have combined to hold up motherhood as the greatest possible good — whether or not it’s economically, environmentally or emotionally sustainable for the women who are expected to bear and love all these future children.

In May, Amy Allen of The New York Times examined one of the latest additions to the feminist literature on balancing work, children and your personal life: French philosopher Elisabeth Badinter’s book, The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women. Many reviewers have criticized Badinter’s book for being a shrill condemnation of attachment parenting, with only anecdotal evidence to support its claims. Badinter’s objectivity has also come into question, since she has ties to companies that sell infant formula.

But as Allen points out, many reviewers also overlook the fact that Badinter’s book touches on a conflict that EcoSalon has also discussed in some depth. The conflict that mothers face — if they even have the luxury of making a decision on whether or not to work  — is usually framed as largely a internal and psychological debate, between the working mom who has to leave her children behind, and the stay-at-home mom who sacrifices her economic independence.

That debate, which is usually referred to as “the mommy wars,” makes parenthood a binary decision. It also frames traditionally masculine values — reason versus emotion; logic versus intuition; work versus home — as positive, and traditionally feminine ones as negative. Since most women don’t take political movements into account when deciding whether or not to have kids, framing the debate in this manner runs the risk of pitting woman against woman. If you have to choose one side, it’s easy to demonize the other.

But as Allen states, “either vision of feminism challenges the fundamental conceptual oppositions that serve to rationalize and legitimate women’s subordination.” Instead, we must face the central conflict in Badinter’s book, which is not internal, but structural and external. Affordable, high-quality day care and paid parental leave would go a long way towards resolving the moral, emotional and psychological conflicts that many women suffer.

In today’s current working and social environment, no matter what a woman chooses, there will be a cost, even to the point of foregoing children entirely. And framing the debate in terms of “choice” allows everyone to overlook the real conflict. In a just world, both men and women would be putting together a working environment that didn’t exact such a high emotional and financial toll from half the population. Until then, we can just keep reading books that we hope will help us figure it out.

Image: GeneralMills.