This in from France:  this weekend the Globe & Mail, published an interview with “noted French feminist and intellectual Elisabeth Badinter”, who railed against the cultural pressure on women to be perfect mothers.  Notionally, I think this is an important argument to make, so I dove into the article with great interest.  I suppose I was hoping to hear new insight about, say, the challenges women face being “good” mothers given the fact that most workplaces still struggle to accommodate the reality of parenting-roles alongside work-roles.  However, to my dismay, the focus of Badinter’s attack was on child-centered childrearing practices, such as breastfeeding and co-sleeping, which she referred to, jaw-droppingly, as “ancestral practices”.  She argued that these rob women of time and freedom and (by implication) dignity.

It’s great Badinter is opening up the discourse on mothering, and I get her point that time-intensive childrearing practices do create pressure on parents (theoretically, not just women, although statistically, women still carry the larger load).  But there’s a fundamental reality here:  children must be cared for.  They are needy.  Badinter’s turn of phrase, “despotism of the insatiable child” makes it sound like the child intentionally tortures his/her mother, but it’s not like that:  they’re born dependent on us.

How we try to meet those dependencies is a fundamental part of who we are and what we believe in.  And we have to recognize that if we don’t meet those dependencies ourselves, we have to outsource them.  This raises important questions:  to whom do we outsource – and to what effect?  And where does caring for children, and family life in general, fit into the good life?

The sociologist Juliet B. Schor has written brilliantly that, in effect, a lot of this outsourcing is going to corporations.  The marketplace is already trying to “colonize” family life:  Schor writes that “corporations increasingly have been acting as parents…they shape children’s desires and values, keep them company for many hours, and teach them.”  Further, through media…“they structure the symbolic environment in which children live.”   This has real, practical consequences.  For example, it makes it easier for corporations to position junk foods as “cool”.  Schor adds that “the influence of advertising on deep symbolic structures has also been powerful in the areas of gender, sexuality, violence, material desire, and body image.”

Although, at first blush, Shor’s argument about the perils of outsourcing parenting to corporations sounds more relevant for older children as opposed to the despotic infants on Badinter’s radar, the relevance of her point lies in her idea of “colonization”.  Two of the typical strategies corporations use to maximize the value of their customers include forging a relationship with them as early as possible, and providing a range of products to “keep” them for a longer period of time.  Thus, for example, we now have “Similac Mom” – a supplement for mothers-to-be (first two ingredients:  water and sugar), and Similac formulas for children up to two years, even though doctors say children can be on plain old cow’s milk by the time they’re one.  It’s all about training us to look for “solutions” and “convenience”.  The earlier we let corporations into our caregiving, the stronger they’ll be – and the more money they’ll eventually make.

To be fair, I’ve seen in my own work in marketing that brands may strategically try to align themselves with parental values rather than undermine them.  I’ve also never met a marketer who didn’t fundamentally believe there was something important and redemptive in their product, even when those products were candies and chips.  God knows, they loved their own children and wouldn’t dream of intentionally harming someone else’s.

But we have to remember that ultimately, their bottom line goals are different:  they want to make their growth targets for the quarter; parents want to raise healthy and well-adjusted children.

Parenting is messy, time consuming, fraying and frazzling.  It’s also the ultimate experience of embodiment.  Children come from our bodies and they need our bodies to thrive.  Of course there are situations were formula is a godsend, but even without breastfeeding, our little ones need our caring hands, our warm skin, our breath on their bodies.  It’s not degrading to change a diaper;  it’s life, pure and simple.  And, while Badinter is scathing about women who embrace pain in the context of natural childbirth (and while I had two C-sections with all the painkillers I could wheedle), I ask:  is it so wrong to want to live in our bodies so intensely at that primal moment and beyond?

Every parent needs to learn to rediscover and manage his or her separate and individual self after the arrival of a child, and this is arguably particularly acute for women whose bodies have literally been at one with their child’s throughout pregnancy.  But as we figure our way through that thorny path, we have to ask whether the good life is about being fully independent and able to rise any constraining ties?  Or is the new good life one about inter-dependence, one where people – not corporations – are at the heart of relationships and families?

Advertisements