The child king

The child king
The child king 

Elisabeth Badinter doesn't look like a revolutionary. Standing in her golden drawing room in the heart of Paris, wrapped in a black jersey and a dark skirt, she has pale silver hair and pale blue eyes - so pale and so blue that when she turns her gaze on you it's disconcerting, like a light shining through frosted glass. Nor does she live like a revolutionary. Her drawing room overlooks the creamy pathways and green treetops of the Luxembourg Gardens, in the heart of one of the city's most traditionally luxurious suburbs.

At 67, Badinter is rich, one of the richest women in France. Her father founded the $4-billion French communications company Publicis, and her family wealth is estimated at €750 million ($920 million). She seems, on first meeting, deeply conventional. The product of a Swiss finishing school and the Sorbonne, she married at 22, became a stay-at-home mother of three, and is now a "besotted" grandmother.

But in her own way - in her own career - Elisabeth Badinter is as radical as Robespierre. The protégé of Simone de Beauvoir and formerly an academic at the prestigious École Polytechnique, she's a household name in France, where she appears on television and in the press as one of the country's most influential intellectuals. Her five easy-to-read books on feminist philosophy sell in massive numbers all over France, right alongside gossip magazines and airport novels. In 2010, she published her most recent work, Le Conflit: La Femme et La Mère (in English, The Conflict: The Woman and the Mother). And in it, she makes her most radical argument yet: that modern mothers are in a state of unprecedented crisis. 

So what, exactly, is rotten in the state of motherhood? "Before I began this book," she says, "young women were coming to me, and talking about how guilty they felt." She shakes her head. "To my stupefaction, this was the key word: guilt. Guilt about breastfeeding, about smoking, drinking, working, child care; about not doing 'the best for your child'. " 

"In my own life, as a young woman, this is the one thing I never did - it was never even thought of. I never asked myself if I'd be a good mother, or whether I could meet the demands. Young women do this constantly now. In fact, many say no to motherhood altogether for these reasons. 'I cannot be a perfect mother; I will not be a mother at all.' "

Powdered milk, jars of baby food and disposable nappies were all stages in the liberation of women.

Mothers today, she says, are experiencing more pressure, guilt and anxiety than ever before. Motherhood has become a "tyrannical state", in which women have become "slaves to l'enfant roi" - the child-king. They are pressured to run their pregnancies like dietary boot camps, made to feel guilty unless they insist on natural childbirth, and are filled with anxiety about their ability to breastfeed. They are directed to allow nothing non-organic to pass their baby's lips or touch its skin, and encouraged to regard external childcare as an unforgivable sin. Any hint of personal choice is lost before the onslaught of directives and rules. "Thirty years ago, we lived our pregnancies with insouciance and lightness," Badinter has remarked. "Today, to be pregnant seems not far from entering into a religious order."

Is this really the case? The Conflict has certainly stirred up debate: it's been a best seller in France and the UK, and translated into nine languages. To coincide with its publication in Australia this month, Good Weekend has asked some of Australia's most prominent women to assess its relevance here. All are mothers, and all are public figures, but none is a public mother. For most, this is the first time they've spoken about the trials, the tribulations, and the endlessly challenging business of motherhood.

Elisabeth Badinter's research suggests the guilt associated with motherhood begins from the moment a woman discovers she's pregnant. Suddenly, huge swaths of her former life are forbidden. "I see these poor women," she says. "Some of them say they will not have a second or third child because everything is forbidden when one is pregnant. No cigarettes, zero alcohol - not even a glass of champagne for a birthday celebration. They treat women like babies - they take us for idiots. This idea infuriates me. For sure, it is not recommended to smoke a packet of cigarettes a day when one is pregnant" - she raises her eyebrows and smiles - "even though I did it! I recognise that one has to be careful, but one glass of wine in the evening is not going to do any harm."

The medical evidence on the dangers of smoking and heavy drinking is certainly clear, but there's also science to support Badinter's view. Yet modern women also fall prey to a bizarre mélange of urban myth and peer pressure about their pregnancies that has little basis in science - and which previous generations never had to grapple with.


Don't touch a cat or drink a coffee or sleep on your back or varnish a chair or dye your hair or get your hands dirty in the garden, say the myth-makers. Do sleep on your left side and sit on a fit ball and play Bach to your belly. Most of all, stop eating just about everything. In Australia, due to the (real, but extremely small) risk of contracting listeriosis, pregnant women are advised not to consume soft cheeses, cured meats, sushi or sashimi, soft-serve ice-cream, unwashed vegetables, pre-cut fruit, rare meat, raw egg products, or anything involving mayonnaise. Instructively, such dietary dictates exist in every country - but vary from place to place. In France, salads are regarded with suspicion, but everybody eats soft cheese. And in Japan, presumably, someone, somewhere, has eaten sushi while pregnant with no ill effects.

If it were possible to verbally roll your eyes at this list, Ita Buttrose would be doing so. At 70, Buttrose is a doyenne of Australian journalism: the founding editor of Cleo magazine, and later the youngest editor of The Australian Women's Weekly. She has two children, the younger of whom was born during her time at Cleo in the early '70s, when everyone assumed that having a child was a kind of medical condition, for which the only cure was to resign. Or be sacked. Buttrose, however, survived the threats of both Kerry Packer and soft cheese.

"I don't remember any of this 'no cheese, no oysters' stuff," she says briskly. "Oh, you had to drink your pint of milk, and eat liver. But when my daughter was pregnant - and lots of my nieces were pregnant around the same time - it was relentless. They're all caught up in this sort of frenzy. My daughter would sometimes say to me, 'They say I can't eat this or do this ...' And I'd say, 'Who's they? Who is they? Explain to me they.' " She laughs. "I soon dispose of they, and we move on.”

If only we all had an Ita in our lives. Rebecca Huntley, 39, is an author and director of Ipsos Mackay, a social-trends research company. She has spent years surveying young families and the stresses they're under, particularly mothers, and has no doubt that Badinter's version of modern "motherhood fundamentalism" exists in Australia, and that women are falling victim to it. "Particularly the guilt aspects of it," she confirms. " 'I'm no good at work, I'm no good as a mum.' And it's a really unproductive kind of guilt. It just endlessly wears women down.”

Where does this guilt come from? "I think you first notice it from peers," says Huntley. "The mothers' group is a perfect microcosm. And then if you go looking for it - online, in books, magazines - it's there. I asked my mother once what she was given as gifts when I was born. And she said, 'Booties. Lots of knitted booties.' When I had my daughter, I was given advice books: nine of them. Nine! And they were all different - all these competing philosophies. And of course people become invested in their version; they feel that the philosophy they choose says an enormous amount about them as a human being. It has almost nothing to do with the child.”

In the mothering debate, no sooner is the question of maternal diet resolved than the question of newborn diet arises. Breastfeeding is one of the most contentious of all mothering issues. Increased education about the benefits of breast milk, public-health campaigns and intense lobbying by groups such as La Leche League and the Australian Breastfeeding Association have seen breastfeeding rates rise worldwide. In Australia, more than 90 per cent of Australian women breastfeed after childbirth, and just under 60 per cent are still breastfeeding exclusively at three months. In France, by contrast, according to Badinter, less than 20 per cent of women are still nursing after three months - by far the lowest rate in the European Union.

Badinter, however, still regards Frenchwomen as being under unacceptable pressure. Indeed, she calls La Leche League "breastfeeding ayatollahs". "According to my feeling, it is up to mothers to decide whether they want to breastfeed or not," she says. "Nobody else on earth should interfere with this." She has always refused to say whether she herself breastfed. "Maybe I did, maybe I did not. But the key issue is I felt absolutely no guilt about my decision. Today, mothers are left to think that giving the bottle to their baby will make the baby weak, less healthy. I think this is criminal. The baby bottle is looked at as a suspicious thing: powdered milk is not as good as mother's milk, and the bottle is a synonym of selfishness.”

These opinions resonate with former Australian netball captain and sports commentator Liz Ellis, 39. She and her husband, ex-Waratahs rugby player Matthew Stocks, were never going to have children. "We were just going to live this fabulous life - travel, eat at great restaurants, drink wonderful wine," she recalls, laughing. But even before they changed their minds and Ellis gave birth to daughter Evelyn last September, she'd already had experience with the wildly differing opinions - and the passion - that surround the issue of breastfeeding. When she did a television advertisement for toddler formula some years ago, before she became a mother, she was heavily criticised by pro-breastfeeding groups. "I realised that there were people out there who felt very strongly about the issue, and had views that were just not me," says Ellis. "They didn't chime with me at all.”

Ellis herself has had no problems breastfeeding. "I'm rapt breastfeeding is so supported," says Ellis. "No one has blinked an eyelid when I've breastfed in public, which is lovely, because initially you feel so self-conscious about flopping your boob out." She laughs. "Mind you, for the first time in my life I've got boobs, and I'm so loving it, I don't mind flopping them out. But the fact is that the pendulum has swung so far that women who, for their mental or physical health, simply can't do it are put through all this guilt; that's appalling."

Even if science shows that breast milk has advantages over formula, it's also true that countless millions of infants have been raised on formula and seem to have suffered few ill effects. (In Victoria, the only state with comprehensive records, more than 50 per cent of babies born in 1950, rising to more than 70 per cent in the 1970s, were given formula.) Badinter's argument is not with pros or cons, but with the way breastfeeding proponents deliver their message. Her key point is that women should make their own choices, free of social pressure.

"If women want to breastfeed, that is good," she says. "But if they do not, that is fine also. It is an intimate and personal decision." A personal decision that a remarkable number of people feel entitled to inquire about. "You're constantly asked, 'Are you going to breastfeed?' " says Ellis. "And I always said, 'Yes, of course, if I can.' But I do think it's gone so far in the 'breast is best' direction that people are made to feel terrible if they don't.”

Badinter's theory about breastfeeding goes to the very heart of her argument against modern motherhood: that it destroys women's independence. A woman committed to following the World Health Organisation guidelines must be in almost continuous contact with her child as its exclusive food source for six months. She must then commit extensive time and effort to breastfeeding (or pumping) as a supplement for another 18 months or more. (It's worth bearing in mind that WHO guidelines have developing countries particularly in mind, where formula is often prepared in unsanitary conditions, using dirty water, with predictably bad health outcomes for babies.) Badinter regards this as a conspiracy - albeit inadvertent - against women's fundamental freedoms. And the same goes, in her opinion, for the modern obsession with environmentally sound cloth nappies and home-prepared baby food. "Between the protection of trees and the liberty of women, my choice is clear," she stated recently. "It may seem derisory, but powdered milk, jars of baby food and disposable nappies were all stages in the liberation of women.”

In Australia, according to a report published in 2008 by the Australian Institute of Family Studies, 44 per cent of women were working 12 months after having a child but, as a later study found, only seven per cent were working full-time. This trend is echoed all over the developed world. There are all sorts of reasons women give up work when they have children, according to Badinter.

"Some women may leave to settle their scores with their own mothers," she says after a moment. "This is the case for me, certainly; I think girls have always said, 'I don't want to be like my mother.' "And for women who are now around 40, who are often the most privileged and the most sensitive to these views, their mothers were more or less feminists, and wanted to have children and also a professional life. And their daughters are now saying, 'My mother was completely wrong. She wanted everything, and instead she lost everything: she had to work double the amount, her husband left her for a younger woman, professionally she had a glass ceiling and when she came home she was exhausted and always in a hurry. And who paid for this? Me, her daughter.' "

According to Badinter, however, complete investment in parenting is misplaced. "We live 80 to 85 years in our industrialised countries," she says, raising both hands. "Children take up 20 to 25 years, if that. Staking your whole life on 20 years is a bad bet.”

Of course, such choices are often made willingly, and they allow for family time that most mothers value highly. But Badinter insists that no one should be pressured into making them by economics, emotional blackmail or the thought that their children will be scarred for life if they are cared for by others. In Germany, she points out, there's such a strong social stigma about working mothers that there's a phrase for it; a Rabenmutter - raven mother - is a mother who, like the bird, fails to care for her young.

It's no coincidence, she says, that only a third of German women with a child under the age of 12 are working in any capacity. Moreover, according to Badinter, 28 per cent of all female university graduates in the former West Germany do not have children at all. She contrasts Germany with France, which has a long history of - and excellent provision for - children being cared for by professionals, and whose birthrate is among the highest in the developed world (two babies per woman in 2010).

"In France, we have the right to give our child to another woman to care for whom we don't know," she says matter-of-factly. "Even today, nobody thinks there is anything wrong with dropping off a three- or four-month-old baby to a crèche or nanny after maternity leave. And for this reason, we are considered to be the worst mothers on earth." She raises one finger. "But not your mother, or your mother-in-law, or your family doctor, would look at you wondering what type of mother you are if you make this choice. There is no feeling of culpability about this in France.”

How would the same situation be regarded in Australia: a mum dropping her three-month-old off at day care five mornings a week? "I couldn't back it up with research, but I think there is some negative feeling about mothers doing full-time work," says Dr Jenny Baxter, a senior research fellow at the Australian Institute of Family Studies. "Part-time work is well accepted, but I'm not sure the same could be said of full-time.”

Kristina Keneally agrees. As former premier of NSW, and the current state member for Heffron, she's had to juggle "before-school care, after-school care, the homework, the laundry, the grocery run", with the small additional task of running a state. She has two sons, now 13 and 11. "I was at home until my eldest was four," she explains, "and then I went back to work in one of the most overwhelming ways possible: by running for public office. My youngest was two, so he really has no memory of a mother who didn't work.”

Keneally's husband worked part-time, so her boys had one parent at home for much of their early childhoods, but she admits there's been guilt - and social pressure - surrounding her decision. "When I was premier, I got a lot of criticism from conservative websites: 'If Kristina Keneally believes in the importance of a loving environment with two parents, why isn't she at home with her children?' And sometimes my youngest will say, 'Why don't you work in the canteen like so and so's mother?' And I'll say, 'Well, because cabinet is on, and I'm chairing it,' " She smiles. "But you'd be lying if you said that didn't send a pang through your heart."

Keneally used to comfort herself with the thought that her boys would be raised with "the sense that women can do anything, because they see their mother as the premier of the state. But then, when my youngest son was five or six, he said, 'You know what job I really wish you had? I wish you were a South Sydney cheerleader.' My God! There goes my positive female role modelling!" Keneally attributes her ability to shed - or avoid - the guilt of being a working mother to her own background.

"I was 17 when my mother had her last baby. So I had a very direct experience of seeing my parents being incredibly relaxed about parenting. And I saw a child grow up perfectly happy without my parents having to conform to any ideals or demands or rules about what to do."

She wonders if, in fact, the vacuum left by the loss of this direct experience is what has given rise to the sorts of trends Badinter is investigating.

"Once it used to be that when you had your children, your mother or your mother-in-law was young enough, and lived near enough to you, to give you advice and answer your questions," says Keneally. This did away with much of the hysteria surrounding childcare. "But when I had my first baby, we were in Chicago, my mother was five hours away and my mother-in-law was on the other side of the globe. The world's different now.”

For mothers, of course, the flip side of child care is work: getting it, keeping it and making it financially worthwhile. And, as Badinter points out, successive economic downturns since the 1990s have left many women in a position where work is hard to get and badly paid. And so, she says, many young women "start wondering whether it would not be more satisfying and exciting to spend some time raising a child that will be balanced and happy rather than killing themselves at work". This, she maintains, is a mistake.

"Nowadays, in the West, one couple out of two separates [about one in three in Australia divorce], often when the child is very young," she says pragmatically. "This is simply a fact. And if you don't have a job and financial independence, you are in a terrible situation." Elizabeth Broderick, 51, the Sex Discrimination Commissioner of Australia, agrees.

Broderick has two children, aged 14 and 15, and when they were born, she was a partner at a large law firm in Sydney. Today, she regards one of her main roles as encouraging women's financial autonomy. "Economic independence is what ensures women can leave abusive relationships," she says. "That we can care for our families if our relationships break down, that we don't live in poverty in retirement just because we chose to care for our children.”

As she points out, working part-time or taking significant time off after having children comes with big losses to women's seniority, skills, remuneration and superannuation in the workplace. In fact, women in Australia have on average half the superannuation and retirement savings of men. "Half!" Broderick exclaims. "And it's not like they suddenly wake up poor the day before they retire. The fact is, it's because they left work when they had their first baby. Then even if they went back, they went part-time, which necessitated them de-skilling.”

What is needed, she says, is far better and cheaper childcare options, so it's realistic for women to return to work. Historically, Australia has been very bad at this: until the introduction of the paid parental leave scheme last year, we were one of only two OECD countries without comprehensive paid parental leave provisions. There also needs to be financial recognition of the caring roles performed by women.

In the UK, for instance, extra pension payments can be made to grandmothers who take on significant childcare duties. Broderick would like to see similar schemes here. "What I say is, is poverty to be the reward for a lifetime spent caring?" she asks. "Unless we elevate women's status as being more than 'just carers', we won't enable them to have strong economic independence across their lifetimes.”

Elisabeth Badinter, of course, has never had to worry about economic independence. When she had children she had a full-time au pair, a supportive husband and the assistance of enormous wealth; her situation is as far removed from most mothers' as Earth is from Mars. So from what experience does she draw her conclusions?

The universal experience of motherhood, she says. She had her three children in 3 1/2 years, and despite all her advantages, she failed her academic teaching exams several times because of it. "Even though I was privileged, I remember being very tired and it was very difficult," she admits. "It is very difficult to be a mother and to have a life. I know that; I know we always have to negotiate, and it's never entirely satisfying. But even if every-thing had been perfect, I would not have been a perfect mother. I could not have been.”

This is the crucial thing to remember, she continues: no mother is perfect. "For the children, the mother is always too much of something - too present, too absent. When my children were young, for instance, I was teaching part-time so that I could be home when they arrived from school. And 20 years later, they told me that this was terrible for them: 'Every time we came, there you were, yelling, 'Hello, kids!' " She smiles. "I then realised that there is no perfect mother, save for some very rare exceptions.”

Motherhood, she continues, is a broad church. Her advice is to celebrate what she calls "mediocre mothering", which has at its heart a particularly French pragmatism. "For three centuries, we have accepted in this country that a woman who becomes a mother isn't a mother only," she says. "Mothers have other obligations; they have the right to have other interests in life."

Annabel Crabb, 38, is a political writer and broadcaster for the ABC. She has two children, aged five and nearly two.

"When everything's said and done, pressures on women aren't new," she points out. "I had a hilarious conversation the other day with my mum, who is a superb and great mother in every respect. We were standing around in the middle of the night, putting up a trampoline for my daughter's fifth birthday. She's reading through the instruction book and saying, 'Have you seen this? There's something here about how children can get caught up in the safety net.' "

Crabb laughs. "The safety net is preposterously elaborate, and the whole trampoline is completely covered in Nerf material; it would be impossible for even a quite determined hara-kiri toddler to injure themselves. But there's my mum saying, 'Are you quite sure about this?'

And I thought to myself, 'Good Lord. Thirty years ago, you let me have a rifle!' "When I was a kid, she would have quite happily left me in a car to go into a shop, or my brother and I would go off to play on the farm with dangers lurking on every side and not be seen for three hours and no one would mind. It's the crowd mentality: what everyone else is saying and thinking at this point in time - that's where this stuff comes from. And the whole thing is ridiculous, because of course you bugger everything up.”

Elisabeth Badinter agrees. "I made many, many mistakes," she says, shaking her head. The mediocre mother, however, forges on regardless - and is even, perhaps, proud of herself, failures and all.

At the end of our interview, she rises from her chair and holds out her hand. "Perhaps the only criterion to find out whether we have been an abominable mother," she concludes, "is whether our children are still coming to see us 20 years later." She smiles, and for the first time she seems to relax. "I will have to leave you now. My son and my grandchildren are coming for lunch.”

This is an edited extract of an article which was originally published in Good Weekend.

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