Is Motherhood Natural? (Women’s Voice, 1982)

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The Myth of Motherhood began to create shock waves as soon as it was published in France in 1980.  Its author, Elizabeth Badinter, is a lecturer at the famous Ecole Polytechnique (an elite institution, and for three centuries a bastion of male privilege) and her husband is a trendy left-wing lawyer.  How much of the fame of the book is due to this setting, and how much to what it says, is a difficult question.

Far from being a complete ‘historical view of maternal instinct’ as its English subtitle would seem to suggest The Myth of Motherhood brings together just three themes, yet they are most interestingly and cleverly chosen.

The first theme is the ‘neglect’ of children by French mothers in the seventeenth century.  In the towns only a small number of babies were nursed by their mothers; newborn infants were packed off in there thousands to country wet nurses.  Many died on the journey, and many more during the two to four years they spent at wet nurses’.  Even peasant women often did not feed their own babies, for they were busy taking in babies from the towns, or setting off soon after childbirth to hire themselves as live-in wet nurses to better-off families.

Nursing out was not confined to rich women: women workers, artisans and craftsmen’s wives sent their babies away because they could not afford to stop working or neglect the productive work of the household for the luxury of giving special attention to young children.  Those children who survived to return ‘home’ (in effect to a family of strangers) at two to four years old were often sent away again when they were six or ten: as servants or apprentices if they were poor, to boarding schools or convents if they were rich.

The second theme is the invention of ‘good mothering’ in the eighteenth century.  Elizabeth Badinter points out that, although this reaction probably saved lives of millions of babies in the long run, it imposed on women a new ideal of the natural women – subordinate, devoted, dedicated to the comfort of her husband and children – and this idea was, of course, created by male philosophers such as Jean-Jaques Rousseau.

Following on from this is the even greater stress on ‘maternal duty’ in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, culminating in the heaping of guilt onto ‘bad’ mothers, who are seen in the psychoanalytic tradition of Freud and others as responsible of every imaginable personality disorder.

In this perspective, the ‘maternal instinct’ is clearly seen to be a myth.  Seventeenth century Frenchwomen, from countesses to cloth workers somehow managed to do without a close relationship with even their newborn babies; so did the babies, and they didn’t all die of neglect.

Just how and when conventional modern myth was created is also shown in Badinter’s account of the influence of Rousseau and of Freud.  She shows that these theories are not universal truths but deliberate propaganda aimed at getting women to behave differently) in the eyes of such writers, to behave ‘more’ naturally’!)

Motherhood, she concludes, is a product of society, not of nature.  And, society can redress the balance, the overload of duty, responsibility on women for two centuries and more, by developing the idea and practice of fatherhood – a topic which she shows has been neglected since the decline of the seventeenth century authoritarian father.

No Marxist could disagree with the basic argument that the relations between parents and children are what society makes them, and that nineteenth and twentieth century ‘motherhood’ is a major feature in the oppression of women.

Yet the book is disappointing.  There is, for example, a terrible lack of evidence as to what women thought about motherhood and separation in the seventeenth to early nineteenth centuries. Elizabeth Badinter makes up for this by using the speeches of fictional characters from literature – but from literature written by men with a satirical or critical purpose.

Her practical conclusions are extremely weak.  The lead is future development must be taken, it seems, by highly educated, professional couples. ‘Underprivileged women’, she says without much explanation, ‘have attitudes and motivations diametrically opposed to more highly educated women’s.’  It might also be a good idea, she suggests to pay women for looking after their children – ignoring ten years of arguments on the question of wages of housework.

The women’s movement has produced many attacks on the ideas of Rousseau and Freud about motherhood and femininity.  What is unusual about Elizabeth Badinter’s book is really the discussion of seventeenth century ‘neglect’.  The topic has been dealt with before, but always by male historians.  What as created the scandal in France, and is likely to interest women here too, is that Ms Badinter looks at these facts as a feminist, and comes away with some very disturbing criticisms of the ‘myth of motherhood’.

Norah Carlin

Womens Voice March’82 Issue 61

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