March 2012

Arts & Letters

Children’s Lib

By Anne Manne
De Beauvoir's heir? Badinter with the great thinker in 1983. © Francoise Duc Pages/Kipa/Corbis
Elisabeth Badinter’s 'The Conflict: Woman and Mother'

The sixteenth-century essayist, Michel de Montaigne, was sent away at birth from his aristocratic father’s house to a poor peasant wet nurse in the French countryside. In the custom of that time he was brought back into the household at about three years of age, with his parents as strangers to him. Yet little Michel was lucky to survive, for the death rate of children sent out to nurse was high. Once a father himself, Montaigne repeated the practice with his own children. They were not so lucky. Montaigne said casually of their deaths, “I have lost two or three at nurse, not without regret but without grief.”


There are two versions of the history of childhood. For historians like Lloyd deMause, childhood was a “long nightmare from which we are only just beginning to awaken”. In this version we see the dark side of parental care, of beatings, of unspeakable cruelties perpetrated in the name of virtue, of parental neglect, indifference, abandonment and even infanticide. In Victorian England infants might have been drugged with Godfrey’s Cordial, containing opium, while their mothers worked. Said one mother using it, “The young ’uns all lay about on the floor like dead ’uns, and there’s no bother with ’em.” If not sent away to nurse, babies might have been left to die on the roadside, abandoned by the parents who were too poor to care for them. In foundling hospitals across Europe the death rate for abandoned infants was often extremely high. In nineteenth-century Naples, for example, about 80% died, while in the northern Italian town of Brescia, critics suggested a motto to be carved over the hospital gate: “Here children are killed at public expense.” This, then, is a tale almost unbelievable in its horror to modern eyes.

Yet other historians, like Linda Pollock, challenge this view. After examining diaries and memoirs over four centuries from 1500 to 1900, she argued that there has been “no significant change in the quality of parental care … or the amount of affection felt for infants.” In this version there are more continuities than discontinuities with our own sensibility. Cruelty emerges more from ignorance than malice. Her sources reveal the same kinds of deep attachment and love that animate our own family lives. Sir Thomas More, in a letter of 1517, wrote with great tenderness about the “Herculean knot” that bound him to his beloved daughters: “I love you with my whole heart, for being a father is not a tie which can be ignored … [It] causes me to take you often into my arms … At this moment my love has increased so much that it seems to me I used not to love you at all.” His only discipline was to “whip” them, gently, with a peacock’s feather. Stories of parental concern, of self-sacrifice, of constant anxiety over children’s health, the ache of longing when separated, all give poignant testimony to the existence in times past of deep wellsprings of parental love.

One day, puzzling over these two versions of history, I got up from my desk and went to the books on my shelves. I pulled out Freud’s Totem and Taboo. Like a blind person reading Braille, I felt my way to the section on taboo. Flashing out to illuminate this extraordinary history and all its contradictions was one of Freud’s great insights. Where there is a taboo there is a desire. Where there is love there falls the shadow of hate; the struggle between the two is never completely resolved; when one dominates, the other is banished into the unconscious where it lives on, repressed, but unvanquished. The expression of this tension is a profound emotional ambivalence. Both versions of childhood in times past are true. The history of childhood is also a history of parenthood, and the history of parenthood, in the past and in the present, is a history of ambivalence.


In The Conflict: Woman and Mother (Text Publishing, 208pp; $24.95), perhaps the most famous contemporary French feminist, Elisabeth Badinter, alleges that a new, sinister, reactionary alliance of greens, maternalists and pro-child fanatics is installing an oppressive regime that threatens women’s liberation. In the past, French women could be “nonchalant and indifferent”. In the liberated late twentieth century, they smoked and drank with impunity during pregnancy, had pain-relieving epidurals at birth, bottle fed, used disposable nappies and crèches, and returned to work immediately after birth. This time has passed. Now, she argues, we have a “green motherhood”. It is akin to a “religious order” in its reverence for alcohol- and tobacco-free pregnancies, for childbirth without pain relief, for staying home to wash cloth nappies. Worst, however, is the new zealotry surrounding breastfeeding. This is alarming, as Badinter pointed out sharply to a Der Spiegel journalist, given that women “are not chimpanzees”. The new demands to be perfect earth mothers conflict not only with contemporary women’s desires. They are in conflict with what history truly shows to be natural. 

In the ‘good old days’ of the eighteenth century, Badinter argues, farming out children to wet nurses was commonplace. In an earlier book on that enlightened age, Mother Love: Myth and Reality, Badinter asserted that this proved there was no such thing as a maternal instinct. She reiterates this argument in The Conflict. Doctors advised that semen curdled milk, so a mother feeding her own baby was urged not to have sex. The system of wet nursing largely occurred so that women in that patriarchal era were available earlier to their husbands. Sure, babies “died like flies”, Badinter acknowledges, but think of the advantages. Women escaped the drudgery of infant care for the first few years. They held salons, went to concerts, had sex and had a life of their own. Women of lower classes emulated their wealthy sisters and hired help to care for their children. It was “better to do nothing at all than to appear preoccupied with something so undistinguished”.

“The word ‘ridiculous’,” Badinter notes approvingly in The Conflict, “frequently appears in correspondence and memoirs from the period to describe breastfeeding. Mothers, mothers-in-law and midwives advised young mothers not to breastfeed because it was not seemly for a lady to expose her breast to feed her baby. Besides imparting a bestial image of women as ‘dairy cows’, the gesture itself was immodest.”

There was, however, an entirely different rule for poor women. For them it was not merely okay but necessary to breastfeed for they became wet nurses to elite women’s babies. Such babies replaced at the breast their own infants, who frequently died.

It is worth quoting in full Badinter’s passage about children who died at nurse:


The result was that at a time when there was no substitute for breast milk and the standards of hygiene were abysmal, babies died like flies. During the Ancien Régime, mortality in children under one year was over 25%, and nearly one child in two did not reach the age of ten.


Badinter concedes that such horrific death rates were sharply reduced – to between 11% and 19% – if mothers kept and fed their own children. The acceptance of the infant death rate did not derive from children’s as yet unprotected status. Rather, the reason was an “unusual model of emancipation of French women” which was “rooted in women’s desire to define a broader role for themselves and emancipate their lives from exclusive motherhood which brought them no appreciation. Liberated from the burdens common elsewhere, eighteenth-century French (and English) women enjoyed the greatest freedom of any women in the world.”

That the surviving children might have a perspective on these institutionalised forms of abandonment does not seem to occur to Badinter. Yet the historical record shows children suffered grief, loss and despair on coming to love their wet nurse as their own mother, only to be plucked from her in infancy to confront their estranged parents.

Another writer on wet nurses and foundling hospitals, Sarah Hrdy, wrote of the day she realised the extent of baby abandonment and the subsequent death rate. She was attending an academic conference: “Gradually it dawned on me that this phenomenon affected not tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of infants but millions of babies. I grew increasingly numb … I had difficulty breathing.” The shock made Hrdy see “babies, floating mysteriously over bridges, and down paths and stream beds. At that moment they clearly represented ghosts; streams of babies flowing from the cities out to wet nurses in the country in one direction, and from poor peasant households in the countryside into urban foundling homes, flowing back the other way.”

Elisabeth Badinter, however, has nothing more to say on the subject of all those dead babies. Her prose closes over their fate as quietly and coldly as the sea closes over the heads of the drowned.


The Conflict has become a bestseller in France. Reviews in Britain, the United States and Australia have mostly been positive. Badinter has been described as “refreshing” in Newsweek, praised as the “rightful heir to Simone de Beauvoir” in the New York Times, and said to strike a chord “with stressed-out Aussie mums” in Melbourne’s Herald Sun. The Australian’s Emma-Kate Symons, taking Badinter’s indifference to the killing fields of childhood in her stride, found her work “fascinating” and her view of childrearing “subtle”.

Many of these enthusiasts would consider themselves, on the feminist revolution, and indeed on most issues, humane progressives. Yet their eyes passed across that passage on babies who “died like flies”, without blinking. How would they react to a book that argued that the eighteenth-century slave trade offered some useful tips on making life easier for white people; which acknowledged that black slaves died in droves but that the great thing was whites were much freer; and which praised the “nonchalance and indifference” with which the slave traders, thus acculturated, from then on treated blacks?

The argument appealing to past indifference, abandonment and neglect is used to justify for one group – children – precisely the opposite of what ‘progressives’, like Badinter, argue in relation to groups such as women, blacks and Jews. For a generation or more we have recognised the humane necessity for a radical break with past treatment that was once regarded as ‘natural’ – the subjugation of women, the domination of white over black, the persecution of the Jews. We acknowledge, rather, for these human beings, the need for treatment that is just.

So why the double standard for children?

Maybe, deep down, there is fellow dark thinking with the drunken father who admitted to the famous child psychologist, Penelope Leach: “I don’t really think of children as people.” Only by being blind to children as fully human could anyone appeal to ages more barbarous than our own in order to justify our practice.


Whenever a cultural flashpoint occurs – and Badinter has clearly struck a chord – it is worth travelling upstream to find the head of the river. If the history of parenthood is a history of ambivalence, then where do we sit in the continuum? Ambivalence towards children is mounting. Last year Jennifer Senior caused a stir with a story in New York magazine, ‘All Joy and No Fun: Why Parents Hate Parenting’. It backed surveys showing that parents were less happy than their childless counterparts, a contention that Badinter also brandishes. Parents, Senior argued, might love their kids but they hated their lives. Life shrank to the size of a teacup. Everything turned to shit. Senior herself arrived home only to be pelted in the head with wooden blocks. She based her article on a Texan study which showed working mothers were happier doing almost anything other than childcare, even housework.

Australian mummy blogs, websites and articles in the press reveal an outpouring of angst and negativity. It was not surprising that parenting writer Mia Freedman felt it might have all gone too far. “We’re frightening the horses,” she wrote on her MamaMia blog, “scaring the bejesus out of those who don’t yet have them but thought they might like to one day but now are not so sure.” Freedman turned her blog over to parents to say what they loved about parenting. This was a risky venture, as newsreader Jacinta Tynan found out when she wrote a column saying she finds mothering “easy peasy” and loves every minute. Not long afterwards, a film the stuff of urban nightmares, We Need to Talk about Kevin, arrived on our shores. It grapples with the terror of the ‘bad seed’ – that ordinary parents might slog away at their task, but give birth to a monster. The mother in the film has real reason to feel ambivalent about parenting. Her seriously disturbed son turns out to be a Columbine-style killer.


What is going on here? We all know of the women’s movement as one of the most important and compelling social movements of the 1960s. Less recognised is that another movement, one championing the humane treatment of children, was born in the ’60s. Like feminism, it has fearless and profound thinkers, passionate advocates as well as the usual crackpots. Unlike women, however, children cannot speak for themselves. As a consequence, the discourse bringing greater sensitivity and a new ethic of care towards children has emerged hesitantly, uncertainly, through the last century. It has run parallel to but is often overshadowed by the struggles over gender. Like feminism, it has at its core something deep and humane. It depends upon the same kind of ‘putting one’s self in the shoes of another’, of overcoming a sense of difference to extend our empathy, imagination and capacity for identification.

At its best, feminism is about justice. It calls us to a certain kind of attentiveness. So, too, is the movement for better treatment of children. Here lies ‘the conflict’. At the very same moment when we are offering women long-overdue opportunities, we also expect them to enact the new ethic of care, but with minimal help. One consequence of this conflict has been the revival of deeply flawed arguments about what is ‘natural’.

Consider for a moment the two versions of ‘natural’ ways to raise children circulating and competing in our society. Badinter decries the rise of “naturalism” in contemporary childrearing. But then she contradicts herself, for she invokes her own version of what is natural in the past. She is not alone. There is a whole genre of these alleged ‘tough love’ lessons of history. As sociologist Juliet Schor has commented:


Children were liable to be neglected, abused and ill treated, without anyone thinking there were questions to be raised and without anyone having a guilty conscience about it. The guilty conscience … which nowadays so plagues parents and other caregivers, is in fact a rather new and unique feeling in our modern epoch.


And, therefore, one that can be easily overturned.

To the child advocate, however, such views are anathema. In what became a cause célèbre, the child analyst Bruno Bettelheim refused to write a requested foreword to Badinter’s Mother Love on the grounds that the author wrote about past maltreatment in a way that was not in children’s interests. Such evocations of childhood in times past, he argued, were entirely self-serving, and legitimised careless and even cruel treatment of children by narcissistic mothers. 

The bleak view of what parents really felt in the past, or now feel in western societies, is highly selective. Those advocating a revolution in the way we treat children tell a very different story, one of hope. In her famous book The Continuum Concept, first published in 1975, Jean Leidloff evoked a different world. Telling of her time living with the Yequana tribe in South America, she contrasted the isolated and anxious suburban mother and her equally strung-out infant, the stiff hospital nurseries and four-hourly bottle feeding, with what seemed like idyllic Yequana childrearing – of tenderness, playfulness, closeness and bodily intimacy not just with the mother but with the father. In contrast to the isolation of suburban western mothers, the whole ‘village’ participated in the task of raising a child. Like others in this genre, Leidloff’s book is a cri de coeur against a dystopia of disconnection, masked in modern times by the rationalisations, for example, for leaving a baby to cry itself to sleep, or for 40-hour weeks of childcare. Leidloff’s book became the touchstone for a generation wanting a kinder, gentler way of raising children than the way in which they had been raised.

There is, then, not one version of ‘the natural’ operating in modern society at all. Badinter thinks of herself as a revolutionary and of child advocates as reactionaries, but who really are the reactionaries here, seeking to revert to the past?

The fact is, we don’t need to hark back to the ‘good old days’ to reconcile women’s emancipation with the new ethic of care for children. Nor do we need to apportion blame or guilt. The roadblocks on the path to liberation are not maternalists but government, business and the wider economy.

For an ‘heir’ of de Beauvoir, Badinter is surprisingly apolitical. Though she notes French mothers have higher birth rates than those of many other western nations, is this really due to them taking a leaf from their history of distant mothering? After all, such practices as wet nursing and foundling hospitals were widespread across Europe, including countries where birth rates are much lower. More likely, French women are better supported than elsewhere and are not forced to choose between motherhood and fulfilling paid work.

As in Scandinavia, the French government gives paid leave for up to three years and invests in higher quality childcare. French and Scandinavian women’s work rates are among the highest in the world. Scandinavian breastfeeding rates are also among the highest in the world, belying Badinter’s belief that breastfeeding is death to paid work.

It is not only mothers who can be supported. Very early in her book, Badinter pronounces that men are hopeless. She says little more on the matter. Yet paid paternity leave, another welcome alternative to the ethic-less care that Badinter proposes, is changing and deepening our understanding of what it is to be a good father. Anna Wahl, from the Stockholm School of Economics, argues that Swedish paternity leave, which cannot be transferred to the mother, “moves the norm a little … It creates pressure on young men; now they have to explain why they’re not going to be at home … It’s not just anyone taking care of the child; it’s the father. It says he is irreplaceable.”

Last year, in Slate, Nathan Hegedus wrote movingly of his exhausting but “blissful” 18 months of parental leave in Sweden as his child’s primary caregiver. More than 80% of Swedish fathers take some leave, which now adds up to almost a quarter of all parental leave days taken. A study in the journal Fathering found a marked contrast between French fathers’ attitudes and those of Swedish men. Swedish fathers “emphasized the importance of parental leave and helping to raise their children. They also negotiated explicitly with their partners on child care issues. The French men did neither of these things.”

Hegedus found it was the accumulation of many small moments of closeness that helped make his paternity leave meaningful. He wrote:


It must be obvious to most mothers but the chance to build that bond with my children is revolutionary to me as a working dad. I can’t quantify how I am closer to my children […] There is a different quality to it – a nurturing one, perhaps. I can feel it when my son gets shy in public, and he climbs in my arms and molds his body around mine. And I can really feel it now that I have to send him to daycare.


One of Badinter’s early books about feminism was called Fausse Route, or ‘Wrong Way’. In The Conflict: Woman and Mother, Badinter starts out in the dark place of parental ambivalence and, instead of heading for the light, ventures only deeper, drawing bogus lessons, even inspiration, from the killing fields of childhood.

Fausse route, indeed.

Anne Manne

Anne Manne is the author of Motherhood, the Quarterly Essay ‘Love & Money’ and the memoir So This Is Life. Her most recent book is The Life of I: The new culture of narcissism.

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