Saturday 17 March 2018

Should mums-to-be drink, smoke and be merry?

Some French mothers, such as politician Rachida Dati and philosopher Elisabeth Badinter, think it's time to stop fussing about babies. Mums should take time for themselves, say Johanna Gohmann

Politician Rachida
Dati with her newborn
Politician Rachida Dati with her newborn

Johanna Gohmann

Is modern motherhood driving women mad? French philosopher Elisabeth Badinter thinks so. With her controversial new book, Conflit, la Femme et la Mère (Conflict, the Woman and the Mother) Badinter asserts that women are being weighed down by the toddlers wrapped around their ankles, and are dragging feminism backwards.

In her day, women guiltlessly cracked open jars of baby food and stirred powder for formula. Badinter is also a big fan of boarding schools, and, in her oh-so-French way, dares to suggest that smoking a few Gauloises and having a little Cabernet while pregnant won't cause the heavens to tumble to the earth.

Badinter believes the current "obsession" with breastfeeding, environmentally friendly nappies and homemade baby food has made motherhood a miserable affair, one that leaves a woman with no time to pursue interests outside of being 'Mummy 24-7'.

Her solution? Return to the child-rearing ways of yesteryear.

While these ideas might cause a lot of mothers (and healthcare professionals) to throw their arms up in indignation, no doubt many a harried mum can relate to at least some of the modern, middle-class pressures Badinter rails against.

Breast or bottle? Crèche or quit the job? Moltex eco-nappies or economy-size Huggies? Today, your little bundle of joy can come with a super-sized bundle of decisions. It's enough to send any Mummy Dearest out to the garden at 3am, trimming shears snipping away with crazed abandon.

Many mothers are made to feel that if they don't swaddle Junior in just the right organic bamboo romper, or hire the right lactation specialist, he'll grow up to be a social deviant.

Fiona Mahon can definitely relate. She's a working Dublin mother with two children, aged three and eight months.

"I think there's a huge amount of pressure on women to do things perfectly. To be environmentally friendly, to always have fresh vegetables ... to discipline your children in a certain way ... dress them a certain way ... bring them to certain places."

American author Ada Calhoun also felt the heat. So much so that after having a few mothering meltdowns of her own, she penned a book on the perils of parenting in 2010. In Instinctive Parenting: Trusting Ourselves to Raise Good Kids, she lays out an incredibly simple strategy for mothers who feel overwhelmed: just relax, and trust your instinct.

She discusses everything from anxiety-inducing mommy blogs, to over-the-top birthday parties for children who haven't yet even mastered the art of sitting up. She advises mums to take a deep breath, and back away from the craziness.

As for viewing baby as l'enfant terrible oppressor, ruling the home with his tiny, insistent fist? Well, mention Badinter's "oppression" theories to Calhoun, and she swats away the idea like a gnat. "This always makes me furious. Don't want a baby? Then don't have a baby! Don't want to be oppressed by motherhood? Don't make your own baby food. Just enjoy the kid. He couldn't care less if he's in an organic onesie or a Dora the Explorer costume."

Professor Sheila Greene echoes Calhoun's sentiments. Greene is the co-founder and director of Ireland's Children's Research Centre, and a fellow at Trinity College. She maintains that a lot of motherhood is about finding what works best for you. But she isn't convinced these 'perfect parent' pressures are anything new.

"Mothers have always been under pressure to give up their life for the sake of their children. There's that old sort of expression that 'a mother's place is in the wrong'. You can never meet all the ideals.

"It's good that mothers want to be the best they can be, but you need some balance. A lot of it is just about balance and not feeling guilty about everything."

This is the tack Fiona is taking. While she strives for the best with her children, she also takes into account the convenience of modern parenting practices.

On baby food: "I try to go for more organic, less processed ones, because I wouldn't always have the time to cook fresh. In their crèche they get freshly cooked organic food, so I think it's OK for me when I'm under pressure, to not always have freshly cooked meals."

And cloth nappies? She laughs. "I would not have the time for cloth nappies. And I don't feel guilty about it." Instead, she opts for eco-friendly disposables made of decomposable materials.

As for breastfeeding, you won't be surprised to find Badinter views it as something that holds back women. And it was only last year that US journalist Hanna Rosin penned her 'Case Against Breastfeeding' in the The Atlantic magazine, in which she challenged a culture that insists "breast is best".

Rosin is in the same camp as Badinter on this as she equated breastfeeding with the miseries of a 1950s housewife, suggesting that now, instead of being a slave to the vacuum cleaner, women were slaves to their suckling children: "That other sucking sound."

She dismissed the supposed benefits of breastfeeding based on a lack of medical evidence.

A recent article in the American Pediatrics journal fires back at Rosin's "lack of evidence", with a study that says a lack of breastfeeding is actually costing lives, as well as billions of dollars in medical costs. But what if you can't breastfeed? Then what?

"I've spoken to mothers who were in tears because they couldn't breastfeed for the period of time you're supposed to," says Fiona. "My own son had reflux and I could only breastfeed him for about three months and I'd feel so guilty, like I was letting him down."

So while Fiona does admit to struggling with guilt over some issues, she knows it's important to cut herself some slack. She certainly isn't ready to heed Badinter's advice and ship her children off to boarding school, but she's not quite ready to throw her identity down the nappy-disposal system either.

She believes her children benefit from being in a crèche, citing her three-year-old's advanced speech skills as evidence. She also believes her time away from her children actually makes her a more easy-going mum.

"When I'm with my children it's all about them. Whereas when I'm at work I feel like an adult, and an individual rather than a mother.

"I think I'm a better mother because I'm not a full-time mother. I believe if I was full-time at home that I would be less patient than I am now. I think it certainly enhances me as a parent having that time out."

Fiona is quick to say that finding balance is a constant juggling act, as no doubt any mother would agree. But having a child doesn't have to signal the end of you.

Perhaps author Calhoun sums it up best:

"The second you have a baby, your life changes. But just because you would throw yourself in front of a truck for someone else doesn't mean you can't have a great, fulfilling life, with a career and friends and a partner.

"Kids are only a burden if you make them be one. Plenty about parenting is hard. But hanging out with the person you love more than life itself should be fun!"

Irish Independent

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