The wonderful tributes to Mom may have been on traditional Hallmark cards, but they certainly weren’t in many of the print media this past Mother’s Day. In the deluge of commentary that appeared over that weekend it was hard to find anything that didn’t trash mothers. Instead of flowers, Mom’s day seemed to be used as an opportunity to report on everything that was bad about motherhood, mothers, and children.
To start things off the N.Y. Times gave us The Mother of All Bad TV Moms which told us that everything that has been wrong with young people for the last half-century is mom’s fault. The author examines sitcoms all the way back to the ‘50s-era much watched “Father Knows Best” in order to demonstrate that mothers were shown to be irresponsible. Hopefully, this article was written with tongue-in-cheek, but it seems to me that making fun of mothers, whether tv mothers or not, is a cheap shot.
Moving forward, the weekend also brought us reviews of a number of new books related to motherhood. One of them, “THE CONFLICT How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women,” by the French philosopher Elisabeth Badinter, has created considerable controversy. According to one reviewer, Badinter acknowledges that French mothers have great work-family protections which enable them to keep themselves very much alive personally and professionally. They do little breast feeding and reject the idea that “the ideal mother is enmeshed with her child bodily and mentally.” They drink and smoke throughout their pregnancies and believe that a mother cannot allow herself to be consumed by her baby to the point of destroying her desires as a woman.”
Badinter writes that the special French legacy of maternal freedom is now being threatened by a new wave of ideology based on the “exalted” mother image which is imploring mothers to embrace their motherly instincts, to reject disposable diapers, and to breast-feed. She implies that this is the American over-investment in motherhood that is making its way over the Atlantic to France. Despite all the criticism American mothers receive, American motherhood seems to have been globalized.
What is so interesting about this is that not long ago we were talking about the book “Raising Bebe”, an admiring look by an American mother at the child-rearing practices of French mothers, which the author experienced as superior to our own. It seems that the grass always looks greener on the other side of the fence – or ocean.
By coincidence, while thinking about this post I had supper at a small bistro and somehow got into conversation with its owner. It turned out she is married to a Frenchman, and when her children were little she spent summers in France with her in-laws. She verified the description we have received of French “laissez faire” mothering and said she would tell me a story. When her first child was not yet a year old, while in France he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. It was not possible to return immediately to the U.S., and so surgery was done in Paris. Everything went well and when it was time to leave the hospital the nurse came in and told the mother in a matter-of-fact way to remove the bandages and wash her child’s head. The mom was aghast at this instruction and protested that she was unable to do this. The nurse impatiently gave her instructions and left. In tears, the mother called her French mother-in-law, who told her not to worry, she would take care of it. . . . and did.
The mother connected this event to the generally cavalier attitude the French have about children. I asked if her mother-in-law had raised her own children that way and the mom said she did. I followed up by asking how her own husband turned out. “Very well”, she said, “very independent”. It turned out that her husband was the chef, and her son, home from college, was the waiter. (The food was delicious, by the way.)
The question in my mind is, why do the theories and practices of mothering seem to follow extremes? What speaks to this, certainly, is the recent cover of Time magazine, the cause of much current controversy. The story inside is about Dr. Bill Sears and the extremes of attachment parenting. The description of the way some mothers are carrying out these practices is startling to say the least. The misuse of attachment theory, set forth originally by the British psychiatrist John Bowlby, would undoubtedly dismay and shock him if he could know to what ends it had been put. Unfortunately, the currency given to such extremes distorts the picture of American mothering generally, and intensifies both the culture and the mommy wars.
Let’s continue to use common sense and remember that both parents and children live in the real world, which brings certain responsibilities as well as certain expectations. We all have needs we hope will be met, and no ones’ needs should be met to the exclusion of all others.