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The Maternal Instinct versus the Realities of Unwaged Labor

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Message Hadley Suter

The scariest part of being pregnant with my first kid has been the overwhelming fear that an impending maternal instinct will, upon the little creature's arrival, wipe out all traces of my former self and transform me into the kind of psycho-mom who not only rejoices at negating her own identity in the name of her child but vaunts this state of sacrificial maternal nothingness as the epitome of female existential plenitude.   In other words, I've been worried sick over the past nine months that I'm about to turn into a mommy-slave--and like it.


Lucky for me, I've been able to grapple with this fear in tandem with the well-timed onslaught of books and articles about the so-called "Mommy Wars."   Some main contenders: In February, Pamela Druckerman's Bringing Up Be'be', which claims that parenting - la française not only raises superior children but prevents one's identity as a Woman from being usurped by one's role as Mother. Then there was the April arrival of the English translation of Elisabeth Badinter's The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women, which lambasts the new ecologically-obsessed naturalism and essentialized notions of gender at the heart of modern motherhood.   In May came the ridiculous "Are You Mom Enough?" Time cover story featuring toddlers with full sets of teeth chomping away at their mothers' nipples, a "controversy" the magazine was no doubt thrilled to declare itself relevant for having triggered--you could just hear the echoes of editorial back-slapping for weeks afterwards.   Finally, in July, came Anne-Marie Slaughter's Atlantic article on "Why Women Can't Have It All," a sentiment repeated recently by British Conservative Louise Mensch's retirement from Parliament to spend more time with her three children.


While some of these writings were thought-provoking and others nauseous-making, it's been nice having the growth of my uterus paralleled by the crescendo of debate about what, exactly, motherhood is.   Much of the recent U.S. media discussion about mommy-ing boils down to this question: how much sacrifice is natural to the maternal role and how much is socially imposed?  


Here we find ourselves in vintage Badinter territory.   Though The Conflict continues her exposition of the pernicious underbelly of naturalism, it's a question the French intellectual first broached with her 1981 L'Amour en plus : histoire de l'amour maternel (XVIIe -- XXe siècle) , where she claims that the maternal instinct is not primal, innate, but a social construct, propagated by the naturalist-misogynist par excellence, 18th century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau.


Critics of Badinter are right to point out the cartoonishly corrupt conflict of interest at the heart of her condemnation of eco-naturalist maternalism--she argues against breastfeeding yet she chairs the supervisory board of a P.R. firm representing Nestle', maker of infant formula Similac.    But her assault on naturalism as the most poisonous legacy of Rousseau is completely justified; his interpretation of the "natural" differences between the sexes is insidious enough to be more widely reviled.


When certain strands of feminism buy into these supposedly natural differences, they become the fodder for all sorts of moralistic, irrational proclamations, often beginning with "If women ruled the world"" and ending with the disappearance of war, violence, and evil in general. This sort of thinking--call it Goddess Feminism--worships the physiological as some magical source of nurturing love and female power, while tacitly embracing the disproportionate responsibility these "innate" qualities translate into for women.


Naturalism, in the realm of gender, is bad for feminism because it justifies the division of the sexes and their societal roles in the name of a return to some long-lost, prelapsarian state of humanity.   But more importantly, naturalism is bad for feminism because its very premise--that the division of labor between the sexes is less fixed now than it used to be--is a blatant lie, a rewriting of human nature that warps pre-industrial history in order to ignore the economic changes that paved the way for these divisions.


In their 1972 pamphlet The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community, Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Selma James recount the shift from the gender-neutral oppression of the feudal system to the division of the sexes that came about with the rise of capitalism and that was sealed as fate with industrialization.   The organization of pre-capitalist patriarchal society, they argue, was organized around the family, which represented the central unit of agricultural and artisan production.   Men and women, children and the elderly, all the serfs lived in a communal state of "unfreedom" under their feudal lord.   When the family was replaced by the factory as the productive center of society, men were expelled from the home, as were children as they began to be educated in schools rather than by their family, leaving domestic life--and, more importantly, domestic labor--to women alone.   "The passage from serfdom to free labor power separated the male from the female proletarian and both of them from their children." Whether we accept them as "natural" or not, our conception of "traditional" gender roles as being since the dawn of humanity divided down domestic lines is bogus; in fact, this separation of the sexes is a relatively recent phenomenon in human history, powered by industrial innovations that we universally characterize as Progress, or a step towards the enlightened freedom we believe ourselves to enjoy today as individuals.


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Hadley Suter is a graduate student in UCLA's Department of French and Francophone Studies.
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