Business columnist, with a political twist, for NZ Herald

French women don't coddle

Over half the women who give birth in French hospitals give up breastfeeding immediately. File photo / Wanganui Chronicle
Over half the women who give birth in French hospitals give up breastfeeding immediately. File photo / Wanganui Chronicle

Don't those French women have it all sorted? Their diets, while rich in delicious, fat-filled treats, don't see them pile on the pounds. They seem to drink and smoke copious amounts, but their flawless Gallic skin doesn't crease and crinkle as a result.

Now, according to one of France's leading feminist thinkers, they also raise their children in a superior fashion, as outlined in this article from The Australian.

Elisabeth Badinter believes that for many cultures outside France, good mothering has become "crushing".

In short, she says, the non-French (mainly English, US, Australian etc.) intensive mothering models - full breastfeeding, co-sleeping, full-time mothering until what she would deem an advanced age - have created baby tyrants who women submerge their whole identity to raise.

She claims that in France, "mediocre" mothering has always been tolerated.

Pregnancy, she contends, has never, there, been a time of restricting oneself to a life absent of liquor or smoking.

New mothers used to hand their babies directly to wet nurses (today, over half the women who give birth in French hospitals give up breastfeeding immediately). Nannies and creche staff are employed almost immediately without social stigma, leaving women free to immediately resume their working and social loves.

If all that doesn't sound radical enough, here are some conclusions Badinter reaches in her currently best-selling book Conflict: The Woman and the Mother.

* Formula, disposable nappies, baby food in jars and out of home care were huge steps in female liberation - and women shunning these things are dragging feminism back into the dark ages.

* The fact French women are allowed to be so-called "mediocre mothers" has meant their birth rate has remained high, relative to other western countries where women wear themselves out tending to their young and feeling guilty about everything.

* Co-sleeping destroys the relationship between mother and father.

She writes: "Of course men are deficient. They are slightly better than a few decades ago but still highly deficient. So we expect the state to fulfil its duty as equally responsible for the well being and education of the new child."

As you'd expect, the thesis of this treatise has outraged many, even in France - the La Leche League (breastfeeding advocates) in particular, and young feminists - especially those who believe in more eco-friendly ways of living.

To women like me, these ideas must surely be highly confronting. They butt up against everything we have been taught to believe in about having young children.

Breastfeeding, for example, remains a Holy Grail, and women who find themselves unable to do so, unfortunately, suffer lots of associated guilt.

But in truth, a commitment to full breastfeeding does make work outside the home almost impossible, and sleeping through the night unlikely for many long months. Lack of sleep is not conducive to sexiness, intelligent banter or health and vitality.

To commit to breastfeeding does actually require you to put the baby front and centre, which is precisely what Badinter is saying is so wrong about modern mothering.

Many women I know also fret about the effect of piling disposable nappies into landfills. Badinter would say this is unnecessary guilt, but isn't it just being a mindful citizen of planet earth?

Co-sleeping probably does jettison the sex lives of many couples, but in truth, would these sex lives be extremely active anyhow?

Or are we - us over-mothering types - simply too tired for sex because we wear ourselves out getting up for our kids at all hours, amuse and entertain them all day long ourselves, and feel guilty if we do anything else?

However violently you disagree with Elisabeth Badinter, would that the feminist argument remained as strong and as provocative in New Zealand as it is in France. Now that's something I really envy the French woman for (as well as her ability to wear a scarf, naturellement).

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Business columnist, with a political twist, for NZ Herald

Dita De Boni is a columnist, commentator and TV producer/journalist. She first wrote columns for the NZ Herald in 1995, moving to daily business news in 1999 for four years, and then to TVNZ in Business, News and Current Affairs. After tiring of the parenting/blogging beat for the Herald Online she moved back to her first love, business (with a politics chaser), writing a column for Friday Business since 2012.

Read more by Dita De Boni

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