Every week in The Kiddy Pool, Erin Newcomb confronts one of many issues that parents must deal with related to popular culture.

The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women

Élisabeth Badinter’s European bestseller The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women has found no shortage of critics on this side of the Atlantic. Most of the controversial press comes from Badinter’s claim that breastfeeding is oppressive, a position made more polemical because the author’s public relations firm represents major formula brands like Enfamil and Similac. I find that conflict of interests deeply problematic, but as I read Badinter’s book for myself, I also found myself agreeing with many of her arguments.

The book jacket asserts that “the pressure to provide children with 24/7 availability and empathy has produced a generation of overwhelmed and guilt-laden mothers.” I can question Badinter’s examples as well as the conclusions she draws from them about birthrates, but that single sentence rings true. It also helps to explain the increasing number of women who “opt out” of motherhood, choosing to be child-free because the cultural expectations of motherhood seem so unappealing. On the day after Mother’s Day, when so many churches provide clichéd readings of Proverbs 31 and awkwardly distribute carnations to all the females, I find Badinter’s exploration of childlessness compelling.

On page 12, Badinter outlines the cultural confusion surrounding women, and couples, without children:
a couple without children is always seen as an anomaly, up for interrogation. How strange it is to not have children like everyone else! Childless people are always expected to explain themselves, although it never occurs to anyone to ask a woman why she became a mother (and to insist on getting good reasons), even if she were the most immature and irresponsible of parents. But people who choose to not have children are spared nothing — not the sighing from their parents (whom they deny the joy of grandchildren), not the incomprehension of their friends (who want everyone to do the same thing they’ve done), and not the disapproval of society and the state, both of which are, by definition, pro-birth.

Both Badinter’s book and the child-free couples she describes represent opposition to the belief that motherhood is instinctual, natural, and universally-desired. She traces the rise of modern conveniences (like formula and contraception) and women’s increasing access to education and professional status to illustrate that making more social roles available to women means more women postpone or reject motherhood. What society at large misses, and Badinter forcefully asserts, is that women who choose not to be mothers probably do so with thoughtfulness and careful consideration — precisely because they are constantly made aware that they are not following the established order.

Badinter sets these claims against the backdrop of a culture of individuality in which each member is expected to discover what she will find most fulfilling. For some women, that answer is motherhood — practiced with such intensity that femaleness becomes conflated with motherhood and woman with womb. Some women’s central desire is to mother, some women’s desires for motherhood and other vocations are more mixed, and for some women, there is simply no appeal in the image or ideal of contemporary mothering. What a greater availability of social options reveals, Badinter claims, is the diversity of female desires and the multiplicity of women’s callings.

The byword of modern motherhood is “devotion”, while the epithet of the child-free woman is “freedom”; neither is necessarily superior or inferior, because both depend on what women do with them. Women without children can exercise their freedom to distribute their time, talents, and resources in ways that women responsible for children simply cannot. Badinter’s book is certainly not without its own conflicts, but in a climate that seems determined to see motherhood as an all-consuming sacrifice and the height of womanhood, it is worth noting that those who choose to be child-free can still offer themselves in meaningful and sacrificial ways.


  1. Thanks for opening this conversation, Erin. My husband and I are childless. The pursuit of answers placed us in the mystery category; the pursuit of medical assistance produced no children. We talked and prayed about adoption, but have not felt led to pursue it. That too is mystery, but mystery is not comfortable for most people. That’s why people try to fix it for us, which is kind but also difficult.

    As of this moment, I see childlessness as any other component of life: It has good and bad. The bad comes around Mother’s Day (I survived 2012!) and when there is something sweet between a parent/child that pokes on what we don’t have. The good is when I see how God has used my life in ways that wouldn’t be possible if we had kids.

    Do I have more freedom than women with children? I don’t see it that way. Whatever your life consists of, you hold that weight of responsibility—as believers, we are only free to live as God leads. The grass is always greener elsewhere, especially when envy colors your perception. Moms may envy my so-called freedom, but I could envy moms having tender moments with their kids. I am charged with resting in the place God has brought me. That is the same heart battle, kids or no kids.

  2. I have not read her book, though I’ve read an essay or two by Badinter in which she outlines her ideas. “Devotion” is a curious word choice. Back in the 3rd and 4th centuries, many women declined to marry or have children for precisely “devotional” purposes–they refused to procreate because it freed them to pursue a higher devotion to God. It certainly freed them from a life under a tyrannical husband. I don’t think that Patristic attitudes toward sexuality were very healthy on the whole, but at least they understood that “devotion” and “freedom” were not mutually exclusive.

  3. I grew up on a farm with responsible parents who cared deeply for their three children. My father was a hardworking farmer who devoted much volunteer time to guiding us in our 4-H projects and skills. My mother was a superb motivator, a lover of nature and of God, a spectacular playmate, and a quiet and (mostly) gentle disciplinarian who was without question to be obeyed. In later years, she quickly convinced whole classrooms of fourth graders that she possessed all those qualities.

    It was probably unfair that I had a second set of parents, just a short walk across a pasture, a childless couple who were the second parents to all their nieces and nephews and to many of the children of the neighborhood. I learned so many important lessons from them; their love and nurture was a huge part of my upbringing.

    Mother’s Day has always disturbed me, not that mothers don’t deserve it, but that so many others do also.

    There are also many men and women, perhaps not as gifted in child-nurturing as my childhood neighbors, perhaps not even gifted for marriage, who have given so much to our world. There is a tradition going back at least to Isaiah 53:8,10 and 56:3-8 of recognizing spiritual parenthood. Jesus Christ, the Ethiopian eunuch, and the Apostle Paul are examples of fulfilling that tradition. Catholic orders have unmarried Mothers and Fathers who ideally are so recognized for their model devotion to God and their guidance of others. We are so aware today of the abusive misuse of this title that we tend to forget how many more have earned the title. Maybe those of us who are Protestant need to consider how we might more fully honor those singles and childless couples who are fulfilling Isaiah 53 and 56.

  4. Thanks for writing about this book! I am childless by choice, and have never had the desire to be a mother. I am very lucky (or blessed) to be married to a man who does not ever want to have children either. Early in our marriage, it was always awkward for me to explain why we didn’t have children. Since then, I have learned that I need not explain or justify our choices to anyone. I am more than willing to share with those who have a genuine interest in our thought process, but I no longer feel the need to be put down by those who wish that I had chosen motherhood or say that I am in sin for not having children.

    I do feel like I have more freedom than those with children, but as you said, it depends on what one does with that freedom that matters.

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