MOTHER LOVE: Myth and Reality by Elizabeth Badinter

MOTHER LOVE: Myth and Reality

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Motherhood has recently been seen less as one of the sources of woman's oppression than as one of the avenues of her fulfillment. Yet clearly, from sociologist Badinter's analysis, such recent reevaluations pale by comparison with the 18th-century shift from the emphasis on father's authority to the power of mother love. This process has already been described in more detail and with more complexity by Jacques Donzelot (The Policing of Families), especially as regards the critical relationship between family and state; and Badinter's description seems simplistic by comparison. Her portrait of 17th-century France is that of ""a society without love"" where relationships were all based on the principle of authority as justified by Aristotle (who saw authority as natural), by theology (authority is divine), and by the political theorists (""who used both arguments at the same time""). In this society, women were often seen as instruments of the devil or more simply as workhorses; children as the source of sin, as nuisances, or, at best, as occasional playthings. But then in 1862 with the publication of Emile, Jean-Jacques Rousseau ""successfully crystallized [a] new set of ideas and really launched the modern family--the family based on mother love."" Why his ideas proved so powerful is ill-explained, except by reference to the newly-perceived demographic imperative that argued for more children and better care. Pre-Rousseau, many mothers had refused to nurse, society-women felt constrained by their offspring, and the most emancipated realized that women ""gained no credit for being mothers and . . . that to have the right to some esteem, they had to choose a path other than motherhood."" Such awkward attitudes had to go, and go they did. Raising children ""à la Jean-Jacques"" became the vogue in society and filtered down to the lower classes. ""Thus the ideological spotlight shifting. . . from authority to love, shone increasingly on the mother, to the detriment of the father. . . ."" The politics of 19th-century leaders, from Napoleon to Jules Ferry, encouraged the trend; so too did the theories of Freud and later Helene Deutsch with their emphasis on maternal masochism mixed with devoted narcissism. Such connections are sketchily drawn, as are the causal links (why was Rousseau listened to and Montesquieu ignored?). More historically precise than Adrienne Rich's Of Woman Born, but still a not-totally-successful popularization of ideas already out in the intellectual marketplace.

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1981
Publisher: Macmillan