Maternantes, You Do Not Respect the French Tradition!

In her recent book, The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women [1] Elisabeth Badinter is pleased by the high birth rate in France [2], which she attributes to fidelity to the model of French mothers of the 18th century, when urban women of means hired country women to take their children to live with them in the country, so that they could continue to have a “brilliant” social life [3] in the city.

She accuses the ideology of the “good mother” of reviving the male dominance once discredited by feminists of the 1970s, by advocating that mothers with young children leave the working world of freedom and independence.

But French mothers who practice attachment parenting, or “maternantes”, as they are known, reject this separatist worldview: they want both to be responsive to the needs of their baby (being breastfed, being carried, being comforted when they cry [4]) without giving up their rôles of wife, friend, and contemporary social woman. Modern technology allows them to invent new ways of working and parenting that incorporate their children instead of excluding them.

French women would resist to “maternage“ thanks to French worldly tradition. Elisabeth Badinter is delighted by french women’s resistance to the model of the perfect mother currently being imposed by french and american pediatricians [5] (through attachment parenting)*, the government [6] for parental leave, WHO and La Leche League for breastfeeding. The fact that French women are massively bottle feeding [7], that they do not experience social stigma when they return to work quickly [8], and that few of them work part-time [9] could be explained by history: “Our ancestors of the Enlightenment gave us this unusual pattern of the emancipated woman, discharged from the cares of mothering [10].”

It all starts with the women of the aristocracy, followed by the women of the bourgeoisie, and, in the 18th century by “all strata of urban society”. The philosophy of Elisabeth Badinter is based on what was true for only 10-20% of the French population, since the vast majority of women were peasants. “Women (and their families) who considered themselves above the vulgar classes thought it was beneath them to breastfeed their babies themselves ; that breastfeeding was as ridiculous as it was disgusting” [11]. “Little by little, getting rid of her child became a mark of social distinction. The petit bourgeois […], little prone to worldliness, hastened to copy their more favored sisters. In the absence of a brilliant social life, they could acquire the first sign of an envied status, by handing over their child care responsibilities to paid caregivers [in french, mercenaires]. It was considered better to do nothing at all than seem busy with such insignificant pursuits [12]. “ Taking place in parallel with the rise of royal absolutism, this submission to the hierarchy of French society of that time comes at the cost of a high mortality rate among babies [13].

For the most fortunate women, “their development takes place in social life: making and receiving visits, wearing a new dress, taking promenades along the boulevard, going out to glamourous events [14].” For the author, “In the 18th century, freed of the common burdens on Women, the French woman of the most privileged classes is, with the English one, the most free woman in the world.” But, by confusing freedom with frivolity, Elisabeth Badinter particularly stresses the social alienation of wealthy women of the time.

By a kind of historical reversal, the most cultivated women of our time have chosen the opposite approach. The most highly educated women are breastfeeding the most. These maternantes do not consider that spending money (on bottles, formula, or doctors) is a sign of social progress or that breastfeeding is “disgusting” [15] but simply that their baby needs it.

Moreover, they hold salon … not far from their child, at meetings of mothers’ support groups (for example La Leche League where they share discussions and exchange information. Often they meet in the electronic salons that are forums and discussion lists on the Internet. Perhaps this is what Elisabeth Badinter calls “real ideological underground war” [16], conducted by the people against the dictates of advertising [17]?

Indeed, it is a hallmark of modern life that we are subjected to advertising that promotes consumption in quantity, while attachment parenting involves more connections [18] and fewer goods [19]. Is it because of this potential mass consumption that Elisabeth Badinter welcomes the “beautiful French birth rate [20]” that would result from “mediocre” [21] french mothering?

This ideology of “the good mother” would frustrate the feminist struggle of the 1970s against male domination.

Indeed, the male domination, that feminists might have believed was destroyed, would slyly come back, according to Elisabeth Badinter, through “mothering [that led] a regression of the status of women […]. The innocent baby-despite himself- has become the best ally of male domination [22].“

In the statistics on this, male dominance is measured by calculation of time spent on tasks deemed noble (time at work and leisure) versus tasks considered degrading (time sacrificed to children and the home [23]). Statistics have no respect for women who perform these activities while in deep thought, listening to music or the radio, or being fully satisfied with the relationship allowed with a child during a visit to the doctor, all opportunities missed most often by the father.

Conversely, time spent at work is unilaterally valued in these statistical analyses, while many workers do not always find their account: it’s time spent in service to their boss, their clients, withno time for themselves (except for a tiny minority). However, the mother who has stopped working or has reduced her working hours, finds time for her children but also for herself [24]: this quality of time is never measured by the numbers.

Perhaps we should seek “equality” in the other direction, allowing fathers to spend time with family and embracing the values of the maternantes ​​–besides, there is no word in French for “paternant” while English combines both parents by talking about attachment parenting, which can be adapted in french to parentage proximal. So, when fathers can take part-time work without being looked down upon, or without having to do in 4 days the work of 5 while being paid for 4, we will live in a better world.


Contrary to what is implied by Elisabeth Badinter truncating a quote from Edwige Antier [25], the maternantes are delighted that the emergence of “doting fathers” of 1970-1980 [26] has helped trivialize the fact that the father changes diapers or gives baths, among other opportunities for father-child relationships.

The attention given to babies and young children does not imply a refusal of work itself by the involved women. Often, the maternantes discontinue a prestigious profession which was preceded by a successful school career, because becoming a mother made them reconsider their priorities and strengthen their desire to forego a working life marked by male values ​​defined by competition (”They want money, power and status with great determination and perseverance [27]“). Many activities and jobs are emerging from these new practices, facilitated by new technologies and the Internet. These new ways of working tend to reject separatism: the children are part of life, they may not be far while the parent works.

So nothing to do with a “return to the traditional model [28]” or an alleged desire for “wisdom [that would be] elsewhere, for not saying yesterday [29] …”

We do not live separately, even separatist, as seems to be implied by the worldview of Elisabeth Badinter -starting with the title of her book, The Conflict. Yes, the matter is first to focus on the child, the fragile baby [30], eager for and dependent on relationships.

But this closeness with the baby does not imply separation with the father! Child psychiatrists fear that the father would be exiled when cosleeping [31], but this doesn’t happen in families that follow their parenting instincts for attachment: what is needed by a new family is not a crib but a big parental bed or mattress on the floor side by side, or a side-bed for the baby.

There is no separation with other adults either. Women who think they have a duty to their small children can also be women who live an exciting life. Mothering the baby is associated with boredom by Elisabeth Badinter, who quotes authors of novels that “aspire only to rediscover the outside world [32].” This sounds strange to the ears of maternantes who read, type on their computer, go out with their babies, spend time with their friends. Babywearing and breastfeeding give great freedom of movement.

Elisabeth Badinter also believes that “The ideal [of maternage is] to subvert the tete-a-tete to the body to body [33].” This is a position very far from attachment parenting: parents who want to be available for their child do not howeve focus their lives on him [34], and know that the child gains nothing, however, to have parents too “on him,” too nervous, or too controlling.

Accordingly, the maternantes do not feel overwhelmed by “the extension of maternal duties” of the late 20th century, which would involve “a scrupulous attention to psychological, social and intellectual development of the child [35]”. “They know that in addition to his need for milk and contact, their baby and then child seeks, above all, to live with its family, in observation, imitation, interaction: the toddler eats from the plate of its parent, takes part in outings with other families, and thus constructs his social life.

The main concern of maternage is ultimately mostly to minimize industrial contamination of her child through food, diapers, water, air and reducing their damage to the environment (pesticides, diapers, etc.). They question leaving a polluted world to their children as an inheritance. The irony of Elisabeth Badinter’s stance about ecology [36] also reveals the triumph of the economic and environmental idéals of the 1970s. Despite her skeptical tone, Elisabeth Badinter pretty much sums up the aspirations of today: “After the amoral practice of the exploitation [of nature], we must now respect it [37].” However, the conclusion she draws from “submission to Mother Nature”, “whose simplicity and wisdom we admire” [38] is stained with anthropomorphism: “submission” and “admiration” are specific to male values . Living in balance with nature and her entourage has not to do with submission, but interaction and fine-tuning.

Thus, the maternantes who try to be responsive to the needs of their child do not recognize much in the maternal characteristics that Elisabeth Badinter quotes when she is talking about the 1970s “nonchalance”, “indifference [39]”, “selfishness [40]” almost to the point of inattention and irresponsibility [41]. “Gone are the seventies when you could live your ​​pregnancy with carelessness and lightnes [42]!”

Finally, the separatist ideas of Elisabeth Badinter also come from the distinction that she makes between “woman and mother”, and her recurring aspiration to define a feminine identity [43]. Yet, you may want to refuse to be identified by only these attributes and find these attempts at définition too simplifying [44].

About guilt

Finally, Elisabeth Badinter accuses maternage ideology of putting pressure and guilt on young mothers who must make a choice between their “womanhood”, and being a “mediocre mother“. For example, with regard to breastfeeding Badinter states: “It takes a lot of character for new mothers to brave the instructions of nurses and care workers [45].” But we often hear the opposite from breastfeeding mothers [46].

Further, the book deals with women who feel rejected because they did not have child [47], as women who feel rejected because they breastfeed more than six months, sleep with their baby and find only suggestions for detachment from one’s child on the shelves of bookstores.

Everyone seems to seek the full acceptance of who he/she is, as if, as a child he/she had not received unconditional affection from those around her. Everyone seems to want validation of their opinions by others and feel guilty if it is not the case.

Thus, Elisabeth Badinter says [48]: “What mother will not experience at least a twinge of guilt if she does not comply with the laws of nature?” But if this mother finds that her children are well, that she has a satisfactory relationship with them (which is by no means the prerogative of mothers who breastfed), where is the problem? Is it to avoid pinching the young mothers and to herself that she wrote this book? Does she minimize the benefits of breastfeeding [49] to alleviate her guilt for not having done?

Elisabeth Badinter seems to prefer life far from children, because of the low emotional profitability of spending time with our children. “How to recognize that we have sacrificed too much for all the other benefits that came from that? [50]” But perhaps the problem was making these sacrifices? To live out relationships with our companion, our children, our friends, our work separately? Spending time together with kindness, and the gift of unconditional trust is time that builds lasting bonds and that makes sense.

Claudia Renau

Many thanks to Kelsey Forry for the translation

[1] Flammarion, février 2010, Metropolitan Books, april 2012.

[2] Relatively strong compared to other European countries. see

[3] Number 454 of Population et sociétés written by Gilles Pison attributes this recent increase to delayed motherhood of young women of the 1970s and 1980s, which age of childbearing was delayed to 30 years today for the first child : pdf here : Perhaps, moreover, that the delay of first birth at an age which allowed to enjoy life in celibacy promotes mothering time. See this article on Nancy Huston:

[4] See Ne pleure plus bébé, Claude Didierjean-Jouveau, Jouvence.

[5] John Bowlby et T. Berry Brazelton, they popularized the theory of attachment, Edwige Antier in France.

*in original text.

[6] For government assistance to women who want to stop working to stay with her baby in 1985 and 2004.

[7] 15% of breastfeeding when the baby is two and half months.

[8] Unlike the German or Japanese mothers who could not afford and which therefore have few children.

[9] Although the analysis is subjective: “50% of mothers with one child are working full time [and] 25% of women with three or more children,” page 234 of the french edition.

[10] Page 246 of the french edition. [11] Page 241 of the french edition. [12] Page 244 of the french edition.

[13] Page 244-245 of the french edition. [14] Page 243 of the french edition.

[15] The refusal of which is close to the animal’s body visibly expresses discomfort. Disgust for the female secretions (blood, milk) is a macho attitude that the feminist struggle had justly allowed to exceed.

[16] Page 251 of the french edition. [17] See articles of Arrêt sur Image :

[18] Connection enabled by breastfeeding, cosleeping -which aims is primarily not to let the baby cry, to take seriously his claims-, sometimes by elimination communication (life without diapers), the home education etc.

[19] Taking up a slogan of decreasing, [20] Page 233 of the french edition.

[21] A term used by Elisabeth Badinter. [22] Page 146 of the french edition.

[23] Beside, it does not bother Elisabeth Badinter, the feminist and working mothers to entrust these tasks they consider unpleasant to other women. But if the mothers find so difficult to parent their own children, why would other women find rewarding to care for the children of others?

[24] Self-reflection, knowledge of self, of our own basic needs, are important in the relationship with our children : to minimize them with a toddler (or an older) whose needs take precedence, or to detect what are our own significant needs to assert.

[25] Page 149 of the french edition. The original text of Edwige Antier, Éloge des mères, J’ai lu (pages 100-101) does not reject the baby care given by the father (although the quote from Dolto the same page seems absurd to us).

[26] Page148 of the french edition. [27] Citation page 39 of the french edition. [28] Page 13 of the french edition. [29] Page 52 of the french edition.

[30] Beside, she forgets the primacy of the needs of the child in her paragraph on home birth (page 61): mothers who prefer to give birth at home often do it primarily to protect the baby (facilitate his birth, avoid the impregnation of analgesia, prevent hospital intrusions).

[31] «Rufo fear that [this practice] pushes the father out of the marital bed for exile in lounge », page 155 of the french edition.

[32] Page 26 of the french edition. [33] Page 161 of the french edition.

[34] See Concept of continuum, de Jean Liedloff, Da Capo Press Inc.

[35] Page 171 of the french edition. Beside, observe and accompany the development of a baby is exciting, many scientists have done studies on this prestigious subject, why would mothers not have the right to find it as exciting, intellectually exciting!

[36] Pages 53-54 of the french edition. [37] Page 53 of the french edition. [38] Page 54 of the french edition, and also: «The authority of nature is indisputable» page 105.

[39] Page 248 of the french edition. [40] Page 141 of the french edition. [41] Page 247 of the french edition. [42] Page 101 of the french edition.

[43] For example page 249 of the french edition.

[44] Thus, we can rejoice that: “The illusion of a united front of women [was] shattered, astheir interests may diverge. That is, again, questionning the definition of a female identity.”

[45] Page 138 of the french edition.

[46] Hence events like the “Great suckling” – evokes with a little condescension page 233 – togenerate public recognition.

[47] Pages 210, 213, 214, 223, 224 of the french edition, particularly because of the ideal of the perfect mother.

[48] Page 93 of the french edition. [49] Page 108, 138, 139, 140 of the french edition.

[50] Page 225, page 253 too (of the french edition).