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The Neo-Masochism of Motherhood and Femininity
Elisabeth Badinter’s important and arousing polemic, The Conflict: How Overzealous Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women, is now out in paperback in the U.S. Prospective mothers (as well as those who scratch their heads over 21st-century parenthood): You should read this book.
Whether or not you agree with Badinter, she is raising points that are largely muted in feminism, and need to be heard—because once you’re pregnant and have a baby, you’ll probably be confronted with peer pressure about motherhood that Badinter’s work will help you manage. You’ll encounter some people, hopefully not many, with inexplicably didactic, almost evangelical, philosophies about how to mother. Sometimes their voices can be so loud that they override your instincts and common sense, make you anxious, or just render your parental life less satisfying and joyous than it can be, and less of your own invention.
A prominent French feminist, Badinter courageously names the problem that she argues holds otherwise powerful and self-reliant women back: “modern motherhood.”
Badinter asserts that the women who benefited from their mothers’ efforts to expand education and career opportunities paid lip service of thanks and then insisted that once they became mothers, they’d do it differently, way better, and more obsessively. They’d crawl off and give birth without medication in a cave to prove their mettle, breastfeed until high school, wash cloth diapers by hand, grow and mash their own baby food with their very own feet, co-sleep with their children for years, all under the aegis of progressivism and the enlightened quest for perfect parenting.
There is a strange and malodorous alchemy of competition and neo-masochism in these standards.
Women define their worth as mothers by their ability to suffer, and to subordinate their multi-faceted subjectivity to a uni-focal emphasis on extreme mothering. The enjoyment of suffering that the term “masochism” demands comes perhaps from the competitive achievement of outdoing friends and acquaintances in maternal extremism. Remember that obnoxious Time magazine cover with the supermodel breastfeeding her long-in-the-tooth child, with the taunting headline, “are you mom enough?”
I was thinking about Badinter’s book recently while chatting with a woman whose sister was having her first baby. Her sister was adamant that she wanted natural childbirth.
There’s that word again. I wrote a column about how the word “natural” allows a speaker—of any political stripe— to assert a strong ideology while appearing to do absolutely nothing of the sort. “Natural” disguises ideology in the garb of ahistorical inevitability. Yet it is a concept brutally cherry-picked by the machete of our prior convictions.
We should have great, vigilant suspicion toward “natural,” whether we’re reading the ingredients on a soft drink label (natural flavors!) or contemplating childbirth. (Incidentally, lest you think I’m questioning natural childbirth owing to sour grapes, having lost out in the masochism competition, I did have a 36-hour unmedicated labor and birth, owing to confusion as to my intention, a high tolerance for pain, and because I missed the window when an epidural might have been helpful. I didn’t vow to have a “natural” childbirth beforehand, and the fact that I did, I’m convinced, in no way impacted the long marathon that is parenthood).
In any case: My acquaintance’s sister had no particular rationale for tying the quality of her childbirth to an unmedicated experience of suffering.
Instead, one of her friends had seized on to the idea, and bragged about how she’d made it through childbirth without medication. Consequently, other women in the peer group wanted to do the same thing. It went viral as a gold standard of maternal “success” (another strange metastasis of the workplace into the home). The preference had as much to do with competition and the Keeping Up with the Janes style of 21st-century rat race motherhood as it did with zealotry.
Badinter observes that you’d have to go back to the 1950s to find an era where mothers were tied this closely to the home. She’s right, but as I point out in my book, you’d probably have to go back even further than that. At least the 1950s believed in Twinkies, television, aspirin, the cocktail hour, and vaccines. But to find an era without medicated childbirth, extensive breastfeeding, co-sleeping, cloth diapers, home-grown food, arts and crafts amusements, lack of electronics or “screen time,” home schooling, an aversion to vaccinations, and a voluntary rollback of modern medicine, you’d have to go back to mid-1700s America.
We might provisionally extend the neo-masochistic mystique beyond motherhood, to other relationships. A few examples: The most insanely lucrative, bestselling fantasy of the age is an atrociously-written trilogy of sadism and female submission which, as the “bottom” line clearly proves, appeals to middle-aged women. Research finds that the more wives gain by way of salary and professional clout, the more they end up cleaning and scrubbing pans at home, doing more, not less, of the chores, and some argue that this expiates their guilt over their own power and earning clout.
Freudian disciple Helene Deutsch theorized on “feminine masochism” in the 1950s, and was criticized by feminists for it in the 1960s, although her ideas were more complicated than the phrase suggests. Psychologist Phyllis Chesler cautions that charges of female masochism too often are just another form of “blaming the victim.”
Point taken. But in the standards of modern motherhood as Badinter describes them, the term neo-masochism still seems descriptive. In the new version, women enforce standards on other women, rather than being dictated to by men (at least not directly), and “compete” (just as they did before in classroom and career) to sacrifice, and sometimes suffer, more to prove their maternal devotion and mettle, with dubious effects for child, mother, and marriage.
Women, if you’re expecting a child, maybe the best thing you can do is surround yourself with other parents who are fun, laid-back, insightful, compassionate, non-didactic, and tolerant. Motherhood is not a masochism competition.
Join Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and best-selling author Charles Duhigg as he interviews Victoria Montgomery Brown, co-founder and CEO of Big Think, live at 1pm EDT today.
Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.
Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.
But science loves a good challenge<p>The mystery remained unsolved until 2005, when French scientists <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~audoly/" target="_blank">Basile Audoly</a> and <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~neukirch/" target="_blank">Sebastien Neukirch </a>won an <a href="https://www.improbable.com/ig/" target="_blank">Ig Nobel Prize</a>, an award given to scientists for real work which is of a less serious nature than the discoveries that win Nobel prizes, for finally determining why this happens. <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/spaghetti/audoly_neukirch_fragmentation.pdf" target="_blank">Their paper describing the effect is wonderfully funny to read</a>, as it takes such a banal issue so seriously. </p><p>They demonstrated that when a rod is bent past a certain point, such as when spaghetti is snapped in half by bending it at the ends, a "snapback effect" is created. This causes energy to reverberate from the initial break to other parts of the rod, often leading to a second break elsewhere.</p><p>While this settled the issue of <em>why </em>spaghetti noodles break into three or more pieces, it didn't establish if they always had to break this way. The question of if the snapback could be regulated remained unsettled.</p>
Physicists, being themselves, immediately wanted to try and break pasta into two pieces using this info<p><a href="https://roheiss.wordpress.com/fun/" target="_blank">Ronald Heisser</a> and <a href="https://math.mit.edu/directory/profile.php?pid=1787" target="_blank">Vishal Patil</a>, two graduate students currently at Cornell and MIT respectively, read about Feynman's night of noodle snapping in class and were inspired to try and find what could be done to make sure the pasta always broke in two.</p><p><a href="http://news.mit.edu/2018/mit-mathematicians-solve-age-old-spaghetti-mystery-0813" target="_blank">By placing the noodles in a special machine</a> built for the task and recording the bending with a high-powered camera, the young scientists were able to observe in extreme detail exactly what each change in their snapping method did to the pasta. After breaking more than 500 noodles, they found the solution.</p>
The apparatus the MIT researchers built specifically for the task of snapping hundreds of spaghetti sticks.
(Courtesy of the researchers)
What possible application could this have?<p>The snapback effect is not limited to uncooked pasta noodles and can be applied to rods of all sorts. The discovery of how to cleanly break them in two could be applied to future engineering projects.</p><p>Likewise, knowing how things fragment and fail is always handy to know when you're trying to build things. Carbon Nanotubes, <a href="https://bigthink.com/ideafeed/carbon-nanotube-space-elevator" target="_self">super strong cylinders often hailed as the building material of the future</a>, are also rods which can be better understood thanks to this odd experiment.</p><p>Sometimes big discoveries can be inspired by silly questions. If it hadn't been for Richard Feynman bending noodles seventy years ago, we wouldn't know what we know now about how energy is dispersed through rods and how to control their fracturing. While not all silly questions will lead to such a significant discovery, they can all help us learn.</p>
Reaching beyond the stereotypes of meditation and embracing the science of mindfulness.
- There are a lot of misconceptions when it comes to what mindfulness is and what meditation can do for those who practice it. In this video, professors, neuroscientists, psychologists, composers, authors, and a former Buddhist monk share their experiences, explain the science behind meditation, and discuss the benefits of learning to be in the moment.
- "Mindfulness allows us to shift our relationship to our experience," explains psychologist Daniel Goleman. The science shows that long-term meditators have higher levels of gamma waves in their brains even when they are not meditating. The effect of this altered response is yet unknown, though it shows that there are lasting cognitive effects.
- "I think we're looking at meditation as the next big public health revolution," says ABC News anchor Dan Harris. "Meditation is going to join the pantheon of no-brainers like exercise, brushing your teeth and taking the meds that your doctor prescribes to you." Closing out the video is a guided meditation experience led by author Damien Echols that can be practiced anywhere and repeated as many times as you'd like.
Just what every arachnophobe needed to hear.
- A new study suggests some spiders might lace their webs with neruotoxins similar to the ones in their venom.
- The toxins were shown to be effective at paralyzing insects injected with them.
- Previous studies showed that other spiders lace their webs with chemicals that repel large insects.