My favourite books – “Mother love – myth and reality” by Elisabeth Badinter

This is one of the books that most influenced my young adulthood, and that I still find incredibly lucid.

It’s a French original, by French feminist author Elisabeth Badinter, and its title is “L’amour en plus” translated into Portuguese (literally) as “The uncertain love: history of maternal love from the XVII to the XX century”. It is a courageous book that dares question one of humankind’s main tenets, that of motherly love. It is widely accepted, at least in western culture, that all mothers love their children, period. And Elisabeth Badinter dares to say this is not exactly the truth, showing many examples through history to support her theory that yes, some mothers do love their children but then, there are many who don’t. She further says that one must not take maternal love for granted. Needless to say this book, published in the early eighties, was highly controversial and originated strong, one might say even violent reactions.

When I read this book in 1990 I was adamant that I did not want to have children. They were not included in my plans. I was recently married and was pursuing a career and those were my plans for life. I thought children would require huge sacrifices that I was not prepared to make. Furthermore, I did not feel any motherly instinct at all, unlike my girl friends who were looking forward to starting a family. I knew my husband, unlike me, was keen on having children, but I had dismissed this subject as one that would be discussed later in our lives.

On Saturday evenings, when our group of friends got together, there were huge arguments about having or not having children, and I was the champion of the last option. I was mostly alone in my position, my then husband preferring not to take sides even if everyone knew his opinion, while my friends and I hotly put forward arguments for each other’s thesis and never reached a conclusion.

One can imagine how reassured I was in my position when I read this book that gave me all the arguments I needed to convince my friends I was right and they were wrong. Because I did not deny their thoughts or feelings towards motherhood, or their motherhood instincts – I just said I did not have them and not all women were supposed to have them – and that was exactly what the author stated in her book. With several unassailable arguments.

The book begins by telling us about the (incredible) definition of motherly instinct that could be found in the 20th century Larousse dictionary (1971 edition), describing it as “a major trend that creates in all normal women a desire of motherhood and, once satisfied, urges women to guarantee the physical and moral protection of their children”. The author immediately rebuts the concept that a “normal” woman has to develop this instinct – otherwise she will not be normal. If a woman does not want to have children – then she is not normal? A woman who is not a mother is not normal? She does not agree, and of course neither did I. And she gives us several examples of history, such as the fact that in the 18th century mothers of a certain social condition and living in cities never breastfed their babies, sending them to nurses that lived in the country. These mothers sent their babies away at a very early age and would not see them for a long time – not by necessity, but by choice. And even when their children died in the care of a certain doubtful nurse, they would keep on sending her the children that followed… did they think they were doing the best for their children? Did they love them and yet send them away? And why so?

Other studies, said the author, clearly showed that the cry of new born babies does not provoke the same reaction in all mothers, as well as breastfeeding. In fact, she added, a woman is entitled to not wish to become a mother – it should be a choice, not something she is forced to do just because nature or society have dictated it.

In the end, the author concludes that motherly love happens in some women and doesn’t in others. She does not accept it as a tenet and gives many examples as to prove this. She says there is no such thing as the “normal woman” being the one who wants to fulfil her motherhood “destiny” and discusses the concept of “good mother”. She talks about the evolution of motherly love and how its concept has changed from the 18th to the 20th century, when breastfeeding is such a tenet that women who cannot breastfeed feel terribly guilty, not to talk about society’s reproach of those “unnatural” mothers who will not do it… she raises several acute questions and in the end produces a highly interesting, informative and enlightening book about the condition of women and their relation with this – unquestionably – most important choice in their lives: to become or not to become a mother.

This is one book that impressed me deeply. I identified myself with many of the author’s positions and was happy to conclude that I was not alone in the sense that there were many women who, like me, did not feel the call of motherhood. And my friends had to listen to Elisabeth Badinter’s arguments for a long time.

And then, as it happens so many times in life, I changed my opinion. Was it that I finally felt the call of motherhood or that I finally concluded I was ready to make those sacrifices I had so feared before? I don’t really know nor is it important. What is important, I think, is the fact that becoming a mother, feeling motherly love for my children and enjoying motherhood in full did not change one bit my regard for this book or the fact that I agree with the author. As she says, she does not deny the existence of this very special love between mother and children. She only disputes it as a tenet, something that all women feel. This is not true and we just have to read the papers and listen to the news to know that some mothers abandon their children, some kill them, some sell them into slavery and some just don’t care and today, after more than thirty years since the book was published, the view of society on this has forcibly changed. And become more realistic, I think.

This is an amazing book but I will not go deeper into it – you’ll just have to read it and see for yourself. It is really worth it. I’m sure the definition of the Larousse dictionary has long since been changed – and for better. After all, who can say what a “normal woman” is?

As I write these last words, I remember that undoubtedly motherly instinct is much more developed in animals. An incredible ad that passed a few years ago on British TV about child abuse showed it so very clearly: in the beginning we are shown several images of animal mothers with their babies, such as lionesses and lions cubs, bears and their furry babies, birds nesting their eggs, monkeys lovingly holding their offspring… and then we are shown the shocking image of a young girl with a black eye and an incredibly unhappy look. And we hear a grave voice that says “the next time you call someone an animal…think twice!”.

Yes, animals undoubtedly have an undeniable motherly instinct, but we humans are incredibly more complex. Some mothers may have it, and some may not. And we simply have to accept that as a natural fact of life.

As for me, I’m so happy I’ve changed my opinion and become a mother. I deeply love my children and I’m very (maybe even too much, they might say) protective towards them. This was my choice in life – to become a mother – and I could not be happier. But I think the choice of another woman not to become a mother is as valid as my choice was. Because each woman must have the right to decide how she wants to live her life, without any pressures whatsoever. There is no “normal” way to live a life. There is no “normal” way to be a woman. There is just our own way. That each of us must find. The one that, hopefully, will make us happy.