NEW YORK – You could call Elisabeth Badinter a very lucky woman. It's not just that she's wealthy, successful, a respected scholar and a best-selling writer in her home country, France (yep, she gets to live in Paris, too.)
It's also that Badinter, who specializes in provocative books about feminism and motherhood — including "The Conflict," just released in the United States — has never heard the expression "Mommy Wars."
"Ah, quelle horreur!" is her succinct response upon hearing the term (Translation: "How awful!") In France, she explains in a telephone interview, mothers don't judge each other's parenting choices quite so much — at least not publicly. The unspoken corollary: the Mommy Wars are a very American phenomenon.
And they are very much in the news these days. The confluence in less than a month of a campaign-trail scuffle involving Mitt Romney's wife, Ann; Badinter's new book; and most of all a provocative magazine cover — conveniently tied to Mother's Day — has led to a burst of online chatter and a renewal of those "Mommy Wars" headlines.
But it has also led to reflection, and calls for a cease-fire in those same wars, as well as a jettisoning of the phrase itself. Aren't we finally ready, some are asking, to give it a rest, and acknowledge what many already feel — that there are lots of ways to be a good mother?
"It's time to end the Mommy Wars," wrote Jen Singer recently on her blog, Mommasaid.net. "How about we all stop arguing over which mom works harder and whether or not Ann Romney worked at all and who bakes a better cookie, Hillary Clinton or Barbara Bush?"
"So who's with me?" wrote another prominent "mommy blogger," Katie Allison Granju. "Who will join my proposed campaign of non-violent resistance against the mommy wars?"
The term "Mommy Wars" has been around for at least two decades — it appeared in a 1990 Newsweek piece on the struggle between working and stay-at-home mothers. But the term seems to have expanded to encompass any divisive parenting issue, and it's recycled every time a new motherhood controversy arises.
So headline writers sprung to action when a Democratic consultant remarked on CNN in April that Ann Romney "never worked a day in her life" — and thus was ill-equipped to educate her husband on the economic concerns of American women.
When Romney countered that raising five sons was hard work indeed, the consultant, Hilary Rosen, quickly apologized and called for "peace in this phony war." But the episode dovetailed nicely with the U.S. release soon after of Badinter's book, "The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women," which argues that women are held back, imprisoned even, by the current emphasis on "natural" motherhood — including extended breast-feeding, co-sleeping, and so-called "attachment parenting."
The 68-year-old Badinter emphasizes that she's not writing about American women in her book. But it's clear to her and everyone else that the issues she addresses are more pressing in the United States than in France. "It's true that it exists more in your country," she says, speaking in French. "It's a small minority in France, but I am still hearing it here, from young women, and I wanted to write about it to stop it from getting bigger."
Badinter has caused controversy before, arguing, for example, that there is no such thing as a "maternal instinct." She has long been associated with feminist causes, but this time, she feels what's holding women back is not men, but other women, and even (unwittingly) children, with the demands of "natural" motherhood.
Especially the emphasis on breast-feeding.
"We assign this guilt to women who don't breast-feed," she says. "Think how that weighs on each mother. 'It's a duty!' 'A duty of health!' I fight against that."
Which brings us to last week's Time Magazine cover.
The article was about attachment parenting and its longtime guru, Dr. Bill Sears. But on the cover was not Sears but Los Angeles stay-at-home mom Jamie Lynne Grumet, 26, with her 3-year-old son standing on a chair, suckling at her breast. As attention-getting as the photo — well, maybe not quite — was the headline: "Are You Mom Enough?"
Some moms were certainly angry enough.
"No, I am not Mom enough," wrote family columnist Lisa Belkin at the Huffington Post. "I am not Mom enough to take the bait." (Others wondered if there would ever be a cover asking men, "Are You Dad Enough?")
Granju picked up from there. On the Huffington Post and on her own blog, Mama Pundit, she urged moms to follow Belkin's lead and "end these godforsaken, destructive, exploitative and made-up 'mommywars' once and for all by sitting down wherever we are and simply refusing to engage any further."
But are these Mommy Wars still raging? Not everybody thinks so.
"In my Salt Lake City community, they are over," says Kathy Dalton, a mother of two and CEO of a skin care company. "Instead, we collaborate, create and celebrate. I have never heard a mom in our community criticize another mother over their parenting choices. The feeling of 'we're in this together' is very strong."
Rita Colorito, mother of a 6-year-old son in Glen Ellyn, Ill., says moms like her don't even have time for such debates. "I'm too busy being a mom to worry about what the heck any other moms do with their time or think of me," says Colorito, a freelance health writer. "I think the war exists for those in the Ivory Tower who get paid to continue this ridiculous waste of everyone's time."
Others, though, feel the wars are going strong.
"Moms are always judging moms," says Lynn MacDonald of Greensboro, N.C., a mother of three kids 18 and older. "I can't imagine it'll ever change as long as moms are human beings." Adds Sarah Barrett of Los Angeles, who has two daughters and runs a company that makes handmade greeting cards: "I hate to admit this, but I don't think the Mommy Wars will ever end. There are too many judgy women who criticize and teach their daughters to do the same."
New Jersey mom Debra Rutt agrees, with a caveat: "As long as there are moms who work and moms who stay at home and moms who have and moms who have not, the mommy wars will continue," she says. "It's human nature to judge one another." But Rutt, who works full time in public relations, notes that "the war between mommies is not constant. There is a common ground and there are truce periods, but then politicians get involved and somehow stir the pot."
Singer, the MommaSaid blogger and New Jersey mom, hopes we're talking about more than a series of temporary truces.
"I really want to think we've evolved beyond the skirmishes of working moms vs. stay-at-home moms," says Singer, whose online followers used to be exclusively stay-at-home moms, but now, she says, comprise a real mix. "I don't see it happening in the real world — on the soccer sidelines, at kids' track meets. I DO see it in the media, whenever there's a new manifesto on motherhood. Everyone talks about it for a while, and then we all go back to doing what's best for ourselves and our families."
In other words, there is no perfect formula. On that, Singer would find a surprising ally in Badinter, with whose book she does not generally agree.
The term "Mommy Wars," Badinter says, "signifies to me that one wants an absolute model for motherhood.
"But we are all different," the French author notes. "Human mothers are never perfect."