Artisanal mothering


On Mother’s Day I wrote about my firm belief that love makes a mother, not birth choices.

But apparently, loving your child is no longer enough. Contemporary natural parenting aficionados appear to view their children as status symbols whose birth and feeding serve to proclaim the superiority of their mothers. Just as in certain circles artisanal food proclaims a superior hostess, in parenting circles specific parenting practices, natural childbirth, breastfeeding, family bed, etc. proclaim a superior mother. I think of these parenting practices as artisanal mothering.

What does artisanal mean? According to

pertaining to or noting a high-quality or distinctive product made in small quantities, usually by hand or using traditional methods

Traditional, and traditionally labor intensive processes are required to produce artisanal cheese or artisanal bread. The maker takes no shortcuts, and avoid all conveniences in producing artisanal products, and that supposedly makes for a superior product. Greater suffering = higher quality.

In the world of natural parenting, traditional and traditionally painful and inconvenient processes are required to produce artisanal children. The mother takes no shortcuts, and avoids all conveniences and that supposedly makes for superior children. Greater suffering = higher quality.

Personally, I blame Martha Stewart for the obsession with artisanal products. Don’t get me wrong; I love Martha. The foyer of my home is graced by a vase, stenciled over faux painted walls, above a hand made, decoratively shaped shelf. Martha showed me how to do it, told me I was capable, and sent me off to buy stencils, faux painting supplies and a jig saw. I’m proud of how it all came out and how many thousands of dollars I saved in the process. I suffered to produce the vase, painted walls and handmade shelf, but I don’t kid myself; it’s only cheaper than what a professional could have produced, not better. Professionals probably could have done a superior job.

Similarly, artisanal children may be cheaper to raise, and require a great deal more suffering on the part of the mother, but they are not a superior product. Natural childbirth can produce an agonized mother and a cheaper delivery, but not a better baby. Indeed there is considerable evidence that traditional methods of giving birth are more likely to produce a damaged child than hiring a professional. Breastfeeding may take an extraordinary effort and commitment on the part of the mother, and may be cheaper to provide, but it doesn’t make for a better baby. Indeed, in some settings, formula is actually better for babies. The family bed may more inconvenient for the parents and cheaper than a separate crib, but it does not provide a superior baby, either. In the world of mothering, there is no evidence of any kind that traditional methods involving a lot of physical suffering on the part of the mother produce a superior product.

Artisanal mothering (natural childbirth, breastfeeding, baby wearing, co-sleeping) emphasizes process over outcome. But in raising children, it is outcome (happy, healthy children) that matters, not process. Moreover, children should be viewed as ends in themselves, not as means for demonstrating maternal superiority.

Buying in to natural parenting is like buying artisanal cheese. If you like it, and it works for you, go for it! But don’t ever confuse what you like with what is best. Buying artisanal cheese does not mark you as a socially superior person, and buying into natural parenting does not mark you as a better mother.