The mothering quest and the construction of the maternal hero

Pregnant Woman Mother Character Super Hero Red Cape Chest Crest

You cannot understand the discourse around contemporary parenting in the US without understanding this central reality:

Every woman is the hero of her own mothering story.

That’s the essence of the mommy-wars. It has nothing to do with children, although children are ostensibly the focus; it has nothing to do with science, although science is often subverted for the purpose; it has everything to do with women and how they wish to see themselves, especially in comparison with other women.

The response to my piece in TIME about shaming of formula feeding mothers was notable for a total lack of regret that formula feeding mothers are feeling shamed by efforts to promote breastfeeding. Not a single person writing about the piece was moved to ask how lactivists might craft a message that promotes breastfeeding without shaming women who can’t or don’t wish to breastfeed. That’s hardly surprising, though, if you understand that one of the central motivations of lactivism in the US is to construct the breastfeeding mother as a hero flaunting her superiority in front of other, lesser mothers.

The mother as quest hero is at the heart of nearly all parenting movements based in part, or in whole, on pseudoscience.

[pullquote align=”right” color=”#005fb9″]The mommy wars are fights to the emotional death so that some mothers can claim heroic status while grinding other mothers into the dust.[/pullquote]

Consider this description of a heroic quest:

  • The call to adventure: The hero is “called” by [her]self or others to complete a task that will take [her] away from [her] regular “role” in [her] own society.
  • The entry into the unknown: As a result of the call, the hero must leave the safety of [her] own known community and venture into a world of unknown dangers.
  • Facing tests and trials: The hero faces a number of challenges on [her] journey… Heroes are often tempted to give up or give in.
  • Sages: All heroes have guides to receive unexpected help on their journey…
  • A supreme ordeal: This is the MOST difficult challenge or obstacle that the hero faces. Completing and overcoming this “trial” marks the end of the “testing” stage where the hero had to prove [her] worth…
  • The return: The hero [her]self receives a reward of honour, acknowledgement, respect and perhaps love for [her] efforts…

Compare that to the classic “birth story” so beloved of birth bloggers and other natural childbirth advocates.

  • The mother is “called” to have an unmedicated vaginal birth and prepares by doing “her research.”
  • She leaves the safety and comforts of medicated hospital birth.
  • She faces tests and trials: refusal of standard preventive tests and interventions, arguments with relatives and friends about the wisdom of her choices, and the attitudes of hospital personnel who are nearly always constructed as unsupportive. She is tempted with offers of pain relief and C-section.
  • Her midwife and her doula are her sages who guide her on her quest.
  • The supreme ordeal is navigating labor (the longer and more excruciating the better; the best is to ignore calls that your child is at risk) and “achieving” an unmedicated vaginal birth (preferably with minimal or no vaginal tearing).
  • The hero receives honor, acknowledgment and respect for her achievement. Most importantly, she emerges “empowered.”

In other words, the mother is always the hero of her children’s birth stories, and by her heroism, she conveys her superiority over other mothers. Her heroic status rests on rather tenuous scientific grounds. In order for a mother to be a hero for having unmedicated vaginal birth, unmedicated vaginal birth must be vastly superior to the way most women give birth. It isn’t superior at all, so birth activists and birth industries (midwifery, doula care) must subvert science to pretend that it is.

The heroic mother myth is at the heart of contemporary lactivism, where the lactating mother faces pain, inadequate milk supply, and inconvenience, braves the temptation of formula feeding, is guided by a lactation consultant and achieves the quest of not a single drop of formula ever crossing her child’s lips. In order for a mother to be a hero for breastfeeding her child exclusively for months or even a year, breastmilk must be portrayed as vastly superior to infant formula. It isn’t vastly superior; in industrialized countries, the benefits are trivial, but lactivists subvert the scientific evidence to pretend that breastfeeding provides tremendous, lifelong benefits.

Even anti-vaccination advocacy depends on the quest trope. The mother goes on a journey of discovery by reading anti-vax screeds and websites, faces the pressures of relatives, friends and medical professionals, triumphantly refuses to vaccinate, and receives honor and acknowledgement in the anti-vax community for her heroism.

If the heroic mother fantasy affected only those who sought to make themselves mothering heroes, there would be no problem. Unfortunately, portraying themselves as mothering heroes comes at the expense of two vulnerable groups. The first, and by far the most important, are the children themselves. Unfortunately, they serve as little more than props in the quest story. They exist to be acted upon and their actual well being is irrelevant. Hence a natural childbirth aficionado will risk her child’s health and sometimes even her child’s life to complete her heroic quest. Lactivists will let babies cry desperately in hunger and even let them starve, sometimes nearly to death, in order to complete her lactation quest. Anti-vax parents live in a dream world unmoored from reality where the scientifically illiterate are heroically “knowledgeable.”

The other group affected by the fantasy of the heroic mothering quest is the women who don’t view mothering as a quest. They can and should ignore the women who are desperate to cast mothering as a quest and themselves as heroes, but that’s harder than you might think. Why? Because the quest mothers, in an effort to demonstrate their own superiority, have hijacked public health messages, particularly in the area of breastfeeding. The heroic quest appears to require shaming women who refuse to consider motherhood a quest. That’s why no one promoting World Breastfeeding Week thought to ask how the message of support for breastfeeding might be modified to minimize shaming of other mothers. They WANT other mothers to be ashamed; they’re HAPPY they are ashamed; the last thing they want to do is to mitigate that shame. If mothers who formula feed aren’t failures at the quest, how can the mothers who breastfeed be heroes?

Don’t be fooled. The mommy wars over childbirth, breastfeeding and even vaccination have NOTHING to do with children. The portrayal of mothering as a quest has NOTHING to do with actually mothering children. The desperate desire to create mommy heroes and mommy losers has NOTHING to do with science. The mommy wars are fights to the emotional death so that some mothers can claim heroic status while grinding other mothers into the dust. It’s ugly; it’s wrong; and the rest of us should refuse to countenance it.