Natural parenting erases women’s needs

Eraser deleting the word Selfie

There’s a new kind of confessional essay making the rounds: “natural parenting destroyed me.”

Often it focuses on breastfeeding — how trying to maintain exclusive breastfeeding in the absence of adequate breastmilk make me and my baby crazy — but sometimes it concentrates on childbirth or attachment parenting.

Rachel Meyer hits all three in her essay A zen yoga teacher gets real about postpartum depression. Sadly she doesn’t get real at all about her postpartum depression, what might have caused it and what might have relieved it. Meyer became depressed that her personhood was erased by parenting without any insight into the fact that the type of parenting she chose is designed to erase women.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]The three ideologies that sail under the natural parenting flag were created explicitly as anti-feminist projects designed to force women back into the home.[/pullquote]

Meyer’s descriptions are searing.

On childbirth:

Labor was awful. Quick, brutal. The contractions rolled relentlessly, one after another, my body dehydrated from the vomiting.

I thought of my farmer grandmothers on the Nebraska prairie, popping out babies and heading back out to weed the rhubarb. I thought of my mother laboring in a Minneapolis blizzard, 35 years ago to the day. I thought of the magnolia tree blooming in our front yard, certain my pelvis would fracture.

On breastfeeding:

The first few months descended into a weary haze. My world had turned upside-down. Duke was sleepless, always-hungry, colicky, wanting only to be in my arms. I sat in a rocker and nursed for 20 hours a day, my shoulders and neck aching, head spinning, nipples cracked.

I couldn’t lay him down. I couldn’t take a walk. I couldn’t escape to the living room for 10 minutes to get back into the asana practice I’d missed so much during my pregnancy…

I pumped in the parking lot between classes. Nursing had taken over my life. Mantra-like, in time with the whirr-suck of the pump, I repeated to myself: Joan Didion did this. Ruth Bader Ginsburg did this. Hillary Clinton did this. They managed to salvage their intellects, their ambitions. Surely I can, too.

Attachment parenting:

That first year, Duke only slept well when he was connected. Curled up on my lap, sprawled on Robb’s chest, tucked in under my elbow. He’d reach his big Paul Bunyan paw out and land it square on my sternum, grabbing a chunk of my shirt in his little fist, burrowing his head into my armpit. It was like he sensed, he knew, somehow, that he needed to stay extra close to me, to remind me, to breathe into me, that truth of relationality.

The result?

Desolate with postpartum depression, I drained my breasts, slathered on nipple butter, nursed-finger-fed-pumped in an insomniac cycle and dreamt of getting on a plane to Paris and never coming back…

No wonder every mother is bitter and resentful, I thought. My life is over. Everything I loved is gone. Every moment, every breath, lost to this barely-sleeping, always-hungry little boy.

But every mother is not bitter and resentful. Meyer doesn’t seem to realize that it was natural mothering that destroyed her, not mothering itself.

What is natural mothering (more commonly called natural parenting though its burdens fall nearly exclusively on women)? It is a package of ideologies — natural childbirth, lactivism, and attachment parenting — that are thought to both recapitulate mothering in nature and be better for babies. Neither is true. Indeed all three ideologies that sail under the natural parenting flag were created explicitly as anti-feminist projects designed to force women back into the home.

Natural childbirth was promulgated by Grantly Dick-Read, an obstetrician and eugenicist who was pre-occupied with fears of white race suicide. Dick-Read worried that developed nations would be overrun by children of the lower classes. In his view, the problem was that white women of the “better” classes had become “over-civilized” through too much education and their clamoring for political and legal rights. Pain in childbirth was their punishment.

Dick-Read taught that “primitive” (read black) women had painless labors because they understood that their primary purpose in life was to reproduce and that white women, through their education and activism, had been socialized to fear labor leading to the “fear-tension-pain cycle” that he conjured from thin air.

La Leche League, the prime mover within the breastfeeding industry, was founded by a group of devout Catholic women who were deeply concerned that women with small children were working outside the home. They reasoned that Mary, mother of Jesus, would never have worked and that promoting breastfeeding would lead women to emulate Mary and to give up their jobs.

Attachment parenting also reflects religious beliefs, in this case the beliefs of its great popularizers, Bill and Martha Sears. In one of their first books, The Christian Guide to Parenting and Childcare, they confided that the ideology of attachment parenting had been transmitted to them by God as his plan for ordering the family with the husband as head and the wife subservient and concerned exclusively with raising the children.

All three philosophies share one thing in common: the belief that the needs of women are irrelevant, rendered invisible by the purported needs of babies. How ironic then that Meyer, a proud feminist, unwittingly embraced a parenting ideology that is deliberately retrograde and sexist. It’s hardly surprising then that in embracing natural parenting, Meyer lost herself.

It didn’t have to be that way.

Mayer did not have to endure childbirth in agony and dehydrated. Based on her description, Meyer chose unmedicated childbirth [edited: not homebirth as I wrongly surmised], deliberately depriving herself of access to an epidural. No doubt she chose homebirth because she thought it was both better for her baby and what her ancient (and not so ancient) foremothers would have chosen for themselves.

Yet homebirth has no benefits for babies, only an increased risk of death and disability. Meyer’s foremothers endured excruciating labors not as a choice but because they had NO choice. Meyer’s shattering suffering began with an ordeal prescribed by a philosophy that considers women’s agony (though not men’s) irrelevant or even ennobling.

Meyer lost herself in exclusive and endless breastfeeding. Why? Although breastfeeding has benefits, in countries with clean water those benefits are very small. But Meyer was apparently captured by lactivism a philosophy that has no qualms about lying to women over and over again. Lactivism teaches that all women can make enough breastmilk to satisfy a growing baby, but it is a medical fact that 5-15% of women (or more) won’t make enough milk and their babies will starve and suffer. Perhaps Meyer’s baby couldn’t sleep because he was hungry, but no doubt she had been told that even one bottle of formula would have a harmful effect on her baby (another lie).

Had Meyer supplemented with formula she could have gotten more sleep; she might have been able to put her baby down instead of keeping him attached to her awake and asleep; she could have had some time to meet her own needs. Sleep deprivation in particular is known to be a risk factor for postpartum depression. No matter, in lactivism and attachment parenting, women’s needs, including their need for sleep are entirely irrelevant.

Meyer suffered when she didn’t need to suffer. She was encouraged to erase her own needs and identity in order to do what was “best” for her baby, but there’s no evidence that babies benefit from natural parenting. Everything we know about childbirth tells us that making women comfortable in labor is NOT harmful to babies. Everything we know about infant nutrition tells us that infant formula is an excellent source of nutrition and that babies who are exclusively breastfed have no advantages over those who are supplemented. Everything we know about infant attachment tells us that babies attach spontaneously to anyone who meets their needs, no physical attachment necessary.

It’s time for us to PUSH BACK against the ideology of natural parenting because it is harmful to women without benefiting babies. It’s not based on science and it’s profoundly anti-feminist. That’s why I wrote my book. Although mothering often involves putting a baby’s needs first, it doesn’t require erasing women’s needs thereby launching them into postpartum depression.

Meyer was desolate when she lost herself in mothering, but she didn’t need to be desolate because she didn’t need to erase herself.