Natural parenting is unnatural

37452307 - unnatural vector word on red concrete wall

The biggest irony of natural parenting is that it is entirely unnatural.

As Petra Buskins explains in The Impossibility of “Natural Parenting for Modern Mothers:

Natural parenting is not a return to nature, but a return to “traditional” values.

Numerous histories of “the family” show us that intensive, romanticized caregiving carried out by biological mothers in the private sphere is an “invention of modern economic and political arrangements. It was only with the division of public and private and the shift from a domestic to an industrial economy, that mothers were cordoned off to a special occupation called “Motherhood.” Prior to this, women mothered with a community of men, women, and children and did so in and around a myriad of other subsistence oriented tasks…

In other words, natural parenting harks back not to nature, but to Victorian values:

…[W]ith the social changes brought about by the creation of a public sphere (populated by male citizens) together with industrialization and a free-market economy, women in western societies … were sequestered to the private sphere as glorified mothers …

This period of extreme romanticization of the role of mothers was followed by a period of rationalization. It was during this period that motherhood became regimented and “efficient.” Those were the years of rigid infant schedules, veneration of bottle feeding, and the glorification of parental authority. What we think of as “natural parenting” arose in response. Buskens quotes Diane Eyer writing in Mother-Infant Bonding: A Scientific Fiction:

The infant of the 1920s and 1930s was known to be in need of discipline. He should not be picked up everytime he cried or he would become spoiled and would not learn the important habits of living according to a strict and efficient schedule… In the 1940s and 1950 sthe infant was known to be in need of constant gratification. He should be picked up every time he cried or he would become frustrated and develop a neurotic personality…. In the 1970s, this idealized dyad [of mother and child] was threatened with dissolution.. ..Bonding was a kind of social medication for these problems at the same time that it seemed a means to humanize birth. It was eagerly purchasedby parent consumers who wished to preserve at least some remnant of power of the early maternal relationship as a kind of insurance against the unknown.

As Buskens notes:

The emphasis on maternal nurture as an antithesis to the dominant values of rational efficiency and liberal individualism,therefore, provides an invisible subtext of romantic opposition to western modernity. In other words, contained within this radical critique is a thinly veiled conservatism concerning the “natural” place of women …

So natural parenting is not a return to nature, but rather a return to the romanticized Victorian view that women should be immured within the home. Hence it is not a coincidence that natural parenting precludes women working outside the home; it is its central feature and raison d’être.

Buskens identifies William Sears as a major proponent of this ahistorical view of mothering designed to promote Victorian (i.e. “traditional”) values. Her critique of Sears and attachment parenting is both incisive and devastating:

Sears is specifically opposed to mother’s working outside the home and encourages 24-hour embodied care … [amounting] to an utterly exhausting regime of caregiving and patience for the mother. Her role as isolated caregiver precludes her participation in both paid work and socializing but we are assured this is a “natural” and “traditional” state of affairs. One wonders how such a blatant ignorance of history could go unnoticed by both Sears and his readers, but we have only to remember the emotional power of the word “mother.” In the name of this word, Sears manages to reconstruct the past and foreclose much of the future for new mothers.

Buskens takes advocates of attachment parenting to task for presenting their personal views as natural when they are anything but.

Under the emotional power of “instinct,” in other words, the experts have managed to obscure their own status as scientists rationally procuring more and more knowledge on the categories of motherhood, infancy, and childhood. This is classic enlightenment thinking: the improvement of the human condition through the use of scientific reason, yet it has managed, cleverly indeed, to fashion itself as a powerful critique of that very paradigm.

The reality is that natural parenting isn’t about children; it’s about women and their place in the world. Natural parenting is a rhetorical strategy to promote Victorian values.

As such, natural parenting isn’t ancient and it isn’t natural. It’s thoroughly modern effort to immure women in the home and foreclose the most of their future under the guise of what “best” for children.

  • nata

    I keep reading this here all the time and I don’t understand. I think lots of our parenting choices fall under attachment parenting: I had a homebirth with an NHS midwife. I breastfed when at home and expressed at work, fed baby at nights, used a sling, my husband started to use a stroller only when the baby turned maybe 6 months… However, I went back to university and long hospital placements when my baby was 6 weeks old, as I thought I had to continue to study for my family. With other kids I started work when I was comfortable leaving them, that was depending on circumstances – from 8 months to 2 years; but we had a generous social care system, so I could be on maternity leave for up to 2 years if I wanted. Most of my friends who practiced attachment parenting are also professional people. Maybe it depends on culture and lack of appropriate maternity leave in the US?

    I personally found using a sling and breastfeeding on the go liberating in contrast to the traditional ways of keeping babies in prams and using bottles. In my home town it was much easier to go places with my baby in a sling at a breast (discretely covered) rather than in a bulky pram. It did not hurt my back the way traditional structured carriers did; I could go on public transport without pushing through people and up the stairs without carrying the pram. I could also sooth baby on the go without much hassle – by breastfeeding, cuddling or walking him. So it was very easy and practical in comparison to managing baby, pram and bottles. Maybe if I lived in a suburban town and had to drive everywhere or it would be different.

    • crazy grad mama

      I think most commenters here would agree that if components of attachment parenting work for you, yay! I loved breastfeeding (although I did it in a very non-AP way and refused to use my breast as a pacifier). We switched back and forth between stroller and carrier depending on what worked for the situation and what my kid tolerated at the time. (He went through a phase from 3–6 months when he hated the carrier.)

      What this blog fights against are the ideas that:
      (a) attachment parenting, homebirth, etc. are “natural” (whatever “natural” means).
      (b) attachment parenting, homebirth, etc. are The Only Acceptable Choice And If You Don’t Do Them You’re A Bad Mother.
      (c) the experience of any individual parent translates to everyone. (e.g., a sling might not have hurt your back, but there are many people who would still have back trouble with slings)

      And yes, there are very big differences in UK vs. US. In the US, homebirth midwives are not trained medical professionals like NHS midwives.

  • Anna

    The natural parenting concept views women as human robots, no less. They don’t sleep, eat, they don’t even go to the bathroom. Just taking care of the baby, bonding, breastfeeding 24/7. Totally unnatural and impossible. I am a mom of a one year and six months old daughter and I am so exhausted sometimes. I can’t imagine where I would have been had I followed the guidelines of natural parenting. Like my friend, follower of the NCB cult and breastfeeding fanatic recently said: “I live in hell”. As for me I am tired but I definitely don’t live in hell. I would describe my parenting as a mostly positive experience and I am convinced that’s because I don’t follow the NP guidelines and have some space for me.

    • Empress of the Iguana People

      And then there are all the stories about toddlers escaping while parent is occupied, taking a leak, changing another child, or just plain fell asleep for 5 minutes because your just that exhausted. Last week one of my neighbors returned the heir apparent when he did a disappearing act while i was using the toilet.

      • Empress of the Iguana People

        Nowadays you may get brought up on charges

        • Sean Jungian

          At the very least you will be roundly shamed by the Sanctimommies you know, because apparently they’ve never heard of empathy.

  • Zornorph

    It’s grand to be an Englishman in 1910
    King Edward’s on the throne
    It’s the Age of Men
    I’m the lord of my castle
    The sovereign, the liege
    I treat my subjects, servants, children, wife
    With a firm but gentle hand
    Noblesse oblige

    It’s 6:03, and the heirs to my dominion
    Are scrubbed and tubbed and adequately fed
    And so I’ll pat them on the head and send them off to bed
    Ah, lordly is the life I lead

    • BeatriceC

      And now I have Mary Poppins songs stuck running through my head.

      Random trivia: When my kids were little they always made me sing “Feed the Birds” at bed time. They’d whine and cry if I didn’t, but if I did, they’d go right to sleep. They kept this up until the youngest was about four.

    • Cody

      I always had a big issue with the mother in that movie. Two pats especially “you know how the cause upsets Mr. Banks” and the bit where she ties her suffragette sash to the kite as a symbol of her recognition that she needs to be a proper mother and give up her feminism.

  • guest

    My sense of “natural” parenting (that is, parenting in days of yore, which I’m not sure why are more “natural” than now) is that it involved a lot more ignoring of children while attending to more important needs, such as gathering food.

    • BeatriceC

      Older community members and older children who were still too young to work generally took care of the babies and toddlers while mom worked the fields or did any of the other million tasks that were required to live in the age before modern conveniences.

      • guest

        That sounds a lot cheaper than daycare!

      • Mrs.Katt the Cat

        That’s why everyone wanted grandbabies- they finally got baby time!

      • Bombshellrisa

        My grandfather told me that he and his siblings were always in charge of all but the newborn in his family. They dug a hole in the ground to keep the littlest ones in one place, it was a primitive playpen.

  • Sue

    Prolonged one-on-one parenting can’t possibly be ‘natural’, because it’s only since effective contraceptive measures that mothers have stopped having a baby every year.

    • Empress of the Iguana People

      and breastfeeding is rather poor preventio for most

    • AnnaPDE

      Though admittedly, in a natural setting, not all of them make it, so that thins things out…

  • StephanieA

    My boys spend a decent amount of time with various family members. They started sleeping over at grandma’s by 3 months. My oldest continues to spend the night there 1-2 nights per week. My husband and I regularly go on trips without kids. Obviously we are very lucky to have the help we do, but I talk to so many mothers who couldn’t fathom doing this, even though they have family around. The annoying thing is that nobody bats an eye that my husband spends nights without our kids, because it’s only necessary to make mothers feel like crap.

    • Emilie Bishop

      I grew up like that. My parents loved it. Now I live away from family and it’s very different. I don’t get my friends who think they gave to do it all for their kids when they have ready and willing help. I would kill for that, and they reject it. SMH…

      • Immerito

        It depends on the help. In a healthy family situation, it can work.

        Not everyone has a healthy family situation.

    • Sean Jungian

      I moved to this frozen farmland specifically so my son could grow up near his grandparents and cousins. I think it’s actually really important for kids to have relationships with different age groups. Mine spent a lot of time with his cousins after school at his great-grandma’s, as she lived near the elementary school so the kids would walk over there for chocolate milk and snacks and lovin’ and learning to get along with cousins until parents got out of work at 5.

      He used to spend many weekends out at his grandparents’ farm, too, until he got so busy with sports and school and part-time jobs here “in town”, but his grandma still calls him up and says, “I’m picking you up at school Friday, okay? I want to see you”. Then he goes out there and gets spoiled and helps his (somewhat terrifying lol) grandfather in the shop and doing chores.

      I just think kids need a wider variety of experiences and opportunities to develop relationships with other people. When I moved here, it was because I wanted my son to know that he could count on more people than JUST ME to have his back.

    • The Bofa on the Sofa

      Obviously we are very lucky to have the help we do, but I talk to so many mothers who couldn’t fathom doing this, even though they have family around.

      Man, I wish…

    • Empress of the Iguana People

      i keep offering my kids to my empty-nester friends when they start talking about missing when their kids were little. Occasionally, one of ’em will take me up on it

    • Heidi

      I’m the only person with a child right now among my friends, but I have stumbled online upon the sanctimommies who think it’s neglect to leave the child with well-trusted grandparents (who obviously managed to raise children themselves) or even more absurd, elder abuse, before some crazy age like 5 years old. We went on our first trip when baby was almost 6 months. I was about to lose it staying home with baby day in and day out and my husband equally needed to catch up on sleep and take a break from work. A couple of times we’ve sent the baby over to the grandparents while we simply had a staycation. Sometimes, it’s nice to go to a family unfriendly restaurant and sleep in!

  • And worse, this feeds into a cycle where girls, knowing what happens to “mothers” and their careers, either eschew motherhood entirely or forego opportunities to enrich their economic prospects. If you know that you’re going to the “Mommy Track” – why would you invest heavily in the training needed to be economically competitive? Why would you get an advanced degree? Perhaps the most feminist thing a woman can do, is find a balance between the public sphere and the private sphere and empower her spouse to take on a large chunk of the care providing. Demonstrate that being “mother” does not automatically mean sacrificing “woman” and her abilities to meaningfully contribute outside of the home. The challenge is, how do we support men to take on more of the caregiving burden, and women to take on more of the public sphere? AP and Natural Parenting, isn’t it – we need to be able to be cafeteria parents, with the ability to select the approaches that work best at an individual level…

    • Sean Jungian

      I hate that fathers are so often left completely out of most of the parenting “advice” that we see. I would venture to say that they are probably not too happy about it, either?

      I feel exhausted even reading a brief survey of AP parenting. I would lose my mind.

      • LaMont

        Quotes from our new president on the man’s role in parenting:

        “I mean, I won’t do anything to take care of them.”

        Melania would make a good mother, Trump mused, because she’d “take great care of the child, without my having to do very much.”

        “Right, I’m going to be walking down 5th Avenue with a baby in a carriage,” he scoffed. “It just didn’t work.”

        “There are a lot of women out there who demand that the husband act like the wife, and there are a lot of husbands that listen to that, and so, they go for it.”

        And of course, pregnant women are inconvenient and breastfeeding mothers are disgusting.

        http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/trumps-backwards-views-on-parenting-are-dangerous-af_us_57717819e4b017b379f6d602

        • Sean Jungian

          I was thinking earlier when I read that he wanted to get rid of the “Head of Household” tax designation (used by single parents like me):

          “Hmm, pretty much like how all his wives had to be single parents…”

          I think he said basically that Marla raised their daughter Tiffany and all he did was provide the money. Which, I shall grant, isn’t nothing but still.

          • The Bofa on the Sofa

            I guess I don’t understand what a “head of the household” means if it doesn’t include single parents.

          • guest

            With married couples, one partner can be head of household, but not both. The new definition is basically saying that you don’t have a household if you don’t have two adults in it. It certainly doesn’t make sense if you look at it from the point of view of what’s best for the child. I think in its original intent, “head of household” was to compensate for a man taking a wife. You know, back when women were all supposed to stay at home? A man who got married would be penalized – same income, but now supporting another person. Head-of-household filing provided a tax deduction to soften this. We then extended it to single parent families at some point in time. Trump is trying to walk it back.

        • Given what we know of the president elect – perhaps a limited role in his children’s lives was indeed in the “best interests of the child”…but that has nothing to do with gender. In truth, more time in the daddy trenches would have done him a world of good, perhaps he’d understand more about humanity, about doing the right thing, about putting someone other than himself first…

        • N

          How nice.

          Yes, I force my husband to do the laundry, put the two older kids to bed, while I look after the youngest, not only change diapers, but also wash them as we use cloth diapers (my idea), go on a walk with little one, even with little one in a carrier, take the kids to the playing park, etc… and I am not even going to serve him a good steak or spare ribs, as he is vegan and does most of the cooking around here. He is just weak! And totally under my influence! He must be the woman and I the man than? Oh, no. Some of our body parts tell clearly who is the man and the woman in our house… I guess it is just we Europeans that are funny.

      • StephanieA

        My husband does get irritated at the breastfeeding=bonding message. He felt like giving our babies bottles was a great bonding experience for him, and our kids are just as ‘attached’ to him as they are to me.

        On the flip side, I think dads feel a lot less pressure to be perfect.

        • Sean Jungian

          I always forget that, even though I breastfed, I also pumped so my son got PLENTY of bottles (from his dad, aunties, grandparents, etc). Which I guess negates my “bonding”.

          I did also give him cereal and formula as time went on if I didn’t happen to have any breastmilk thawed.

        • Zornorph

          The double standard is ridiculous. I get praised for doing things that would get a single mother shamed. All I have to do is keep Kiddo alive and I’m considered to be doing a good job.

          • BeatriceC

            MrC was a single father for the last 5 years of his daughters’ minority, as his wife passed away when they were 13. He had the same experience. He was practically elevated to sainthood for just being a father. Even now, when we’ve been chatting with friends, certain sub-conscious reactions can be clearly seen, and their attitudes are clearly different towards his years as a single father vs my years as a single mother.

          • StephanieA

            Yes! I work long shifts so my husband is with our kids about the same amount of time that I am. He is treated so differently than I am when he takes the kids out- he gets lots of compliments. People see single fathers as honorable while single mothers are whores that mooch off the government.

        • Allie

          Breastfeeding=bonding is bull. I breastfed for just short of 23 months (not by choice or design, but because that’s how it worked out for us for various reasons completely unique to us). However, my daughter bonded very well with her father, grandparents, and other relatives who cared for her in various ways. Sure, boobs are great (my daughter was a real boob junkie, believe me), but babies respond to care in all its beautiful forms. Change a diaper, give her a bath, clean up her vomit, and she will love you. I’ve taken to telling expectant moms that the best and only advice I can give is “don’t listen to any advice.” Nod, smile, say “how nice,” and do what works for you.

          • Sarah

            I can believe there are women who breastfeed and feel that was an essential part of their bonding. I just don’t see why that experience needs to be universalised.

          • fosterparent

            It is bull. Abused kids in foster care who were beaten, mentally abused and traded for sex so their parents could get drugs and THEY are bonded to their parents. So readers, if you think that you need to breastfeed and hold a baby 24/7 to be bonded, you are wrong. Kids can bond to a primary caretaker with much less contact and even negative contact. Yes, a child can bond to a caretaker that smacks them around all day, I have seen it.

            So you loving parents who bottle feed, have a baby sleep in a crib, go to daycare, etc are still going to have a rock solid bond with your baby. Well, until they become asshole teenagers.

      • Zornorph

        Oh, it’s frustrating sometimes. Trying to find useful information early on was not as easy as it should have been as the vast majority of it was so mother oriented. And lots of the ‘father’ books just basically said ‘support your partner’.

    • SporkParade

      The problem is that, even if they want to, it’s not always practical for men to take on more of the caregiving burden. My husband and I are going through this right now. For a whole bunch of reasons, including supporting my career, it makes sense for him to find a “mommy track” kind of job. But in his male-dominated field, those kinds of positions simply don’t exist or they are incredibly boring and half the pay for almost the same number of hours.

      • Sean Jungian

        “those kinds of positions simply don’t exist or they are incredibly boring and half the pay for almost the same number of hours.”

        That’s the practical definition of a “mommy track” job.

  • CSN0116

    The happiest mothers I know either dabble in natural parenting only to the extent that they find appealing, or eschew it altogether. The babies? Well they’re happiest regardless of parenting style.

  • J.B.

    I am glad that baby carriers were popularized as I loved using them (at least until my second child decided she was independent, thankyouverymuch) but I have no earthly idea why a lot of moms go on full AP. No way am I sharing a bed with a squirmy toddler!

    • Heidi_storage

      Amen! Carrying Miss Fussy Firstborn was the only way to get her to stop crying, so it worked for me, but I’d sooner sleep with a hungry wolf than now-three-year-old Daughter.

      But I know families that are very happy bedsharing with their kids, and if that works for them, great! It is both false and unnecessary to appeal to some sort of “natural” paradigm for one’s parenting decisions. Beyond supplying food, shelter, love, safety, and medical care, it really doesn’t concern me how parents choose to deal with their kiddos. (Unless they’re teaching them to be jerks, obviously.)

    • Mishimoo

      I’ve been sharing a bed with a sick 3 year old for nearly a week and it is hell. I don’t know how bedsharing parents do it; I’m exhausted and running on coffee.

      • J.B.

        I’m sorry it’s been tough, hope you go back to your own bed soon!

        • Mishimoo

          Thanks! He’s coming into ours anytime between 11pm to 4am, and cries loudly if I try to resettle him in his bed. Hand, foot, and mouth is a miserable virus and I’m glad he’s getting better but I can’t help wishing it could be avoided with a vaccine.

    • Chant de la Mer

      It’s nice to share a bed with a little one and snuggle for a few hours in the morning or one night when the other parent is gone but ugh sharing my bed with my children every night? No way! They have their own room and beds and I have mine. Aside from restless sleep, I need private space for myself and for my relationship with my husband. Plus I really like nice bedding and the quickest way to ruin really nice bedding is to let grubby kids get their grubby hands/bodies on it. Mom and dad are old enough to take care of nice things but the kids aren’t so they don’t get to come in except on special occasions, and the rest of the house is appropriately done so that they can’t damage it so I NEED one place as a bastion of grownup style.

    • Sean Jungian

      I have never been able to relax completely with my son in my bed. His habit of turning sideways in the bed didn’t help.

      Back in the nightmares/bedwetting days, I would lay down with him in HIS bed (after changing linens of course) until he fell asleep, then return to my own comfy bed.

    • Allie

      Hubs and I have slept in the same bed with our daughter since she was 5 1/2 months old (she was beside the bed in a bassinet before that), and we love it. Wouldn’t trade it for the world, but that’s our choice, and I completely understand (and envy a little!) parents whose kids sleep in their own rooms. Point being, to each his own, without judgment, as long as everyone is healthy and happy.

      • J.B.

        Yeah, I should add…whatever works for you. The way I hear some moms talk, they go for the bedsharing because that is the AP thing to do, not because it actually gives them better sleep.

    • AnnaPDE

      This. Mr 11 months is crawling all over the place in his sleep until he finds some good corner to wedge himself into. In his cot, that’s fairly easy to find. In a king-size bed, it involves kicking me in the face, trying to fit under dad’s bum, nearly falling off the foot end, then burrowing between out pillows with his face in one. And when h’s finally found a stable position, he kicks every 20 min or so. No thanks, that’s barely acceptable for a quick nap, and not at all for the night.

    • Toni35

      For us, it definitely allowed better sleep for all. We tried and tried to get our oldest to sleep in her crib. Six months later I was depressed and my husband started having hallucinations (seriously scary). We gave up on the whole crib thing at that point. With our subsequent three children, we didn’t bother about the crib at all (well, we did give it a go with baby #2, but after a couple weeks it became clear that our offspring have some genetic anomaly whereby setting them in a crib causes intense, unrelenting screaming). That said, they were all sleeping independently sometime between 10 months and 18 months of age. Just recently made the transition with our 15 month old. It is lovely to have the bed to ourselves again. The only drawback is that after a week of her sleeping in her own room (through the night and everything… She was the easiest to transition of the bunch) my period finally returned :(. Ah well, it was bound to come back soon either way, lol. I guess for us bed sharing wasn’t so much about going full on AP, but rather about what allowed everyone to get enough sleep to function.