The bizarre assumptions behind natural parenting

50519094 - human evolution digital illustration, homo erectus, australopithecus,sapiens

Last week I explained that, contrary to the conceit of its advocates, contemporary natural parenting harks back NOT to nature, but rather a Victorian era romanticization of motherhood. I quoted extensively from Petra Buskens’ The Impossibility of “Natural Parenting” for Modern Mothers

Today I’d like to flesh out that romanticization so we can see how dramatically natural parenting deviates from mothering in nature. Buskens has a lot to say on this as well.

Mothers who think they are doing things “naturally” are absurdly naive about both the throughly modern concerns that motivate natural parenting and the critical role that technology plays in its transmission.

1. On the faulty notion that hunter-gather societies were the apogee of human existence:

[Many attachment parenting advocates] seem blissfully unaware of the social differences between a hunter-gatherer society and a modern one other than to deem the former “good” and the latter “bad.” The corollary to this crude formulation is that western mothers have become too “civilized to care and that this socialization must be expurgated in favour of a “natural” way of life.

Grantly Dick-Read, the father of natural childbirth, was explicit in his insistence that childbirth in nature was painless and that it was over-civilization that socialized women to believe that childbirth is painful. That is obviously nonsense, but that nonsense has extended to lactivism and attachment parenting, which postulate a natural Garden of Eden where parenting was perfect, having only degenerated since them.

2. On the bizarre belief that hunter-gather societies were uniform across vast tracts of both time and space culminating in the racist trope of the noble savage:

…[T]he “primitive” is constructed as an “empty category” in this kind of formulation; a site of redemption upon which Westerners can project their own anxieties and fantasies. A close reading suggests, moreover, that advocates of “natural” parenting in fact select childcare practices that correspond to current western anxieties: for example, the “breakdown” of the family, or the changing role of women. And so, women are encouraged to mother with the embodied devotion simplistically attributed to “primitives.” … It is rather naively assumed that the stability or harmony lacking in us can be found elsewhere and then simply appropriated, as if culture were as simple as stitching a patchwork quilt. Again this is classic romantic nostalgia for the “noble savage” arising in conditions of destabilizing social change. It depends on the glorification of social practice in non- industrialized societies, and the demonization of practices in industialised ones.

3. On the attempt to valorize primitive practices by the misuse of science:

[Natural parenting advocates] assume special access to some unadulterated, traditional wisdom and then proceed to demonstrate (and defend) this through the process of scientific study. It kills two birds with the one stone so to speak, by defending the natural or instinctual (which, in this instance, doubles for caring, softer) approach with the indisputable rigour of science. No matter what ideological ends the research serves (conservative family values or romantic resistance to the rational-efficiency model), it does so under the powerful rubric of science. This carries with it it’s own specific set of dilemmas, yet these experts have been spectacularly successful in disseminating their ideas popularly as a challenge to scientific-rationalism.

Hence the demonization of obstetric interventions in general and C-sections in particular. Hence the gross exaggeration of the benefits of breastfeeding and the pretzel-like logic of those who are desperate to insist that delayed umblical cord clamping is beneficial. It isn’t enough for natural parenting advocates to claim superiority based on tradition; they insist that science validates traditional practice when it emphatically does not.

4. On the insistence that natural parenting harks back to nature when it is indisputably modern:

[Natural parenting advocates] engage in rhetorical strategy to present their own partial and loaded (that is, “natural”) account of what is “best for baby.” An account that can only ever be modern because it is ensconced within a public debate of competing truth claims; because it is conveyed through the abstract mediums of science and writing; and because it is read by individuals largely divested oftheir “traditions.” … As such, this expert discourse is itself emblematic of the shift from predetermined tradition (the organic and unquestioned transmission of social custom) to a constantly revised present (the modern reflexive world order where multiple discourses compete for truth status)…

In other words, if you have to transmit your views through books, websites and Facebook pages, you are offering the opposite of the natural.

Natural parenting is unnatural:

Again, if we look at social histories of private life we can see that isolated caregivingis a product of the modern gendered split between public and private spheres. There is nothing “traditional”about this. Therefore, while mothering as a practice has intensified through the post-enlightenment emphasis on “good mothering,” this has also taken place in a context of diminishing support with the loss of the traditional, coherent community or “gemeinschaftn.” Mothers are thus attempting to carry out rigorous schedules of attached mothering in an increasingly fragmented and unsupportive social context. And while some aspects of the attachment style may be derived from non-industrialized cultures, the fact that this style of care is first encountered through the purchase and consumption of books themselves written by experts and then carried out by privatized mothers in isolated nuclear families, means “natural” or “attachment” parenting cannot claim in any truthful sense to be outside of modern practice.

Natural parenting is unnatural because it reflects a sanitized and romanticized view of nature, because it reflects a thoroughly modern gender segregation that never occurred in nature, because in nature it “takes a village” to raise a child, not a solitary mother practicing “natural parenting” and because it is just another form of highly technological consumerism.

Natural parenting advocates who think they are mothering as their ancient foremothers did are deluding themselves since our ancient foremothers did not view mothers as solitary caregivers and did not live within gender segregated societies where women “stayed home” while men undertook the work of ensuring the family’s survival.

Natural parenting advocates who think they are copying the “best” way of caring for children are woefully ignorant of the multiplicity of cultures across ancient time and space.

Natural parenting advocates who think they are doing things “naturally” are absurdly naive about both the throughly modern concerns that motivate natural parenting and the critical role that technology plays in its transmission.

These ironies are lost on the sanctimommies who imagine they are recapitulating nature when they are actually falling victim to the relentless consumerism of contemporary culture.

  • fran

    As an anthropologist who has worked extensively among indigenous People in Amazonia – a prototypical “traditional” people- I am always shocked to hear about how indigenous People have a “more Natural” approach to parenting. Anyone who says that has obviously no clue about indigenous lives and culture.

    • The Bofa on the Sofa

      Thanks. Maybe at some point if you get a chance and the time is right, you might be able to provide more details.

      What do you think about midwives parading as anthropologists like Melissa Cheney? I always figured that if anyone should know the dangers of childbirth, it would be anthropologists.

  • CSN0116

    Finally somebody (or somebodies) said it. The most ardent “natural mommas” I know are also the least natural in all practical ways. They are the most hell-bent on receiving no familial help or “intrusion” of any kind during the delivery and postpartum period. These women will not allow their own mothers and mother-in-laws to see, hold or feed their babies for days, sometimes weeks. And the baby must be swiftly handed back to mom.They hang signs on their front doors stating that no visitors are allowed. Nothing can interrupt the “bonding.” It’s all about how independent they can be and how hard they can suffer to achieve it.

    That’s because natural mothering isn’t about nature. It’s about martyrdom. Nobody in their right fucking mind would trade a (nearly) pain-free childbirth for foregoing drugs just cuz, or accepting the help of others for being overwhelmed, isolated and depressed. It’s totally UNnatural to want to make your life burdensome and difficult.

    • Emilie Bishop

      YES! I know so many martyr-moms, those who are gung-ho about natural patenting and those who are less so, but so many are more concerned with giving the appearance of doing everything for everyone all by themselves than actually doing what’s best for themselves or their kids (or their husbands). I have chronic pelvic pain from endometriosis–I can’t do it all for my toddler. And I’ve struggled to find help in part because I’m surrounded by all these martyrs who don’t understand how exhausted and in pain I am. It’s a ridiculous mindset that hurts everyone around you.

    • Cartman36

      I think Dr. Amy had a guest post once from a woman who had done this and she said she secretly was jealous of how her sisters in law could go out for coffee or a pedicure and leave the baby and some bottles with grandma. This is one of the biggest reasons that I combo feed from birth. It is vitally important to my mental health that I can leave baby and some bottles with grandma and go out for dinner and wine with my husband.

      • Amazed

        My SIL left bottles of expressed milk with us. Now, she leaves solids. And when they visited me a few months ago, I would take Amazing Niece to the other room to look after her as if her parents weren’t there at all. Eight hours of uninterrupted sleep for my SIL! In the morning, they took the little one and I went to sleep. When I woke up, I found a small present and a smiling card, “For Super Auntie”. She was happier and healthier for it, I got some extra time with Amazing Niece, and Auntie’s Little Treasure is still as cheerful as ever (when she’s not sure what she wants to do, she grins), so I daresay she wasn’t terribly scarred by those few nights when her parents were in the other room and pretended that she wasn’t there at all.

        How can anyone think that there are such things as rewards for being there 24/7? I only see disadvantages.

      • Inmara

        Somehow we have ended up as a family who don’t go out without baby because our relatives are not living close to us, and there are some other obstacles to leaving little one with them (like, my mother is not fit enough to handle him, also I’m not very close to my MIL – I find communication with her slightly annoying – so she haven’t been involved too much with our family, though she’s babysitting our nephews on a regular basis). I regret that, honestly, and could have put in more effort to organize babysitting from relatives earlier so LO gets used to various babysitters. We can ask our nanny to let us out for a dinner or something, but overnights are off the table for a while. It was not intentional but some kind of martyrdom could have played a role in our decisions.

      • sdsures

        “It is vitally important to my mental health that I can leave baby and some bottles with grandma and go out for dinner and wine with my husband.”

        Absolutely!

    • J.B.

      When my babies were teeny tiny I had trouble handing them over to anyone else. Now I was thrilled to have help with cooking and cleaning, etc. But it took a little time to where I could hand them over. The little one made it particularly hard when she divided the world into “mommy” and “not mommy”. When she was 8 weeks old and we went out for dinner, she screamed at my parents the entire time.

      In the long run, making a point to have others care for her has been better for us both. Going out to dinner felt great but I was pretty guilty after. In addition to martyrdom there’s some powerful hormones and brain chemistry going on. (I think the martyrdom plays on that and entrenches it.)

    • Erin

      A large proportion of my Birth Trauma group have become attachment mothers so I guess that’s the “not in their right mind” box. For me I felt that I’d screwed up so much with his arrival, that I’d failed him in so many tangible ways, I had to do everything myself. Accepting help in anyway at all just reinforced my feelings of failure, so I didn’t.

      Of course now it’s coming back to bite me as I have a toddler who has spent less than 8 hours of his life away from Mummy and Daddy, who is soon going to be a big brother and will be going to preschool in the new year. We’ve actually started going to Church so that I can leave him in the creche/Sunday school for an hour to get him used to the idea that we won’t always be there. He’s going to be the smallest donkey in the nativity play…not sure the Church is ready for that.

      • Cartman36

        OMG! the smallest donkey in the nativity. Sounds adorable! Good luck!

      • Empress of the Iguana People

        awwe. you should have seen our trio last year. my escape artiste was a cat and the other two were a cow and a donkey. There weren’t enough bigger kids for the speaking parts, but the barnyard was hopping. Amazingly, not literally

    • fishcake

      You are right about the martyrdom. But I did feel like that was expected (is expected) of me to a certain extent. In-laws, some health care providers, acquaintances. I have felt that if I didn’t demonstrate my dedication and pain, I wouldn’t be able to get support, or would be criticized. Thankfully, I have a partner who absolutely doesn’t expect me to suffer at all, and I don’t–I just pretend to in certain awkward social situations!

  • Heidi_storage

    OT: I was whining to my (also-pregnant) obgyn about how uncomfortable I was at my 36-week visit today, and she asked if I wanted to be induced at 39 weeks, bless her. I said no (husband’s leave situation is better if we wait until 40 weeks), but it was nice to have the choice.

    I’m sure the NCBers would be fainting with horror at an ELECTIVE INDUCTION for something as TRIVIAL as maternal discomfort, never mind the fact that it decreases the risk of stillbirth. (Actually, they’d hate the practice anyway; the doctors strongly encourage inductions if the baby hasn’t arrived by 41+0 weeks.)

    • Emilie Bishop

      Good for your ob! Mine was willing to induce me the day my mom was due to arrive, which was 41 weeks,simply to avoid my mom’s hovering. My son beat the deadline by 3 days, but I was grateful she took a look at the broader picture as long as my baby wasn’t in danger.

  • sdsures

    I wonder if Grantly Dick Read has ever experienced a kidney stone passing without painkillers? How about a colonoscopy without sedation?

    Somehow I doubt that. Surely the pain of those is just due to over-civilization. #snark

    • MaineJen

      Embrace the rushes as your body naturally passes that stone, Grantly! It’s what your body was designed to do.

      • Sean Jungian

        Your body won’t make a kidney or gallstone that you can’t pass easily!

        • Clorinda

          You’re completely right! I should have just left that 12 mm stone stay lodged right where it was. My body would have figured it out eventually. I should have just gotten into the right position to open up the ureter to accept the stone that was plugging the kidney. The resulting infection from the urine backing up for an extended period of time would have just been a natural cleansing of my body. And the pain? That feeling that half my body was on fire? It was good cleansing fire that all kidney stone patients should go through so they feel like warriors when it finally passes.

          I know you are being sarcastic. I started typing a sarcastic reply of my experience and then realized just how well it fit with all the tropes. Thank goodness for CT scans that showed what was going on so we could make the correct assessment and for laser procedures to get rid of the thing.

          • Sean Jungian

            I have luckily never had kidney stones or gallstones but I’ve heard enough horror stories to not wish it on anyone. I hope you never have to experience that again!

          • MaineJen

            I have heard the pain described as equal to that of the worst part of labor. *shudder*

          • momofone

            I’ve only had one kidney stone. I was never in labor, but if it’s anything like that, I am even more thankful for my pre-labor CS. It was the worst pain I’ve ever experienced. I felt like a wild animal. The ER doctor was awesome. Turns out his son has had SEVENTY surgeries for kidney stones, beginning just before puberty.

          • sdsures

            I’ve only had one, and it was not pleasant. I’m usually good about keeping hydrated, but not over-hydrated – so I can’t remember what it was caused by.

          • N

            And what could have happened in the worst case? You could have died from that infection. So what? Death is completely natural after all. And perhaps you were not meant to live with that stone?

          • Sarah

            Maybe the stone didn’t want to come earthside.

          • Sarah

            #trustgallbladders

  • TsuDhoNimh

    “Natural parenting advocates who think they are mothering as their
    ancient foremothers did are deluding themselves since our ancient
    foremothers did not view mothers as solitary caregivers”

    In my not-so-ancient foremother’s time it was expected that the woman would have one or more female relatives or neighbors, and even household staff to take care of much of the household work while the new mother recovered from childbirth and nursed the baby.

    Handing the child off to a nursemaid for bathing and dressing was not a sin, it was a relief! Using a wet nurse was usually a necessity – the number of women capable of breastfeeding who chose not to do it was small because a good wet nurse was hard to find and expensive to hire.

  • Cartman36

    Great article!!!!

    I think what bothers me the most is the assumption that all primitive societies did the same thing. We have a friend who is really into the paleo diet and argues that our bodies have evolved to thrive on the paleo diet as defined on http://thepaleodiet.com/. He is blissfully unaware that during the 2 million year paleolithic period, every society or group of people had a diet that was based on their own societal customs and more so what foods were available to them in that area. The idea that all paleolithic people at quinoa and pine nuts is laughable.

    I do agree that we can improve a lot on many foods in the US and that increasing our fiber intake is important, but I have very serious doubts that we can prevent or reverse any disease simply through diet.

    I had a doctor (this is part of why she is no longer my doctor) that told me every bite is for the baby so I needed to make it count. I can guarantee that a paleolithic woman living on the plains of Africa and struggling to find enough to eat and at the same time avoiding being eaten by predators was not concerned that “every bite is for the baby”.

    • Heidi

      “[…]that told me every bite is for the baby so I needed to make it count.”

      Huh, I didn’t know a woman’s body halted all metabolic processes when she became pregnant. Speaking of, I went to this childbirth class not knowing our teacher had a natural childbirth agenda. She was awful in many ways, one of them requiring us to write down all the food we had eaten the day before and then asking us to raise our hand if we had met the amount of servings of each food group. I personally don’t worry too much about if I get exactly the number of servings of each group since I have a varied diet and have never had any kind of deficiency. Being that I don’t worry about it, I also don’t bother remembering every single thing I eat everyday. I have better things to store in my memory! So I tried my best to remember everything, supposedly I had come up short in the dairy group, so I didn’t raise my hand along with a few other ladies, and we got this dumb lecture on how baby was going to take it from our bones and leave us a pile of ash. But then I remembered I had eaten a snack of cheese that I had forgotten besides the fact I had taken some Tums for the incessant pregnancy heartburn and took my prenatals and a calcium supplement everyday. She also more or less told us we were going to have babies with all kinds of health problems if we didn’t eat a boatload of fruit everyday which I ate very little of thanks to gestational diabetes.

      • maidmarian555

        I had horrific heartburn for the last four months of my pregnancy, combined with constant nausea thanks to the iron tablets they put me on. There was just no way I could eat loads of fruit….or loads of anything if I’m honest. Still managed to produce a strapping 8lb 13oz baby with zero health issues (so far) though. I wish these people would just tell mums to do their best and just leave it at that. That’s all anyone can do, every pregnancy is different.

      • Cartman36

        My mother is a registered dietitian and I tend to agree with her advice to eat a well balanced diet most of the time and not to worry about it. This doctor also gave me a “human milk for human babies” lecture when I said I would combo feed from birth because I did that with my first and it worked well for me. There are several reasons she is no longer my doctor.

      • Mel

        That’s also some shitty teaching methodology there. Shaming people is never useful. Nutritional intakes are not actually required to hit the perfect 100% RDA every day to have a healthy body or a healthy pregnancy.

        • Heidi

          She also didn’t quite understand what volume was. She had a large plastic Easter egg and told us our uterus would become 500 times bigger. Like, no, not exactly. It might have 500 times the volume but I’m pretty sure you can’t even fit 500 of those eggs in my body if it were empty. She had a trash bag full of eggs to demonstrate this. Lady, my tummy is not anywhere near as big as a 55 gallon trash bag! I thought about saying something but just kinda stared at her in disbelief.

          • Sarah

            Snort.

            Though having said that, I bet I could fit 500 easter eggs into my body. Nom.

      • N

        Oh, and what about pregnant women that have severe morning sickness 24h/day and problems with smelling things that are not there, which makes sickness even more bad?

        With my third baby until week 20 and more, if it was not for sparkling water and potato chips, I would have starved myself willingly to death. I could not swallow a thing, without feeling like throwing up. Making cheese sandwiches to my older children was just not possible anymore. The smell of that cheese,… The smell of the house,… The smell of people,… garlic, … Well my children are doomed! DOOMED!

        (With my first one, I was attracted by red not to well cooked meat. I would have liked to eat meat only. Like in Rosemary’s Baby. DOOMED! )

        • Heidi

          Yeah, my first 16 weeks was eating whatever I thought wouldn’t make me throw up, and sometimes I’d still throw up! Green veggies, overly garlickly things, chicken and pork grossed me out. I was okay with beef sometimes. Then occasionally even after 16 weeks, I’d get a bout of morning sickness. Then a few days or a week before I had the baby, I got morning sickness all over again!

          Then there was the time husband and I were in the cracker aisle to buy me crackers and a very smelly man was in that aisle. It was horrific! Like be smelly anywhere else but the one aisle with the crackers!

          • Empress of the Iguana People

            My ob’s partner, a young female doctor, wore perfume (maybe scented hand sanitizer?) when I saw her in ’13. Even 2nd trimester, I wanted to hurl. This year, after having had a baby herself, she was no longer wearing any.

          • Cody

            I would have said something. Strong scents bother me when I’m not pregnant. When I am pregnant my sense of smell becomes even stronger and I can’t stomach being near strong smells. Most medical clinics and hospitals near me and scent free now, thank goodness.

          • EmbraceYourInnerCrone

            One thing I love about my work place is that they have a very strict no perfume, no scented lotions, no cologne rule.

          • N

            Oh yeah, perfume! Very bad. With my last one I had a Zumba class going well into pregnancy. Right in front of me was always the same woman. If only she would have smelled of sweat only. I wonder if I would have supported it better. But no, she had to shower and use strong smelling soaps and deodorants. Why? Why???
            Trying to follow the fast steps of the Zumba teacher while trying at the same time to not breath to much as to avoid throwing up, doesn’t that sound like fun?

        • L&DLaura

          36 weeks of hyperemesis with both kids (both cried uncle at week 36 and came out). Survived on ice cold juice both times. And with my son, daily IV hydration with vitamins added. How they mad it is beyond me. I lost 35-40 pounds both times.

          • Heidi

            That sounds so very miserable!

        • Anion

          I didn’t really have any kind of morning sickness with my first, but with my second, ugh. It lasted a good eighteen weeks; all I could eat, every day, were little frozen spanakopita appetizers and potato skins (with cheese and the occasional little speck of bacon). I have no idea why those two foods in particular were the ones I basically craved, but that was it. Once I’d had them my stomach calmed down and I could usually have a normal dinner, but I couldn’t stomach even those until mid-afternoon.

          Also, we had this green apple dish soap that the scent of made me throw up; I spent the entire pregnancy avoiding the kitchen sink because once we finally got rid of that, the scent of the drain–something I normally never noticed at all–would set me off. No amount of lemons or cleansers helped. I literally could not stand too close to the kitchen sink, ever, without smelling it and being overwhelmed by nausea.

          On the other hand, though, I scrubbed the tub with Comet cleanser almost every day, because the smell of that was amazing. It smelled so good I would have tried to eat it if I could have (obviously I didn’t, since it’s poisonous to eat and all).

  • SarahSD

    Semi-off topic: I am preparing to teach a Gender and Science lecture and re-reading feminist historian of science, Londa Schiebinger’s chapter “Why mammals are called mammals” from her book Nature’s Body. She gives a fascinating account of the 18thC gender politics that served as the context for Linnaeus choosing the term “mammalia” for his classification system. Highly recommended to understand deep history of lactivism and scientific and legal entanglement with breastfeeding enforcement, and how it has always been wrapped up in questions of class (see attempts at criminalizing wetnursing). Also good for thinking critically about the origins of natural categories. I specifically thought of you, Dr. Amy. Whether or not you endorse Schiebinger’s work more broadly, I think you would find this piece useful!

  • Empress of the Iguana People

    “‘It kills two birds with the one stone so to speak, by defending the natural or instinctual (which, in this instance, doubles for caring, softer) approach with the indisputable rigour of science.'”
    Are they saying that hunter-gatherers operate primarily on instinct? Sure, the ones under 2 months old. Natural for humans is to learn and to make stuff. (among other things)

    • EmbraceYourInnerCrone

      I love these people who sing the praises of everything “Natural”…on the Internet, inside their nice comfy home with the central heat, washing machine, coffee maker, refrigerator, freezer, food processor. With their mass produced furniture, TVs, home computers, carpets, running hot and cold water, over the counter medicines, cell phones, iPads…

      I also find the “organic, clean, local, all natural” insistence REALLY classist. When you have a limited budget you buy the food you can afford that will keep the longest and go the farthest. When you live in a food desert and have to take the bus everywhere you buy what you can get to/carry home.

      • Empress of the Iguana People

        definitely. Now, i actually could get to an organic store by public transport, but Aldi’s is so much cheaper, and I can wait in a bus shelter for the return. Unless someone’s smoking in there again.

        • EmbraceYourInnerCrone

          Yeah, I’m luckier now , my husband and I have one car, but when my daughter was younger I would to take the bus to work and drop her off at her daycare on the way. San Diego was nice because it had the trolleys as well as the buses and we could get to the museums and beaches on the bus as well. My daughter was small for her age and I used a folding stroller until she was 5 or so because I could put the shopping bags on the handles of the umbrella stroller and walk to and from the grocery store. Aldi’s is great.

          • Empress of the Iguana People

            Yeah. We just got our first car, too. Someone at church gave us a check for a used one. We’re still having a bit of trouble believing it.