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.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]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.[/pullquote]

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.