Mothers sacrifice. It has ever been thus.
Whether it is sacrificing sleep to soothe a fretful baby, sacrificing the last piece of cake to please a hungry child, or sacrificing tremendous amounts of money to send a teenager to college, sacrifice is part and parcel of motherhood.
Natural parenting posits that the body of the good mother must be literally interposed between children and omnipresent threats to health and brain function.
Nontheless, we are undergoing a profound change in beliefs about maternal sacrifice. The philosophy of natural parenting has transmuted maternal sacrifice from episodic to the central purpose of motherhood. That change has been harmful for mothers and without being beneficial for babies and children. That’s not surprising since natural parenting isn’t about children and what’s good for them; it’s about mothers and how they ought to behave.
Yesterday I wrote about natural parenting’s problematization of infant/child safety. There has never been a safer time or place to be an infant and small child than 2016 in industrialized countries. Ironically, there has never been greater anxiety about the physical, emotional and intellectual status of those same infants and small children.
Why the disconnect? Natural parenting problematizes infant/child health and safety in order to enforce a “regime of truth” regarding the appropriate role of mothers. The problematizing of safety offers the justification for the central premise of natural parenting.
And the central premise is this: constant sacrifice is the definitive feature of good mothering. But not just any sacrifice is required. Women must sacrifice their bodies. The body of the mother must be literally interposed between children and omnipresent threats to health.
As sociologist Pam Lowe explains in her fascinating book Reproductive Health and Maternal Sacrifice:
…At its heart, maternal sacrifice is the notion that ‘proper’ women put the welfare of children, whether born, in utero, or not yet conceived, over and above any choices and/or desires of their own. The idea of maternal sacrifice acts as a powerful signifier in judging women’s behaviour. It is valorized in cases such as when women with cancer forgo treatment to save a risk to their developing foetus, and it is believed absent in female substance users whose ‘selfish’ desire for children means they are born in problematic circumstances…
But not just any sacrifice will do.
Never mind that perinatal mortality, infant mortality, and child mortality are at historic lows, vaccine preventable diseases have been nearly vanquished, malnutrition and vitamin deficiencies are rare and foods and medications are safer than ever because of government oversight. In the cosmology of natural parenting, infants and small children face unprecedented, omnipresent technological threats to their physical health as well as their emotional and intellectual development. The only thing that can ameliorate those threats is the mother’s physical body.
- Natural parenting rejects pain relief in labor, insisting that good mothers sacrifice their physical comfort, willingly enduring hours of agony to protect their babies from the “dangers” of epidurals.
- Natural parenting rejects formula, insisting that good mothers sacrifice their physical comfort, sleep, body boundaries, and even mental health to breastfeeding because “breast is best.”
- Natural parenting rejects jarred baby food, insist in that good mothers sacrifice time and effort in sourcing organic, GMO free foods, and hand preparing them to protect children from “toxins.”
- Natural parenting rejects routine pediatric preventive care like vaccines, insist if that the mother who sacrifices her time and “does her research” is the best guardian of infant health, and, in any case breastfeeding is protective against all microbial threats.
- Natural parenting rejects putting babies down, insisting that good mothers sacrifice their physical comfort, and need for separation and recuperation, because only close physical contact with the mother’s body protects the bond between parent and child.
- Natural parenting rejects placing babies to sleep in their own rooms, insist if that good mothers sacrifice sleep, privacy and the opportunity for sexual intimacy because only unremitting physical contact through every hour of the day can ensure infant and child wellbeing.
Sunna Simmonardottir expands upon these observations in Constructing the attached mother in the “world’s most feminist country”:
…Within the discourse of attachment and bonding, the ideal Icelandic mother is constructed as being constantly present, happy, and content with her role, happily breastfeeding and fully understanding of her child’s needs. Her body is not her own but shared with her infant, even after birth, for heat, nourishment, and comfort… [M]others are instructed to direct all their physical and emotional capacities at their children and … the maternal body and mind is subject to disciplinary practises… In this way, both attachment and bonding (or lack thereof) are constructed simultaneously as the problem, as well as the solution for mothers…
The maternal body is imagined as always functioning perfectly; all problems are therefore ascribed to the mother’s mind.
Consider the Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative. Descibing its founding statements Lowe notes:
Whilst it suggests that the purpose of the BFI is to support parents in making informed decisions, the outcome of their deliberations should be an increase in breastfeeding… That women might have different needs and priorities and could make an informed choice not to breastfeed is not considered seriously. As the name ‘baby friendly’ implies, women’s position is assumed to be synonymous with what experts deem to be ‘best’ for their baby…
The underlying assumption behind BFI, and many other breastfeeding campaigns, is that women who decline breastfeeding only do so through ignorance or as the dupes of formula marketing campaigns. Palmer is typical of this position. She suggests that infant feeding companies as well as ill-informed experts have contributed to a loss of faith in breastfeeding… “[W]hilst women should have a choice, they should all be informed that formula milk is signicantly detrimental to their baby’s health.” This is hardly a neutral position and is not necessarily based on the evidence…
In other words, a mother who is not willing to constantly use her body in a never ending pageant of maternal sacrifice is pathologized as ignorant, emotionally immature and selfish: a “bad” mother.
Why has constant maternal bodily sacrifice come to be defining characteristic of the “good mother”?
When older structures of oppression start to disintegrate, new structures develop and become “regimes of truth.” Within the discourse of attachment certain “truths” become scientifically sanctioned and reasonable, while conflicting discourses are made to seem inappropriate or even unnatural. Within the discourse of attachment and bonding, the ideal Icelandic mother is constructed as being constantly present, happy, and content with her role, happily breastfeeding and fully understanding of her child’s needs. Her body is not her own but shared with her infant, even after birth, for heat, nourishment, and comfort… [M]others are instructed to direct all their physical and emotional capacities at their children and how the maternal body and mind is subject to disciplinary practises.
The inevitable and desired result is that women are forced back into the home.
The political, legal and economic emancipation of women in industrialized countries is arguably one of the greatest achievements of the 20th Century. It allowed women to leave the home and seek their own destiny. Seismic social changes generate backlash. Natural parenting is part of that backlash.
By imagining a world full of omnipresent, never ending dangers to infant/child health and insisting that only mothers can protect their children from these dangers and only by constant bodily sacrifice, women can be disciplined into returning home, not for the original sexist justification that women are inferior but for a new sexist justification — that sacrifice of the maternal body is best for babies.