The Tinkerbell theory of breastfeeding and natural childbirth

Illustration of a fairy with butterfly wings

I just read a fantastic piece in The New Statesman. John Elledge writes about politicians’ preferred fall back strategy when their programs don’t work: blame the voters for not believing enough.

“The moment you doubt whether you can fly,” J M Barrie once wrote, “You cease for ever to be able to do it.” Elsewhere in the same book he was blunter, still: “Whenever a child says, ‘I don’t believe in fairies’, there’s a little fairy somewhere that falls right down dead.”

… [O]ver the last few years, what one might term the Tinkerbell Theory of Politics has played an increasingly prominent role in national debate. The doubters’ lack of faith, we are told, is one of the biggest barriers to flight for everything from Jeremy Corbyn’s poll ratings to Brexit. Because we don’t believe, they can’t achieve.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Believing you can fly does not give you the ability to fly; believing that you can breastfeed exclusively or have an unmedicated vaginal birth does not give you the ability to do either one.[/pullquote]

I’m not sure about the applicability of the Tinkerbell theory to British politics, but it immediately struck me that the Tinkerbell theory is at the heart of contemporary breastfeeding and natural childbirth advocacy. Lactation consultants, midwives and doulas routinely blame their failures on mothers. Apparently if women don’t believe, LCs, midwives and doulas can’t achieve.

The recent spate of lactivist hysteria over Jillian Johnson’s heartbreaking story about the death of her son Landon from breastfeeding induced dehydration has demonstrated thatlactivists cannot tolerate criticism of breastfeeding. They insist serious breastfeeding problems are rare in the face of copious scientific evidence that they are common. Then when those problems occur, since they are after all common, they resort to the Tinkerbell theory.

Serious breastfeeding problems are routinely ascribed to mothers’ failure to believe that they can breastfeed. Evil formula corporations, ignorant doctors, and lack of support from others are invoked instead of the actual biological reasons for the problems. Apparently whenever a mother says, “breastfeeding is not working for my child and me,” a breastfeeding fairy dies.

Hence the relentless insistence that more women would breastfeed successfully if only they received more “support.” It isn’t the lactation consultant’s fault that breastfeeding is starving your child, or is searingly painful, or utterly impossible while working full time. It’s really your fault since you didn’t get the appropriate “support” that would have allowed you to believe. Your lack of belief, not their lack of scientific knowledge, that is the real problem.

Natural childbirth advocates like midwives and doulas are even more overt in their embrace of the Tinkerbell theory. What does their mantra “Trust Birth” mean if not “the moment you doubt you can have an unmedicated vaginal birth you cease to be able to have one”? What are birth affirmations except explicit invocations of the Tinkerbell theory? Each one is a variation on “I believe that my body was made to have an unmedicated vaginal birth”?

Hence if you got an epidural, acceded to an induction, wound up with a C-section it’s your fault for not believing instead of your midwife’s fault for making nonsensical claims in order to boost her business. If only you had had more “support,’ you would have believed. It is your lack of belief, not their lack of scientific knowledge, that is the real problem.

The Tinkerbell theory is a form of magical thinking. Magical thinking does not mean believing in magic. It means believing that thoughts and actions have the power to affect events. Knocking on wood, wearing lucky socks and fearing the number 13 are all examples of magical thinking. None of those behaviors has any impact on events but many people persist in believing that they do.

Magical thinking involves a rejection of the scientific concepts of chance, probability and randomness in favor of supposedly powerful thoughts. Magical thinking accounts for the extraordinary fatalism of homebirth advocates in the face of neonatal death. It can’t possibly be the midwife’s fault because “the baby would have died anyway” even in a hospital. It isn’t chance that kept a baby from being born vaginally, it was the mothers failure to believe her birth affirmations. It isn’t birth pathology that cause poor outcomes in childbirth, it is doctors’ insistence on pathologizing birth and their refusal to accept that women are “designed” for childbearing.

As Elledge notes in discussing politics:

It’s easy to see why the Tinkerbell strategy would be such an attractive line of argument for those who deploy it – one that places responsibility for their own f*ck-ups squarely on their critics, thus rendering them impervious to attack.

That’s the same reason why the Tinkerbell theory is so attractive to lactation consultants, midwives and doulas. It’s one that places responsibility for their own fuck-ups squarely on their patients, thus rendering them impervious to criticism. But just as believing you can fly does not give you the ability to fly, believing that you can breastfeed exclusively or have an unmedicated vaginal birth does not give women the ability to breastfeed exclusively or have an unmedicated vaginal birth.

Of course, it is not fairies who die when women are blamed for their lack of belief in breastfeeding or natural childbirth. It is babies who die — and the responsibility for their deaths lies with those who encouraged them to believe, not with mothers who didn’t believe enough.