Natural parenting harms mothers … as it’s meant to do

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I’ve been writing about this issue for more than a decade: the stress, shame and guilt of contemporary mothering ideology. Now it has hit the mainstream with the cover of TIME Magazine: The Goddess Myth, How a Vision of Perfect Motherhood Hurts Moms.

As Claire Howorth notes in the cover article, Motherhood Is Hard to Get Wrong. So Why Do So Many Moms Feel So Bad About Themselves?

Maternal guilt, shame and suffering is not a bug in the philosophy, it’s the ultimate purpose.

…Call it the Goddess Myth, spun with a little help from basically everyone–doctors, activists, other moms. It tells us that breast is best; that if there is a choice between a vaginal birth and major surgery, you should want to push; that your body is a temple and what you put in it should be holy; that sending your baby to the hospital nursery for a few hours after giving birth is a dereliction of duty. Oh, and that you will feel–and look–radiant.

The myth impacts all moms. Because they partly reflect our ideals, hospital and public-health policy are wrapped up with it. But even the best intentions can cause harm. The consequences vary in degree, from pervasive feelings of guilt to the rare and unbearable tragedy of a mother so intent on breastfeeding that she accidentally starves her infant to death.

I spoke to Howarth for her piece and she mentioned my book Push Back: Guilt in the Age of Natural Parenting:

Luckily, An anti-shame canon is growing. Political scientist Courtney Jung’s recent book Lactivism argues that breast milk has become an industry the way formula once was, compounding the incentives and pressures that potentially hurt moms. Amy Tuteur, a former OB, wrote Push Back, a polemic against natural parenting. In Blaming Mothers, legal scholar Linda Fentiman writes that “mothers–and pregnant women–are increasingly seen as exclusively responsible for all aspects of their children’s health and well-being.”

Howarth concludes:

Motherhood in the connected era doesn’t have to be dominated by any myth. Social media can just as easily help celebrate our individual experience and create community through contrast. Moms have to stick together even as we walk our separate paths. We have to spot the templates and realize there are no templates. We have to talk about our failures and realize there are no failures.

But it isn’t an accident that the goddess myth —— natural parenting —— is pitting women against each other and causing shame and guilt. That’s what it was designed to do. Natural parenting is not about raising children; it’s about controlling women.

Specifically, it’s about re-immuring them back into the home. If you were a misogynist who felt threatened by competition from women in business, science and politics, what better way is there to marginalize women once again than to divert them into competing over who has the better vagina and breasts?

That was the conscious plan of the founders of the natural childbirth, lactivism and attachment parenting movements. Grantly Dick-Read, fabricated the racist lie that “primitive” (read black) women had painless childbirth and that white women of the “better classes” who wanted to have painless childbirth, too, simply had to withdraw from competing with men to compete with other women over who had the more “authentic” birth.

That was the conscious plan of the founders of the La Leche League, 7 devout Catholic women, who saw the promotion of breastfeeding as a way to keep mothers of young children out of the workforce and send them back home where they belonged.

Dr. William Sears, the popularizer of attachment parenting, is a religious fundamentalist who promulgated a philosophy that fetishizes physical proximity of mother and child (“baby wearing”) effectively forcing women back into the home.

Natural parenting justifies its intrusiveness into maternal choice by promoting fear in regard to infant and child health. Natural parenting advocates inflate risks of rare events to monstrous proportions or invent theoretical risks that have never been seen in real life. Using and misusing the language of science, natural parenting advocates problematize infant and child safety.

For example:

Lactivists howl that low breastfeeding rates compromise infant health despite the fact that breastfeeding rates have no correlation at all with infant health. Infant mortality rates dropped precipitously through the 20th century despite the fact that for most of that time period breastfeeding rates dropped like a rock. Indeed, the countries with the highest infant mortality rates in the world have the highest breastfeeding rates.

By promoting fear about their children’s well-being, the philosophy of natural parenting causes women to tightly regulate their behavior so it conforms with the “rules” of natural parenting and to pathologize and blame themselves when they fail in conforming to those rules. Hence the outpouring of guilt and recrimination for epidurals, C-sections, formula feeding and other deviations from natural parenting diktat.

 

Why has natural parenting become popular despite the fact that it imagines threats to children that don’t exist? Because it fits neatly into our cultural myths about motherhood: the motherhood is a woman’s highest calling, that suffering is integral to motherhood and that women belong in the home not in politics, business or the academy.

Natural parenting harms mothers through guilt, shame and suffering; it is critical to understand that that’s not a bug in the philosophy, it’s both a defining feature and the ultimate purpose.

  • Steph858

    So Natural Parenting advocates believe that the ‘Old Ways’ are the best? Great!

    My son will be economically viable from around the age of 7. Small hands/bodies are great for fiddly jobs in confined spaces.

    If I have a daughter, she’ll be married off at around 14. Perhaps I’ll teach my son some basic literacy skills, but there’s no reason for my daughter to receive any kind of education other than in domestic skills.

    Of course, just 2 children will not be enough. I’ll need at least half a dozen to replace those killed off by Cholera, TB, Typhoid …

    • The Bofa on the Sofa

      Oh no, Steph, not THAT “natural” stuff. That doesn’t count. The other natural stuff they mean….

  • Ayr

    I have to say as conservative Christian, this movement towards natural parenting really bothers me. It is very prevalent and popular among the younger moms and it scares me. I didn’t become a mother until I was 33, and I recall the pressure from a former friend to give birth at home {I had a scheduled c-section due to pre-existing health issues} and EBF, she made me so angry. She told me that I was cheating myself of a beautiful experience and disobeying God. She said a great many other things, that essentially ended our friendship then and there. My response to her was, it’s none of your business, I am doing what is best for me and my child, and I was making sure I was going to be able to take care of my son. I also asked her to show where in the Bible it said all this, for some reason she couldn’t give me precise references. But there are so many mothers falling into this trap, they organically source all their food, make their own baby food and look down on anyone who doesn’t. They firmly believe that by doing all this it will bring them closer to God and make them more Christ-like. But honestly all it does is make them judgmental harpies. They also look at you like you have two heads if you say that you work outside the home. Personally I don’t think a woman has to be SAHM if they don’t want to be or *gasp* can’t afford it comfortably. I am a SAHM half by choice and half by my health issues, I have an autoimmune disease and I have times when it’s all I can do to get out of bed because of the pain, much less hold down a regular job.

    I am also continually shocked by the number of women who get mad over things like not getting their dream birthing experience or because they end up having to formula feed. I was honestly relieved that I was put on blood thinners after surviving a pulmonary embolism; because I didn’t have to try to force my body to produce more milk than it was willing to give. The pressure is ridiculous and ain’t nobody got time for that. We need stop competing with one another and enjoy being mom’s and support each other, enjoy our kids while we can, because they will be gone before we know it.

  • CSN0116

    Women (mothers) want to revolt.

    I spend a considerable amount of time intentionally salty and off-putting at my kids’ preschool and elementary schools because I don’t want to atteact mom friends. I don’t “fit in” as I had five children by age 28, but a PhD and active professional life simultaneously. I’m too young and counter normal for the established moms and too mature and focused for the young moms.

    Anyway, I boldly speak about refusing to breast feed as it would have taken too much of my time. I brag about my kids’ mostly non-organic and occasional fast food diets. I’m open about my not liking to be around them all the time, my voluntary 11-day maternity leaves, and how I was a friend/wife/lover/professional before I was a mother and my children extend me but will never define me. I brag about all of these taboo things, in the open, when people there try to conversate with me.

    Ironically, my plan has backfired. I have not only friends there but a damn near following. I am the safe, precocious “out” and the moms spill their guts to me and rejoice.

    Women hate what’s happening to them.

    • Steph858

      Until I got to the “Ironically, my plan has backfired” part, I was about to say that if I lived near you we might have ended up making a clique of 2. I’m 26 with 1 child so unless I have triplets or something there’s no way I’ll have 5 kids by 28. However, since I had my son when I was 23 (2 weeks after my birthday, so I was 22 for most of my pregnancy) I too felt like I didn’t fit in with either the young or the mature mums.

      The average age of first-time mums in the UK is 28.6; if you discount the teen mums, it’s probably near as dammit 30, so I was too young to be the ‘average'(/’mature’) first-time mum. On the other hand, I was too old to be a teen/young mum. My local Sure Start centre (Sure Start is the UK version of the US ‘Head Start’ programme) ran a ‘Young Mothers Group’ which was advertised as catering to mothers aged up to 25. Technically I could have attended till my son was 2, but the promotional materials’ language and design strongly implied that the group was geared towards teen mothers. I never went so I could have been wrong, but I could think of nothing worse than going to a mothers’ group full of 15-to-20 year-olds. Youths that age annoy me enough when they loiter around outside my shop for hours on end, never mind spending all morning listening to them moan about their little angel’s chronic colic.

      I went into blue-collar work rather than going the Uni/Professional job route, but I too was voluntarily off work for the minimum amount of time possible (around 2 weeks altogether, including half-days off for ultrasounds earlier in the pregnancy).

      In addition to not buying in to the ‘Breastmilk = Liquid Gold’ hype (NB: ‘Liquid Gold’ is the name of a brand of alkyl nitrate AKA ‘Poppers’. For extra lols, next time a Lactivist refers to breastmilk as liquid gold, imagine that she’s trying to convince you to give your baby a sniff of a popper!) and not buying organic food (at least not intentionally unless it’s cheaper than the normal stuff or something), I also have quite a Laissez-Faire attitude towards cleanliness and ‘danger’.

      To explain: the all-natural all-organic anti-vax etc mommies tend to obsessively disinfect every last bit of their house (with lemon-vinegar-whatever, not chemicals of course). And if they saw their kid trying to jump off the metre-high climbing frame in the park, they’d throw a fit. Whereas I take the attitude of ‘Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ – within reason, of course.

      • The Bofa on the Sofa

        And if they saw their kid trying to jump off the metre-high climbing frame in the park, they’d throw a fit. Whereas I take the attitude of ‘Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ – within reason, of course.

        “You know, if you keep doing that, don’t be surprised if you get hurt….”

    • J.B.

      I want to vomit every time I see some woman saying motherhood is her most important job. I have a brain and like using it. Since my kids also have (devious loophole finding) brains, it is best that they run their teachers ragged during the day and not me. (Fortunately they behave better for their teachers than me or I might feel teeny twinges of guilt.)

  • crazy mama, PhD

    From the article:
    ‘The goal of the BFHI, [BFHI U.S. executive director] MacEnroe says, “is not to produce guilt, but it is to prevent regret.”‘

    Pardon my French, but fuck the BFHI.

    • LaMont

      Yup, “preventing regret” totally outweighs the life and health of babies and moms. Uggggggggggh

    • Jillian Johnson

      Yes, because there’s no regret when your child starved to death?!?

    • Don’t anti-choicers say the same thing? “We want to prevent the regret of an abortion”. Well fuck them too; regrets are part of life, and regretting having the baby fucks up multiple people’s lives. You cannot prevent people from having regrets; road not taken and all that. It’s part of life. We only get to live one permutation of all the possible options available to us.

      The only way to prevent regrets is to prevent people from making choices and living their lives. And yes, some choices are objectively bad, and we can try to talk people out of them and/or nudge them away, but in the end regrets are part of life. If your* primary reason for stopping someone else from doing something is to “prevent regrets”, you probably should reevaluate your stance.

      *Not you, obviously, generic you.

    • Roadstergal

      Hey, MacEnroe*, you know a great way to prevent regret? Stop propagating the idea that non-EBF moms have anything to regret!

      *You cannot be serious!

    • Sheven

      Sounds like everyone who wants to outlaw abortion. “Some women regret them! Isn’t that sad? Therefore no women should be allowed to have them.”

    • Emilie Bishop

      I regret nothing so much as allowing the BFHI to push me to breastfeed when it wasn’t working for either me or my son. If I could go back in time to change any event in my entire life, it would be to the night he was readmitted and I would tell the hospital staff we were a forumla-only family from there on out. No triple-feeding, no more LC appointments, just snuggly bottle-feeding and check-ins with his pediatrician as needed. On my death bed, triple-feeding will likely top my list of regrets. Take that and shove it, MacEnroe.

      • yentavegan

        Thank you for publicizing the unreasonable hoops of fire the Lactation Industry expected you to jump through in an effort to meet THEIR, ( not your) expectations. If a parent is being instructed to express, fingerfeed, nurse, around the clock because breastfeeding is not working why can’t we just accept the win-win of combo-feeding ? Or at least give praise ( and permission) for formula.

        • Emilie Bishop

          I know many families that combo-feed and love it. In my particular case, my son never got the hang of latching, so every feed was horribly painful even after two months. So formula was really our “best.” I remember the last (and best) LC encouraged me to continue “comfort nursing” and let my meager supply dwindle naturally. I smiled and nodded, all while thinking “comfort for who?”

          • Heidi

            Comfort nursing? My son knew how to latch but he soon figured out my boobs were almost ornamental only and gave up on them entirely in a few weeks. I tried to get him back to the boob, convinced my supply would really come in after reading some LLL garbage while sleep-deprived and hormonal and he was far from comforted! It’s not that I don’t believe some babies find breastfeeding comforting but it’s not a given.

    • Charybdis

      And the horse they rode in on. I think that one of the best ways to stymie them and cause them immediate apoplexy is for pregnant women to state that they will be formula feeding from the get-go. Nope, not considering breastfeeding *at all*, not even for the colostrum. No, I don’t want a meeting with an LC/IBCLC to “discuss it”. I have spoken with my OB and future pediatrician and they are in agreement that formula feeding is fine with them. My decision is that I will be formula feeding my child, so that I can accurately track their consumption, allow others to feed the baby (friends, grandparents, husband, older sibling, aunts, uncles, daycare providers, etc) and I can get some sleep.

      Take your own RTF formula in the nursette bottles with you to the hospital, but don’t let on that you have them. State again upon admission/intake that you are intending to formula feed and your brand preference is XXX. State that you will not tolerate any “helpful discussion” about breastfeeding and that you won’t be signing any “formula waivers”. If the staff refuse/delay in bringing you formula, or the bassinet cart isn’t stocked with your preferred brand of formula, get their names. Ask them if they, the RN assigned to care for you and your baby, are outright refusing to bring food to a hungry patient who cannot otherwise get food themselves. That they have ignored your request for formula. Keep a list and afterwards contact the hospital bigwigs about you and your baby’s treatment while in the hospital.

      I think this is the only thing that will start to make a dent in their iron-clad policies, because it gives them no wiggle room. If you as a pregnant woman think that you will try breastfeeding (because why not, if you are willing and aren’t on certain medications), DON’T TELL THEM THAT. It seems as if women are going into these hospitals with the “I’ll try it. If there are complications or if I decide I don’t like doing it, I’ll ask for some formula” mentality, which is reasonable. Plans change all the time, right? Where they are getting caught is stating that they *will* breastfeed on arrival/intake/admittance, so now the staff has to do everything in their power to “support, educate and encourage” that breastfeeding. You’re tired from a long labor and delivery? No sleep for you, you have to breastfeed! C-section and immediate aftermath? Breastfeed! You want a bottle of formula so that Dad/Grandma can feed the baby while you catch a nap? Nope! You’re BREASTFEEDING!!! YOU SAID SO! WERE YOU LYING? No, apparently you CAN’T change your mind once you are in the clutches of the BFHI and lactivists.

      Just don’t even give them an opening, because they don’t listen to reason or a woman’s previous experiences. After the initial conversation in which you clearly stated your intention to formula feed, do not engage with them.

      • Casual Verbosity

        Unfortunately I think you’re right. And it’s such a shame because flexibility is really important for good mental health. It’s such a shame because the attitude of: “I would like to exclusively breastfeed/have a non-medicated vaginal birth, but I will reassess and change my plans as needed” is an incredibly healthy and adaptive mentality. Yet, these policies and the people who enforce them are preventing women from enacting their psychologically healthy and practically adaptive plans.

      • KeeperOfTheBooks

        Sad, but true, to all of it.
        I’ve said before and will say again that I would at least *toy* with the idea of trying to breastfeed future kids, despite a really horrible experience with kid #1, if doing so wouldn’t put me smack on the crazy carousel. If I could be left alone to try breastfeeding, see if it works, perhaps supplement a bit as needed especially in those first few days, I really might try it. But since my saying anything but “I’m formula feeding, breastfeeding is tied to severe PPD for me, end of discussion” will result in insane pressure to just try ever harder, no matter how badly baby’s or my health is spiraling, nope. Bottle it is, and that’s that.

  • Empress of the Iguana People

    My working definition of “natural” is anything and everything that humans didn’t do or cause. Therefore, parenting can never be natural

    • Heidi

      What’s natural for me is many times the exact wrong thing to do. Here’s the thing, I’m human and have a high functioning prefrontal cortex that allows me to act unnaturally. I manage to not smack or yell at my child when he’s throwing a fit even though many times I feel like it, I never want to do housework or prepare food (okay sometimes I like cooking) but I do, and I would like to take no precautions regarding sex but my human brain knows that would result in a pregnancy and a baby I don’t currently want. Natural parenting would be child abuse for my child. I think I’m better than decent as a parent but it doesn’t come naturally most the time!

      • LaMont

        As John Oliver said, “You can’t scream at kids no matter how much you want – ‘Why are birds?’ is not a question I know the answer to! Fucking Google it! Google it!!”

    • Roadstergal

      I don’t think there’s any definition of ‘natural’ under which posting about the virtues of natural parenting on the Internet is natural.