The cultural construction of women in natural mothering

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For the past two days I have written about the cultural construction of nature in natural mothering.

In Mothering like an animal, I pointed out that mothering in nature has been thoroughly romanticized, starting with refusal to acknowledge the extraordinarily high death rates from childbirth and breastfeeding in the animal kingdom.

Yesterday I wrote about the cultural construction of “Mother Nature,” a benevolent goddess who provides everything her “children” need and punishes those who turn to artificial substitutes instead.

In natural mothering, women are idealized but the purpose is not to empower them but rather to disempower them.

Today I’d like to talk about the culturally constructed view of women within the natural mothering paradigm. Adriana Teodorescu has written a fascinating chapter, The women–nature connection as a key element in the social construction of Western contemporary motherhood, in the new book Women and Nature?: Beyond Dualism in Gender, Body, and Environment.

In natural mothering, women are idealized but the purpose is not to empower them but rather to disempower them.

Teodorescu notes:

…[E]mbracing the women–nature connection may lead to an idealized figure of nature, reifying the position that women are irrational and intended for reproductive purposes only.

She paints a damning picture of natural mothering, basically the same picture that I have presented in my writing:

Popular culture praises motherhood as a stereotypical, sugary display of affection toward an angel-like child … The child is more important than the mother… [T]he mother consents to giving up her job to raise and educate her child following closely the advice of specialists in child rearing. She embraces the natural birth movement, opting for a vaginal birth, and, for a very long time, breastfeeds the child upon request, in accordance with the attachment parenting ideology and the strong advice of La Leche League International.

Natural mothering isn’t about what’s good for children, though that is how it is promoted; it’s about a culturally constructed view of women:

…[T]he fundamental trait of the good mother paradigm is the glorious revival of the women–nature connection in the light of a post-evolutionistic grasp on nature, while women become, through childbirth and mothering, the agents that restore the ideological dominance of nature over culture.

In other words, natural mothering is about subordinating women’s intelligence, talents, needs and desires, justified by an appeal to nature.

Teodorescu scathingly summarizes the cultural construction of women promoted by natural childbirth advocates:

The good mother paradigm insists on presenting the biological capacity of giving birth as a form of social empowerment … What is tackled here is not just any kind of birth, but a specific type of birth, the natural, vaginal birth, which actually limits the number of surgical interventions involved: the epidural injections, the pain killers, and the C-section. Women are advised to trust nature, because births have always happened in nature … and because nature is the mother which can take care of her own children… [W]omen must reject medicine, a patriarchal science, which manipulates a woman’s body, depriving mothers of the authentic experience of motherhood. One of the main arguments against the medically driven birth is the fact that it intervenes in the birth process, which is seen as the essential pillar of the mother–child bond. The more natural the bond, the better that bond remains.

What about the dangers of childbirth?

The fact that pregnancy is a difficult time in a woman’s life and that giving birth, no matter how, places women in close proximity to death is veiled in the good mother discourse by placing death entirely upon the shoulders of medicine.

Natural childbirth advocates and lactivists are hypocrites:

While, in terms of conceiving children, everything should be done to remedy infertility, through the possibilities of medicine, childbirth should be as natural as possible … The risks the woman exposes herself to when resorting to medical assisted human reproduction, and the inherent risks of any natural childbirth are not set in the collective memory of society and contemporary mass culture. In stark contrast, the risks of C-section are promoted, debated, and fought against.

Teodorescu reserves particular condemnation for ICAN (International Cesarean Awareness Network):

…ICAN discourse is restrictive and manipulative. The discourse is restrictive because it wants to steer women toward the good path of natural birth. The discourse is manipulative because the method by which ICAN understands manipulation is hiding a general truth about all births. Any birth, whether natural, vaginal, or surgical implies a series of risks for both the mother and the child, the highest risk being death… Admitting to this fact would entail that nature offers no guarantee, no form of automatic superiority.

Similarly, lactivists present formula use as inferior because it is technological, yet the use of every possible piece of medical technology is encouraged to remedy breastfeeding problems: from mechanical pumps and artificial pumping schedules, to restrictive diets supplements and medications. The risks of insufficient breastmilk have been wiped from the collective memory of society and the “risks” of formula are promoted, debated and fought against.

I reserve particular condemnation for La Leche League and the World Health Organization whose discourse is restrictive and manipulative. Both LLL and the WHO want every woman to breastfeed regardless of whether it is the best choice for her, her baby and her family. The discourse is manipulative because LLL and the WHO manipulate by hiding a general truth about breastfeeding: it has a high natural failure rate and the consequences include infant brain damage and death. Admitting to this fact would mean admitting that nature offers no guarantee, no form of autonomatic superiority.

In truth, natural childbirth does not reflect childbirth in nature; it exists to manipulate women into a culturally constructed view of childbirth that empowers the midwives, doulas and childbirth educators of the natural childbirth industry. Lactivism does not reflect infant feeding in nature; it exists to manipulate women into a culturally constructed view of early infancy that empowers lactation consultants, LLL and various breastfeeding organizations.

The result is the DISempowerment of women as their needs and desires are subordinated to those who believe that women should be judged by the function of their uteri, vaginas and breasts:

Mothers who give up their jobs in order to appeal to the requirements of the good mother do not re-instate a natural lost world, but instead manage to capitalize on and increase women’s poverty … Moreover, the feeling of personal happiness diminishes, the risk of depression grows because of the responsibilities involved in raising children and the social pressure to be a perfect mother… highlighting the dark side of a naturalist construction of motherhood.

Natural mothering, including natural childbirth and lactivism are cultural constructs. They deliberately misrepresent both women and nature in an effort to reduce women to their reproductive organs, immuring them back into the home. Natural mothering doesn’t merely ignore women’s needs and desires apart from mothering; it seeks to make women feel ashamed of those needs and desires. It is deeply retrograde and profoundly anti-feminist.

  • Amazed

    The “natural”, aka time-hallowed perception of woman is something that repels me. Behind it, the desire to push the woman back in her place is transparent. As I read this article, I was reminded of a story written some 100 years back. A rural setting, a beaten woman who is wandering down the street showing her bloodied head and wants to file a plea her husband without even knowing what’s going to follow; when she’s told that her husband might be taken to prison, she starts crying because who’s going to feed the family? No one is willing to talk to her husband and the village priest scolds her for making fuss now when at the time, she and her future husband were the love story of the village. At the end, the husband takes her home, berating her for leaving her children to wander in the street.

    “Natural” womanhood… When it works for the women who desire it, it’s great. But when it doesn’t? When it didn’t work 100 years ago, it was terrible. Is it any different now? I think it’s time we part with the illusions that feminism made the life of good Christian families harder.

    • Lilly de Lure

      This is always what puzzles me about the natural childbirth and parenting thing as a model – it puts procedures and treatments that work only for people who have no issues forward as procedures that should apply to everyone, even when they are manifestly inappropriate for anyone with even a hint of a problem in a way that I simply can’t imagine happening in a professional medical setting for any situation other than management of pregnancy/labour. Can you imagine for example someone coming into ER doubled over in pain and bleeding severely being pressured to accept only a sticking plaster and some paracetamol because some people who’ve been in accidents do just dandy on that and doesn’t the person realise that strong pain medication and blood transfusions are artificial interventions that interfere with mother nature’s healing mechanisms and all that jazz?

      • Amazed

        Bad thing is, I can totally imagine it. Not from the ER staff but the know-it-alls who know that these wimps just weren’t strong enough.. Barf. Since when has suffering unnecessary pain started equaling being tough? Unnecessary being the key word.

        • Lilly de Lure

          I know – I think the difference is though that in natural childbirth it is the medical practitioners who are doing it (midwives – at least CNMs and all british midwives who are licensed) are medical practitioners and so their words have an authority that know-it-alls can’t muster in other fields.

      • Merrie

        Actually, there are lots of cases of this sort of thing happening, especially to women. Someone comes into the ER doubled over in abdominal pain and they get shooed away with some painkillers and told it’s just cramps and it must not be as bad as they think, and it turns out to be gallstones or ovarian torsion or some other rotten thing with kind of nonspecific symptoms.

        Of course, best practice would be to treat all of this stuff seriously, rather than dismissing people’s experiences, whether they’re pregnant/laboring or not.

  • yugaya

    “In truth, natural childbirth does not reflect childbirth in nature;”

    Giving birth in a plastic kiddie pool full of shit and worse, the current ideal in NCB circles, is by itself a parody of “natural childbirth”. Not to mention that human babies being born into water is something that no human baby was ever designed to endure upon “naturally” exiting through birth canal.

    • AnnaPDE

      Oh oh oh but aquatic apes something, right? And squatting down in a creek to just pop the baby out in there… as in that notorious video.
      I especially love how the nice calm 37C inside-uterus watery environment is equated with cold running creek water, preferably outside the height of summer. Because if there’s something we can all agree on being super soothing, it’s the act of getting into ice cold water from a state of comfortable warmth.

      • niteseer

        I saw that video, and cringed repeatedly. All I could think of was the probability of water borne bacteria and parasites in that shallow water. If it isn’t considered safe enough for you to drink,, why would it be even wildly considered safe enough to splash around your open vagina, and dunk your newborn baby into, face first? Neonatal tetanus is a problem in many parts of the world because of the freshly cut umbilical cord being exposed to dirt or unclean water; because the baby, nor the mother, is vaccinated.

        • StephanieJR

          I’ve seen it too. There were fucking flies landing on the baby before it was even fully out.

      • Lilly de Lure

        Was that the Australian one from a while back? The one in the national park known for the prevalence of wild crocodiles nearby? To be fair that does replicate the situation of any of our early ancestors that would have been so foolish as to try and give birth in any comparative body of water in their own habitats at the time – which is probably one of many reasons why they did not do so.

  • Empress of the Iguana People

    Humans have been altering nature for a very, very long time. It’s kind of what we do. Just because it took us longer to figure out effective ways of cheating death in childbirth doesn’t make it a bad idea. Sure, Mom never needed any help in that department, but both her daughters did.

  • EmbraceYourInnerCrone

    I don’t understand these people that fetishise “Nature”.

    In most of the world humans don’t live under the open sky or in caves, we build homes out of clay, wood, stone, felt, leathertanned hides and have for thousands of years. We grow plants for food, and cross breed different types of the same plant to get better plants. We wear some protection against sunburn and cold/rain etc(clothing), we cook many foods to make them easier to digest and to rid of parasites, we use leaves, fur, or felt or cloth to stop bleeding, we set bones with everything from branches to complex casts depending what is available. We process our food and water and refrigerate or salt down our food to preserve it and to try to prevent food poisoning and spoilage.

    None of this is “natural” so why in the name of sanity would we want to give birth the way our ancient ancestors did?

    • LA Julian

      Not only that, our ancient ancestors did their best to control birth for better outcomes. They didn’t have the medical technology of today, so they tried to bargain with The Gods to save themselves/their loved ones, and ward off any evil spirits that might harm them. Protective charms and offerings for a safe childbirth are some of the most common amulets and inscriptions in archaeology.

      • Lilly de Lure

        That is an excellent point – I’m studying Egyptology for a second degree at the moment and one figure you find is Tawaret, the hippo goddess who protects women in childbirth. New agers tend to depict her as a friendly, humourous figure, similar to the dancing ones in Fantasia, if you look at the below link you’ll see the kind of thing I mean:

        http://sargentfox.artstation.com/projects/Lm9gr

        However if you look at the original depictions of her she’s not like that at all. For a start Ancient Egyptians did NOT regard hippos as friendly (and neither do any cultures who encounter them in the wild because they’re territorial and aggressive as hell) but as scary, dangerous creatures along with crocodiles. To make the point even more, she is frequently depicted with a knife, wearing the skin of a crocodile she apparently just shanked (you can see her at the bottom on the middle right here):

        http://www.joanlansberry.com/setfind/03061370.jpg

        That’s the level of protection Ancient people thought you needed to protect you from the dangers of childbirth – forget happy stress-reducing unicorns, you need a fierce as hell hippo who can slaughter a crocodile and wear it as a hat.

        • Sarah

          Yep. I haven’t studied Egyptology at the level you’re at, but I’ve pointed out here a few times that Tawaret was bloody scary. And there was a reason for that- they thought she needed to be!