The cultural construction of women in natural mothering


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.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]In natural mothering, women are idealized but the purpose is not to empower them but rather to disempower them.[/pullquote]

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 automatic 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.