There’s actually someone more scathing in her assessment of natural mothering than me

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Psychologist Susan Franzblau is even more scathing in her indictment of the inherent misogyny of natural parenting than I am.

I recently came upon her chapter Deconstructing Attachment Theory: Naturalizing the Politics of Motherhood included in the 2002 book Charting a New Course for Feminist Psychology.

Although Franzblau is refers to attachment theory, it seems to me that she is criticizing natural/attachment mothering.

Natural mothering is “a coercive theory that legitimizes and naturalizes the control of women.”

She wastes no time in setting out her thesis:

In this chapter, I deconstruct attachment theory and argue that it is a coercive theory that legitimizes and naturalizes the control of women and contributes to divisions among women by social class, race and sexual orientation.

How?

First, attachment theory steers women into accepting motherhood as the dominant condition of their lives, by characterizing and then romanticizing women as mother. Second, attachment theory promotes women’s labor within the confines of maternity by narrowing, reducing, and mandating women’s primary role as that of heterosexual mother. Third, attachment theory acts as the overarching paradigm with which to scrutinize women to see if their behavior meets the definition of “good mother.” Finally, if a woman resists the work of motherhood, either in thought or deed, attachment theory pathologizes her resistance.

I couldn’t have said it better myself. As I’ve written:

  • Natural mothering reflects biological essentialism.
  • It is about controlling women.
  • It has nothing to do with mothering in nature.
  • It pathologizes women who refuse to conform.

Franzblau traces the history of restrictive ideals of mothering:

The idea that women are evolutionarily prepared to mother … is consistent with a long historical tradition of using essentialist discourse to predetermine and control women’s reproductive tasks and children’s rearing needs. Evolutionary and biological theories have been embedded in a history of misogynist discourse… Women’s “natural” function … is to reproduce and provide continual care for infants and young children. If the treatment of women differs from the treatment of men, such treatment could be justified in terms of its biological and evolutionary purposes. Essentialism, therefore, is problematic for women who have challenged the idea that motherhood defines them …

Natural mothering elides its misogynist origins by insisting that it has the imprimatur of science. Franzblau describes it as “ideology configured as science.” And it’s not particularly good science because it takes animals, particularly higher order mammals and primates, as a starting point for determining normative behavior for women. In doing so it assumes inequality, male dominance and female nurturance of infants. In other words, the only thing natural about natural mothering is the gender stereotyping.

The ideology of natural mothering conveniently intersects with societal and political efforts to marginalize women. This is not the first time that mothering has been romanticized. It also occurred in the Victorian era and the immediate aftermath of World War II. In both cases, structural issues (the Industrial Revolution, the return of men from the military) made it attractive to pressure women back into the home, reserving employment for men. This was justified by ignoring women’s needs in favor of restricting them to their biological functions.

However, the choice was never women’s. The needs of children as defined by various experts, and the fact that women were positioned as exclusively responsible for those needs were translated into the fixed properties of mothers and valorized, unproblematized, and essentialized.

It the 21st Century, these so called experts are midwives, doulas, lactation consultants and attachment parenting advocates. Women’s needs are ignored and women who don’t want to give birth without pain medication, don’t want to breastfeed, and dare to have careers outside the home are pathologized as weak, lazy and selfish.

In the US, the ideology of natural mothering was elaborated by religious fundamentalists.

Organizations such as the Christian Family Movement (established by the Catholic laity …) became the founders of the La Leche League in 1956… According to one natural childbirth advocate of the time, “childbirth is fundamentally a spiritual as well as a physical achievement …” Breastfeeding was heralded as an extension of this spiritual connection. Out of concern that recently instituted bottle-feeding and drug-assisted births would break family bonds, these religious advocates of breastfeeding prescribed a regimen that included suckling on demand day and night with no pacifier substitute … Any work that competed with the infant’s need for continuity of maternal care was out of the question. One La La Leche League International group leader said that she was “pretty negative to people who just want to dump their kids of and go to work eight hours a day.”

Sound familiar?

The bottom line is that natural mothering has never been about what’s best for babies; it’s always been about manipulating women into pre-approved choices by disguising ideology as science. Unmedicated vaginal birth isn’t best for babies and it certainly isn’t best for women who don’t choose it voluntarily. Breastfeeding isn’t best for babies and it certainly isn’t best for women who can’t or don’t want to breastfeed. Attachment parenting isn’t best for babies and it certainly isn’t best for women who want to or need to work. The only people for whom it is best is those so called experts in natural childbirth, breastfeeding, and attachment parenting who profit from it and the misogynists who benefit from it.

Franzblau’s assessment of natural mothering is scathing and I couldn’t agree more.

  • Amazed

    There’s an old folk song here… A husband asks his wife why she isn’t as beautiful as she used to be in their youth. And she replies, “How could I be when I’ve had nine babes, I’ve rocked nine cradles, I’ve wept over nine graves?”

    Natural motherhood in all its glory!

  • CSN0116

    What’s the science or psychology behind what causes an oppressed population (i.e. women) to further voluntarily oppresses itself (i.e. natural parenting)? That is, all of this pathologizing of “good” mother vs “bad” mother would not exist if WOMEN would not perpetuate it. It is a woman-led initiative. Surely there is a discipline dedicated to studying this phenomenon?

    • Young CC Prof

      Female support for patriarchy is indeed well studied. In most cases, it’s driven by higher-status women. Some women benefit from patriarchy in some ways, for example, the wives of high-status men. (In today’s society, some women hold wealth and power in their own right, but it comes to the same thing.)

      So, they enforce the rules on lower-status women to lift themselves up, even though they are constrained and harmed by patriarchy at the same time.

      Another thing seen in some cultures is older women oppressing younger women, especially daughters-in-law. They were oppressed when young, and now they’re finally old enough to reach the top of the female heap, and going to take advantage.

      • CSN0116

        Fascinating! Thank you for sharing.

      • mabelcruet

        That’s fascinating, thanks. When Margaret Thatcher was prime minister in the UK, she did very little for other women, both in government or in general. Her approach was always ‘they’ll have to work for it, talent will show itself,’ but her cabinet was full of men who were spectacularly crap-they had very little talent but they came from the ‘right’ background, the ‘right’ schools, the ‘right’ university but beyond that had no talent or skill. I think the general impression is that she did nothing for equal opportunities or breaking through the glass ceiling.

  • Sarah

    Spiritual time my arse.

  • Tori

    I’d suggest that attachment theory is about providing a secure base (or bases) from which a child is able to explore. This secure base can be anyone – mother, father, grandparents, childcare workers. I think/hope my son has secure attachments to a whole bunch of people, not only me.

    • AnnaPDE

      Attachment theory, yes. The style of parenting popularised by Dr Sears and called “Attachment Parenting”, less so.

      • Tori

        Sorry I wasn’t very clear. Should have explicitly stated versus attachment parenting. The quotes from Susan Franzblau by my reading of them imply they are the same.

  • Russell Jones

    My mother was a full-time spouse and mom, and she was terrible at it. Years after she drank herself to death at the ripe old age of 40, I was rummaging through our family repository of old photos and documents, and found evidence that before marriage my mother was an accomplished musician and had a promising career in banking (“promising” by 1950s standards, at least). She just wasn’t cut out for motherhood. Wasn’t her fault; it’s just the way it was. Can’t help but wonder how much better and happier her life might have been absent familial and societal pressure to walk away from what she loved and take up a life for which she simply wasn’t suited.

    And here we are, decades later. Many barriers to female self-determination have fallen, but there is no shortage of reactionary knobs working diligently to stuff the shit back into the horse. Thus, the “natural mothering” movement.

    You’d think that more than enough physical and/or psychological well-being has already been sacrificed on the altar of “my invisible magic sky daddy wants it this way,” but I guess not.

    • Empress of the Iguana People

      For some its the invisible magic ground mommy.
      Thank goodness my husband’s retired pastor is also a mommy and doesn’t believe in that crap. Her successor is not yet a mommy but she and her wife are pretty young yet.

    • Gæst

      My father tells me my mother was a different person before having kids. She had a job before, was a SAHM until the last kid started school, and then returned to work, but according to him she was never the same.

      • FormerPhysicist

        I’m so afraid that’s me.
        ETA: But, “go back to work” isn’t quite so simple. I do do a little work to try to keep something for myself.

        • Gæst

          I seriously doubt you will become my mom. 😉

        • Who?

          We all change as we get older-and thank goodness for that. The mind broadens along with the hips, so so I hope. Perhaps Gaest’s father was in fact seeing changes in himself, not Gaest’s mother.

          Some of the changes are because of relationships, some because of other experiences, some is just time and good or bad luck, and how you and others in your world respond to their lives, and to you.

          My friends and family who haven’t had kids have a different life from us, for sure.

          But who knows how our lives would be with different kids from the ones we have, let alone no kids. Or with that third one we never got around to. Or with a different partner, or no partner.

          Feeling trapped isn’t good, whatever is the cause of it. But life does go on a long time, if you’re lucky, and new experiences are a heartbeat away.

          • Tigger_the_Wing

            I agree – I would hope that I’m a different person, after 38 years of marriage and five children, than I was at 22! My husband is different, too. Sometimes we grow in a way that makes us just as, or even more, compatible with our partners; sometimes we grow apart. But anyone who is still as uninformed, ignorantly selfish and flighty at sixty as they are at sixteen would be a nightmare to live with!

    • Sue

      In past generations, so many smart, capable women were forced to live and achieve through their children, pushing them into education and professional training in a sublimation of their own ambitions.

    • Allie

      “working diligently to stuff the shit back into the horse”

      You just made my day : )

    • MaineJen

      My grandmother was a singer who cut an album in her early 20s; she also worked in the Portland naval yards during the war, working her way up to management/administration. She had a flair for business.

      She gave it all up to marry my grandpa. It’s just what was done, back then. They had 3 kids and a mostly happy life…but she always spoke of her youth with regret. The most animated I ever saw her was when she would reminisce about her performances, or her work back in Oregon. I think if she could have been a working mom, she would have been very successful, but it wasn’t seen as important or necessary, in the 1950s, for her to have a career or a life outside the home.

  • fiftyfifty1

    “dump their kids of and go to work eight hours a day.”

    Wow, so inaccurate! Not once did I dump off my kids. Every single time I carried them into the building in their car seats and SET them on the floor….and then I was out of there in a flash! With nary a look backwards. And then I spent TEN hours at work, hardly a moment of which I spent thinking about them. Because, you know, I love my work. And also, I won’t lie, it pays me so damn well! And I use that $$$ to buy all sorts of luxuries I could never afford otherwise and I enjoy the hell out of every one of them. And also the respect my job earns me. And the fascinating people I meet. And the positive influence my work has on society. And the fulfillment that it all brings me. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

    • Amazed

      As a good mother, my SIL did what came to her naturally. She’s going back to work as the start of the new year. To forestall any possible maladaptation issues at the childcare, she took a long leave (here, you can’t have a maternity leave if your kid is at a state-sponsored childcare) so she could rush and take Amazing Niece home each time it became evident that she was doing poorly. The kid stayed there only an hour the first day. At her fourth day, she was already sick. (Hello, childcare snuggles and stuff! Bye, great breastfeeding protection). A week later, my mom went to take her home and the kid actually started crying and RAN for the childcarer. A few tears when they leave her there in the morning, a wide grin when they go to take her home in the afternoon – a happy child if I ever saw one.

      BUT SIL still dumps her kid off and doesn’t even go to work! Instead, she goes with my brother to his office and do some secretary job or goes home to sleep. I suppose she’s the scum of earth to these women. She definitely should rush back to work immediately. ‘Cause having some rest from being a full-time mom-mom-mom before going back to work where many things have changed in the two years of her maternity leave makes her a terrible human being, obviously.

    • Roadstergal

      My mom was very good at her work. I was so proud of her for being a scientist! I wouldn’t have wanted her to give up her accomplishments for the world – and certainly not for me.

    • Empress of the Iguana People

      *not* having a proper job is bad for my psyche.

    • Young CC Prof

      When my son was 8 months old, I took him daycare. I was so nervous! By the end of the week, I was just about ready to give up, and then I stopped and listened to my child. Yes, I literally listened to my barely-crawling infant. In one week, his babble had expanded dramatically, adding a dozen new sounds and showing up much more often.

      He loved that place for the next three years.

      • Daleth

        I literally listened to my barely-crawling infant. In one week, his babble had expanded dramatically

        My twins were at the absolute bottom of the normal range for speaking at their 18-month appointment. They started Montessori preschool just before age 2 and within a month they were chattering away, and they haven’t shut up since! Their vocabulary and fluency is amazing. It’s awesome.

  • fiftyfifty1

    ” In other words, the only thing natural about natural mothering is the gender stereotyping.”

    What does this mean exactly? How can gender stereotyping be “natural” if it varies so much from society to society? I am totally lost.

    • Empress of the Iguana People

      Maybe that the act of stereotyping is so pervasive even if the *form* changes from society to society? Like it’s natural for us to wear something on our feet but the exactly what differs?

    • Allie

      Making assumptions about someone based on their gender is the most natural thing in the world. Every culture has their “women always…” or “women never…” assumptions. And don’t get me started on the pervasive virgin-whore dichotomy. Every culture struggles, in some way, with the fact that their mothers are sexual beings.

  • Ex-hippie

    What baffles me, is in the vast majority of cases, “natural” mothering urges a woman to ignore her parental instincts.
    * baby is ravenous and needs more than what the boobs are providing. A mother’s NATURAL instinct is to make sure the kid gets fed.
    * a mother’s NATURAL instinct is to make protect the child as much as humanly possible from disease and injury, yet apparently the “natural” thing to do is to eschew vaccination.
    * I don’t know about you but my instinct when the kid started fussing around 3 am, was to hold my breath and hope they fell back asleep, not rush to their bedside, whipping open my top and shoving a boob in their mouth. I mean, if they woke up, yeah i’d do it, but i’d secretly hope they’d go back to sleep so I could too.

    I could go on here, but I’m preaching to the choir aren’t I?

    Apparently, I am “unnatural” for occasionally feeling touched out and exhausted. I’m basically an AP parenting failure on so many counts its hilarious. I’ve committed heresy too, by saying that i’d consider not only an epidural for a 4th, but a MRCS after a hippie wet dream birth for #3. (literally even if I had wanted one, there was no time for an epidural- went from 6cm- baby out in less than 15m which resulted in Pelvic floor damage. Hence why #4 is not happening if i can help it *kisses HBC packet* )

    Nature is awesome for taking a weekend or week long camping trip to visit and experience. But i sure as hell would not want to live there. Have none of these fools seen “naked and afraid” – I mean that’s like, you can tap out. At any time. REAL nature means you can’t.

    • Gæst

      And apparently my son is “unnatural” because he hated being worn and wasn’t a big fan of being held when he was upset.