It’s not natural mothering or attachment parenting; it’s hyper-maternalism

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Why do good mothers feel so bad?

It’s not an accident. It is a product of our beliefs about women.

While many of us proudly declare ourselves feminists, we have failed to question fundamentally anti-feminist beliefs about motherhood, sacrifice and how the differing needs of women and children ought to be negotiated. We don’t question them because we have been socialized to believe that children’s happiness and success can only be purchased with the coin of maternal suffering. That belief, along with our intense love for our children, has been used to control us.

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This mothering ideology, the dominant mothering ideology in contemporary culture, is often described as natural mothering or attachment parenting, but I’d like to suggest a new — more accurate, less romantic — term: hyper-maternalism.

Natural mothering and attachment parenting are really marketing terms designed to romanticize maternal suffering and hide the true purpose: manipulating women. They are deliberately misleading; natural mothering, although often presented as a recapitulation of mothering in nature, bears little resemblance to the way our foremothers cared for their children. Attachment parenting is meant to evoke attachment theory, but actually has nothing to do with it. It problematizes mothering by presenting the mother-infant bond not as spontaneous, as has been understood throughout history, but as fragile and contingent on specific ritualized behavior like “baby-wearing.”

What was mothering really like in nature?

Women have always been integral to the survival of small hunter-gatherer bands. They spent hours each day as the gatherers. They spent additional hours laboriously preparing food (grinding grain, for example) and may have sewed the clothing that allowed humans to expand into colder climates. In a very real sense, mothering was an interstitial task, taking place in the gaps while performing other tasks that required attention and energy.

Hyper-maternalism, in contrast, imagines mothering performed instead of other tasks. It is not something that you do while doing everything else; it’s something you do to the exclusion of everything else. It is not natural; it has nothing to do with the way our foremothers raised children, but rather it is an unnatural exaggeration of specific tasks of mothering. Nothing illustrates this better than our cultural pre-occupation over working mothers vs. stay a home mothers. Working is often presented as slighting the traditional role of mother when the reality is that up until the last 200 years or so, all mothers were working mothers.

Hyper-maternalism always and inevitably means more work for mothers, and often more suffering, too. It is the mothering equivalent of the feminine mystique postulated by Betty Friedan.

In her book, The Feminine Mystique:

Friedan shows that advertisers tried to encourage housewives to think of themselves as professionals who needed many specialized products in order to do their jobs, while discouraging housewives from having actual careers, since that would mean they would not spend as much time and effort on housework and therefore would not buy as many household products, cutting into advertisers’ profits.

Hyper-maternalism has also spawned an industry of books, classes, services and specialized products to perform natural mothering, while simultaneously discouraging mothers from having actual careers. That must be discouraged since it would lead to two outcomes the industry considers undesirable: women would not buy the books, classes, services and specialized products and women would acquire economic freedom from manipulation.

Similarly, attachment parenting has nothing to do with the way our foremothers raised their children. The mother-infant bond, to the extent that it was considered at all, was assumed to be the inevitable result of caring for children; mother and child love each other simply because they belong to each other. But in attachment parenting, mothering isn’t enough; hyper-mothering is required. Attachment parenting advocates insist that mother-infant interactions must be prodded and controlled in a series of ritualized behaviors (skin to skin at birth, breastfeeding only, baby wearing) otherwise children will presumably end up “detached.”

As Charlotte Faircloth notes in the essay The Problem of ‘Attachment’: the ‘Detached’ Parent in the book Parenting Culture Studies:

It hardly seems controversial to say that, today, we have a cultural concern with how ‘attached’ parents are to their children. Midwives encourage mothers to try ‘skin-to-skin’ contact with their babies to improve ‘bonding’ after childbirth, a wealth of experts advocate ‘natural’ parenting styles which encourage ‘attachment’ with infants…

Previously a mother’s love for her child had been romanticized and ascribed to inherent characteristics of women, mother love has now been medicalized, requiring participation in rituals prescribed by experts.

Ultimately hyper-maternalism is a more accurate description of contemporary mothering ideology because it captures the belief that mere mothering is not enough; hyper-mothering is required. Women must erase themselves and embrace their own pain, exhaustion and battered mental health. Women must submerge their identities in mothering, ignoring their own intellect, talents, needs and ambitions. The alternative is implied to be beloved children profoundly damaged by our selfishness.

Why do good mothers feel so bad?

It’s not an accident. It’s a direct result of the ideology of hyper-maternalism.

  • Deanne

    Recently I watched a funny video made by a mom describing how her kids were driving her crazy after only one day of winter break; constantly asking for snacks, saying they’re bored, waking her up at 6am, the usual school break annoyances. Sure enough, the comments started up from the sanctimommies, saying this woman was a terrible mom, why did she even have kids if she didn’t want to pay attention to them, etc. Why do people do this? Can’t she just be a mom who loves her kids but wants some sleep and is too tired to pay constant attention to her school aged kids at 6 in the morning?

    • Daleth

      Omg! Those sanctimommies can kiss my ass.

    • The Bofa on the Sofa

      I bet they hate “it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas”

  • yentavegan

    I wonder if it is better for our ( United States of America) economy, to keep educated married mothers out of the work force . Is there a puppet master pulling the strings of our culture to create an exploitable class of wealth consumers ? More than just Tumble-Bee toddler gyms and Starbucks with couches and toys, but psychotropic pharmaceuticals to keep this class of women sedated enough to allow their best strongest years getting sicker, fatter and lonelier. And less able to be self supportive when the shit hits the fan.

    • Heidi

      You know, I think today, there’s always going to be opportunity to make money whether women work or not. I think plenty of working women struggle with mental health and need pharmaceuticals to help and I think plenty of us struggle with our weight regardless. And the same applies to working men. I can see what Friedan was saying but I just don’t know if the same rules apply today. Advertising isn’t limited to tv and radio. It’s on your phones and computers. You don’t need to be home during the day taking a break with a soap opera to see advertising. There’s plenty to be sold to working mothers (and anyone else who works outside the home) — from Monster energy drinks to Roombas and laundry pods. And being fatter, sicker, and lonelier isn’t really good for the economy, is it? At least I keep hearing how the opioid epidemic and the obesity epidemic threaten our economy.

      • Zornorph

        I have suddenly had the urge to listen to Mothers Little Helper by the Rolling Stones.

    • Empress of the Iguana People

      Leave my pharmaceutical alone; it keeps me from cutting my wrists or raging at my children.

    • Box of Salt

      I’m not sure the tone of your comment came off quite as you expected.

    • It seems to me a bigger waste to educate all of those women (sometimes at taxpayer expense, or with college-funded financial aid) and then cast them aside in what would have been the first half of their careers.

      This is part of Japan’s demographic time bomb: Working mothers are much rarer there, since there’s almost a taboo to working once you have kids and day care is hard to find.

      So women don’t have any good choices: They decide not to marry or don’t have kids, or they do have kids and most likely drop out of the workforce, and the birth rate is below replacement.

      The economy is stagnating, and the country is headed for trouble with pensions and retirement, since a growing economy needs a growing workforce, immigration is severely limited, and robots can’t do everything yet.

      I wonder whether anyone has collected data in the U.S. on student loan default rates between childless women, women who stay in the workforce, and women who don’t. (Stay-at-home dads still aren’t common enough for good data, though we probably all know a few.)

      Anyway, a two-earner household is better for the economy. You can see that either as a productivity gain, or because we buy houses that are too big and fill them with crap while we keep two or more cars on the road, and pay for a whirlwind of toys and activities and tutors and prepared meals and fast food for our kids.

      • Empress of the Iguana People

        Daycare’s so darn expensive, too.

    • MaineJen

      Wow, um, no thanks. I’ll keep my very rewarding career, thanks.

    • LaMont

      We don’t need drugs, we have a much stronger ethic of “independence” (a masculine type that only applies to male heads of households), and much more weaponized Christianity that states that it’s a supernatural desire of the universe that you stay at home, than other developed nations.

  • J.B.

    I read a couple of the reviews of Ivana Trump’s book when it came out (no interest in the book itself, just read the reviews so I could be judgy about it 😉 One thing the review said was how she had no guilt about hiring nannies and missing school events for work…umm, yeah? I would happily avoid all school events if I possibly could.

    • Empress of the Iguana People

      my husband too. I don’t mind going to a couple a season. All of a play’s multiple showing or ever basketball game would be a bit much

  • Mariana

    This is where I clash with my mother. Her whole life was being a wife and mother, it defines who she is almost entirerly. It did mean I had a wonderful childhood in a very organized house and enjoyed delicious homecooked food on a regular basis. It also meant my dad had all his needs catered to. I don’t think he has ever cooked anything other than chocolate pudding (which is delicious). I can only imagine how alienating this was for my mom… an intelligent and resourceful woman.

    I went into motherhood decided to do the same… but I can’t. I just could not leave my job and interests behind just because I have children now. I found being a stay-home-mom boring and lonely. I would gladly die to save the life of any of my children, I love them more than life itself, but if it is not life and death… I’d like to fullfil some of my needs too, thankyouverymuch. So that means sometimes putting myself and my own convenience first, it means living in a home that is slightly disorganized and never spotless, it means going to work, having dates with my husband and saying “no” to their wants sometimes.

    And that’s where I clash with my mom… in the little things. I know she thinks I’m sometimes lazy and a horrible housekeeper. I know she would have done things differently… but I just can’t. And I have to say I don’t feel guilt over it either.

    • Tigger_the_Wing

      Good for you. It does children no good at all in the long run to grow up with a martyr for a parent, even if at the time it feels wonderful. Because when we become adults and parents in our turn we and our parents inevitably compare our choices to the ones our parents made, and a certain amount of tension is bound to creep in, even if there is no guilt.

      Being a stay-at-home mother who had no outside employment was once something only the very, very wealthy did, until the second half of the last century – and the upper class had enormous households to run, with huge numbers of staff, which were like mini-businesses in themselves. Once a middle class emerged, although the wives and mothers had much smaller households (a cook and a nanny, at least, though), the wives were expected to do all the household financial management, and entertain people on a regular basis. Poor women took in laundry and sewing, or went out cleaning, or worked on farms, in fields, in service and (later) in factories. Old women were pressed into service as child minders for their younger relatives.

      My mother told me that the reason she became a SAHM was because of the pressure brought to bear on women in the aftermath of WWII. Rather than have vast numbers of returning soldiers end up on the dole (and risk armed revolt) it was put to women that it was their patriotic duty, and their duty to their husbands, to give up their jobs if they were married; and they should stay home and have at least four children – like the Queen – to replace the people lost in those terrible wars. My mother made one small rebellion – she refused to give up her job on marriage, and only gave it up when she became pregnant with me. She’s a clever woman, who had the few opportunities to get a decent education snatched from her by poverty and sexism. What a waste of a mind.

      I did try to be a SAHM for several years, but it almost drove me mad. Luckily, my husband decided he’d rather have a happy marriage and a chaotic, happy house than a picture-perfect house and uptight, miserable wife and kids like his brother had. We’re still contented together after 38 years; his brother’s marriage (and life) fell apart in the nineties.

      Apart from a five-year break from shortly before my eldest was born, I worked from when my third child turned two right up until my second heart-attack, at 49, made me unemployable (including ten years of self-employment during which I had the twins); and the last eleven years (the longest, by far, that I’ve been unemployed) have been a major exercise in avoiding frustration, especially with the increasing disability from my other disorders (I also have EDS and ankylosing spondylitis).

      If you’re happy being a SAHM, and can afford it, I say go for it – but let’s not pretend that there is anything natural about it.

  • Zornorph

    My son woke up too damn early this morning. I gave him my tablet to keep him busy so I could get another half-hour of rest. Didn’t feel the slightest bit guilty about it, either. Sleep is natural! 🙂

    • Siri Dennis

      A few years ago you couldn’t have posted that comment without being suspected of giving your son a dose of zopiklone…

      • Tigger_the_Wing

        Indeed; I did a double-take, too!

        In the last few years, my friends and I have noticed a trend in the behaviour of very small people in waiting rooms – they tend to use pinching and swiping motions on books, as if they can change the pages the way they would on a smartphone or similar. We’re not sure whether to be charmed or horrified!

        • AnnaPDE

          The horrifying bit about that is that this means they haven’t figured out yet that books are different because they haven’t seen many. My 2yo swipes and taps pretty well and he tried it like once on a book before understanding that it doesn’t work.

          • Zornorph

            I read conventional books to my son most nights, so he’s quite familiar with the non-digital version 🙂 Reading a story from an e-reader just doesn’t seem quite the same (though I’ve actually done it a time or two). For one thing, the pictures usually are not as big.

          • Amazed

            One of the funniest things Amazing Niece served me when she was about 18 months old was finding the dog. There was a book with many dogs in it right in front of her and she loved it and loved finding the dog. So here I am like, “AN, go find the dog!” hoping for a brief reprieve while having my coffee as she would be content with me just nodding along at the Dog, Dog, Dog thing. And she’s like, “Hello? I’ve got a new book and there is a dog THERE as well!”. She runs to fetch the book I gave her last night, about Masha and the Bear. And the starts turning pages until she found the tiniest puppy on earth. Honestly, I didn’t even know it was there.

            This was the moment I got reassured we were not raising the next kid who doesn’t know how books work.

      • Allie

        Ha! My mind went there too at first, thinking what wonderful, sleep-inducing tablets could be shared with children. Come on, Pfizer, get on it!

  • Empress of the Iguana People

    Though to be fair, my mental health was already battered a bit. For me “natural” is doing something outside of chores and childrearing. I -have- to. But I feel guilty not keeping my border collie puppy of a son busy.