The holy trinity of maternal suffering

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Why do good mothers feel so bad? Because suffering is integral to contemporary mothering ideology.

Yesterday I wrote about hyper-maternalism as a more accurate term than natural mothering or attachment parenting. Natural mothering and attachment parenting are really marketing terms designed to romanticize maternal suffering and hide the true purpose: manipulating women. Hyper-maternalism is a more accurate description because it captures the belief that mere mothering is not enough; hyper-mothering is required.

Maternal suffering is not an unfortunate side effect of natural mothering or attachment parenting; it’s a requirement.

Today I’d like to talk about the holy trinity of maternal suffering: pain, fear and anguish.

The key point I want to make is this: Maternal suffering is not an unfortunate side effect of natural mothering or attachment parenting; it’s a critical feature.

It’s a deliberate exploitation of the fact that most mothers are willing to endure any form of pain in any amount to spare their children. What’s unique about hyper-maternalism is the belief that mothers ought to suffer pain for trivial reasons or for no reason at all. Maternal pain is often portrayed as beneficial for children without any evidence to support the claim.

Maternal suffering is mandated even for “good” mothers. Their suffering may be limited to physical pain of childbirth and breastfeeding, plus fear of “toxins,” vaccine “injuries” and suboptimal intellectual achievement and that’s if they are lucky. Those who do not tick all the boxes of hyper-maternalism experience the pain of trying to tick the boxes, compounded by anguish that they “failed” and thereby short changed their beloved children.

1. Pain

This is the sine qua non of maternal suffering.

It starts with the well known imperative to endure the agonizing pain of labor and not dare to abolish it with an epidural. Most people do not realize that avoiding pain medication was not originally part of the natural childbirth ideology. Grantly Dick-Read insisted that women would not have to endure childbirth pain if they understood that their purpose was to reproduce. The Lamaze method was originally touted as pain relief. Natural childbirth was about being awake and aware during birth without pain. Indeed, both Dick-Read and Lamaze explicitly allowed pain relief in labor and the advent of the epidural several decades later meant that women could fully experience birth without pain.

It wasn’t until the early 1980’s, after natural childbirth advocates had achieved their original goals — no sedation, support people in labor and delivery rooms, no perineal shaving or enemas — that they deliberately moved the goalposts. The natural childbirth industry (midwives, doulas, childbirth educators) couldn’t offer epidurals so they demonized them instead, insisting that they are dangerous to babies (they aren’t). The point was further emphasized when Michel Odent fabricated the notion that pain is required for women to bond with their babies (a bald faced lie).

The requirement for pain is responsible in part for viewing C-sections with horror. C-sections bypass the suffering of labor, but they also mitigate future pain from perineal tears, sexual dysfunction and incontinence. The only thing worse than a C-section is a maternal request C-section chosen to prevent pain and painful side effects. How dare a woman imagine that she can be a mother without excruciating pain?

The imperative to endure pain continues with the relentless quest to breastfeed exclusively. Many women experience significant pain while breastfeeding, particularly in the early weeks. Lactivists respond by either telling women that they must be breastfeeding wrong, recommending that they purchase more support services or insisting that good mothers endure pain, despite the fact that the benefits of breastfeeding in industrialized countries are trivial.

2. Fear

In the entire history of the human race, childhood has never been safer. Ironically, contemporary parenting “experts” would have you believe that children are continuously threatened with serious harm and death from infant formula, vaccines and imaginary “toxins” among other threats. These “experts” problematize not merely the safety of children, but even routine developmental tasks. Our ancestors fed their children, provided basic care and hoped for the best. Today’s mothers are encouraged to believe that they can and should be experts on both pediatrics and nutrition with special emphasis on nutrition, immunology and toxicology. They cannot obtain relief from these pervasive fears because they are taught that real experts like obstetricians and pediatricians are not to be trusted.

Above all, they are warned that the mother-infant bond, which has always been understood to develop spontaneously, is frightfully tenuous and contingent on specific, ritualized parenting behaviors. And if all that weren’t bad enough, mothers are being instructed that their children’s brain development depends on the quality of their love. Women are continuously encouraged to be fearful because fearful women are easily manipulated.

3. Anguish

Obviously mothers will be anguished if their children are unhealthy or unhappy. What’s unusual about hyper-maternalism is that mothers are encouraged to be anguished even when their children are healthy and happy. They are supposed to be anguished if they did not have a vaginal birth, if they opted for a C-section or if they did not breastfeed exclusively for an extended period of time.

The responsibility for any and every bad outcome is reflexively pinned on mothers, especially when the actual cause is unknown such as in the case of autism. Mothers are encouraged to believe that bad outcomes could have been avoided if only they had refused vaccines, if only they had removed “toxins” from their child’s diet, if only they enforced rigid restriction diets. It is their “fault” that their children are autistic despite the fact that autism is know to have a large genetic component.

Ironically, real mental anguish, such as postpartum depression or maternal mental illness is dismissed out of hand. Weighed down by depression, crying all day, unable to sleep at night? That’s not an excuse to stop breastfeeding. Doctor recommends psychiatric medication to treat your depression and it’s potentially incompatible with breastfeeding? Don’t you dare stop breastfeeding; stop the medication instead.

The other source of anguish, arguably accounting for the largest share, is guilt and shame. The terms are often used interchangeably in regarding motherhood, although they do have specific meanings. As Jean-Anne Sutherland explains in Mothering, Guilt and Shame:

The notion of maternal guilt is so pervasive in our culture as to be considered a ‘natural’ component of motherhood. To read a popular press book or piece of social scientific research on motherhood is to read about guilt. That mothers experience guilt and shame in relation to their roles as mothers is the most prevalent finding in mothering research …

What’s the difference between guilt and shame?

… [A] mother would be describing guilt if she expressed a negative self-evaluation regarding behavior stemming from a specific task. However, her experience would be labeled shame if she described herself, in relation to others, as having not met an idealized self-image.

In other words, a mother might feel guilty that she had a C-section instead of a vaginal birth or fed her infant with formula instead of exclusively breastfeeding. Either could cause her to be ashamed that she is not a “good” mother. Both are significant sources of anguish for mothers and are often elicited by others specifically for the purpose of making new mothers feel awful.

It’s hardly surprising that good mothers feel so bad. Every mother is forced to endure the holy trinity of maternal suffering.

  • keepitreal

    The women I’ve known who’ve bought into this trinity have generally been certifiably insane. They’re neurotic and have sought to immerse their entire identity into childbearing and child-rearing and child-educating. In other words, after their martyred ‘natural’ sanctified births, they’ve kept the chicks in the nest for FAR too long. Control freaks on all levels. Forget helicopter. Try prison-guard parenting. The kids have been homeschooled, educated to believe in fairies and not read until 12, isolated from the world, educationally neglected and limited to church groups for any social interaction. Martyred birthing often dovetails into other aspects of these women’s lives be it religious addiction or other such dodgy philosophies. Quite simply, they’re 100% organic, ‘all natural,’ drug free nut-jobs.

  • Jess

    Thank you for this and all the work you do – you have made such a difference to me. Articles like this are so important, and so very true.

  • mabelcruet

    I’m single and child-free, but I’ve seen my siblings and friends have babies and on the whole, bring up mostly decent human beings without the loss of too many limbs along the way. There is a huge societal disconnect between what we expect from mothers and fathers: mothers are expected to make sacrifices (financial, independence, career, even bodily integrity and continence), and the more sacrifices the better, whereas dads still get praised for doing the bare minimum-it seems to be common to talk about a dad ‘baby-sitting’ his children, and in shops I’ve heard shop assistants making comments like ‘Ooh, you’re brave looking after them!’ I’ve got a male friend who is a single parent with 2 children still under 10, and he has had to deal with comments (from women) about him waiting at the school gate to pick up his kids after school. It’s like a dad wanting to be a dad is somehow suspicious and unmanly. I think its all part of the misogyny around childbirth and parenting-there is a very distinct societal imperative about parental roles.

    • The Kids Aren’t AltRight

      A lot of fathers end up feeling disconnected from their children, which also causes men a lot of emotional anguish. Misogynistic parenting ideals are worse for women, but really bad for men (and often children, tbh) too.

      • maidmarian555

        Precisely this. My OH mucks in (literally) so my son gets to see his Daddy changing nappies, giving bottles, wiping snotty noses. He sees every single day that men can be caregivers and I personally believe that this is a really important lesson. He’s an affectionate little boy who (whilst being super-independant) is full of kisses, cuddles (or cuggles as he calls them) and hugs for us, his baby sister and his friends at nursery. I hope it continues, it makes me so sad that many little boys have this type of behaviour disencouraged. It’s just part of who he is naturally, it shouldn’t be berated and squashed out of him just because he has a penis.

  • Rosa Caporicci

    Amen, sister! As a psychotherapist specializing in reproductive mental health, I see this destructive schema playing out in new mothers far too often, and often say that in my more conspiratorial moments, I believe this ideology is propagated and encouraged precisely to keep women “in their place.” Women are not superior parents by virtue of their biology; that fallacy maintains wrong-headed ideas and attitudes that contribute to perinatal and postpartum mood & anxiety disorders. Dr. T, you’re my hero!

    • Spamamander (no mall bans)

      Thank YOU for taking on a very under-served section of mental health!

    • fiftyfifty1

      Yep, my colleagues who work in perinatal mood and anxiety disorders tell me they spend countless hours unpacking and reframing mothering “failures” i.e. epidurals and formula supplementation. Might some of these women have underlying depression or anxiety tendencies? Sure. But add all the societal guilting and it is the perfect storm.

    • The Kids Aren’t AltRight

      What’s so bizarre is that the natural momma bs is so often framed as feminism and upheld by supposed feminists. I really don’t get how feminism has failed motherhood so severely.