The Maternal Guilt Industry and the control of women


Most advocates of natural mothering — natural childbirth, breastfeeding, attachment parenting — believe that they have the best interests of children at heart. They don’t understand that they have fallen prey to the Maternal Guilt Industry that seeks to control mothers by generating and manipulating the fear that they will inadvertently harm their children.

I’m not talking about the women who make choices based on what is best for their families and themselves; they do have the best interests of their children at heart. I’m talking about the advocates, professional and lay, who proselytize on how all women should raise all children.

The operating principle of the Maternal Guilt Industry is this: children’s wellbeing can only be ensured by mothers’ suffering.

The attempt to control and manipulate women through love for their children is such a fixture of our culture that it is as invisible to us as the air we breathe.

As Jana Malamud Smith explains in A Potent Spell: Mother Love and the Power of Fear:

[S]tarting in Colonial America, a deep grammar of threat, stable beneath ever-changing “facts,” links and relinks child safety to maternal “acceptance” of constricted, submissive “feminine” behavior, deference to authority and her willingness to stay close to home.

It has ever been thus:

The mother’s fears of child loss and the derivative fears of harming children or caring for them inadequately have been continually manipulated, overtly and subtly, even aroused gratuitously, to pressure, control and subdue women for a very long time — possibly millennia.

What’s new is the latest iteration, the Maternal Guilt Industry, seeks not merely to control women but to make them pay for the privilege.

Malamud Smith’s starting point is what many mothers feel in their bones.

We know that most mothers … feel they will sacrifice even their lives on their children’s behalf. Part of the reason is love. Part is love’s corollary: each mother knows that it would be difficult, if not unbearable, to choose otherwise. How could we live with ourselves if we believed we had not given all to save a child?

When you are willing to give your life to protect your child, how much easier is it to give your aspirations, identity and freedom? The Maternal Guilt Industry seeks to deprive women of all three.

Understanding the depth of a mother’s feelings about child loss is central to comprehending how women who are mothers live in the world… [C]onsciously and, particularly, preconsciously, many women anticipate and fear, often with very good reason, that should they challenge their social role, should they defy the explicit or implicit rules of their environment, they might unwittingly damage their children.

The operating principle of the Maternal Guilt Industry is this: children’s wellbeing can only be ensured by mothers’ suffering.

  • You must suffer the agonizing pain of labor, and must not dare to expunge it with pain relief, or your child will be harmed and it will be your fault.
  • You must endure any discomforts of breastfeeding, any inconvenience and any disruption of your ability to work, or your child will be harmed and it will be your fault.
  • You must carry your child constantly and sacrifice any private time, even when you are sleeping, or your child will be harmed and it will be your fault.
  • You must spend endless hours shopping for and hand preparing food for your child, as well as presiding over complex food restriction diets, or your child will be harmed and it will be your fault.
  • You must buy the books, services and accoutrements of natural parenting (natural childbirth classes, lactation consultant services, fancy child slings and wraps) or your child will be harmed and it will be your fault.
  • You must never consider your own needs, desires and ambitions or your child will be harmed and it will be your fault.

The originators of natural mothering were quite explicit in invoking the trade off between mothers’ desires to escape from traditional gender roles and the harm that would supposedly come to their children as a result. Grantly Dick-Read created the philosophy of natural childbirth explicitly because he feared white women of the “better” classes would not have enough children to rule the world; the founders of La Leche League were explicit in proclaiming that by convincing women to breastfeed they could keep them from going to work; Dr. William Sears of attachment parenting is quite explicit in asserting that “God” wants women to stay in constant physical proximity to their children and maintain a state of subservience.

The saddest aspect of the Maternal Guilt Industry is not that it profits from women’s misery and seeks to maintain that misery in order to continue to profit. The saddest aspect is that women have been recruited as the primary enforcers of the mandatory misery of other women:

Sure midwives profit from convincing women to endure childbirth without pain relief, but they genuinely believe that pain makes women better mothers. They don’t seem to understand that they have been co-opted into enforcing gender stereotypes and oppressing other women.

Sure lactation consultants profit from convincing women to breastfeed, but they genuinely believe that breastfeeding makes women better mothers. They don’t seem to understand that they have been co-opted into enforcing gender stereotypes and oppressing other women.

Sure the purveyors of fancy slings and wraps and attachment parenting books profit from their philosophy, but they genuinely believe that continuous, close physical proximity to their babies makes women better mothers. They don’t seem to understand that they have been co-opted into enforcing gender stereotypes and oppressing other women.

As Malamud Smith notes in regard to parenting “experts”:

The authorities’ admonitions have often harshly and incorrectly punished mothers by suggesting that their children’s suffering or death is a consequence of their behavior — usually any behavior deemed to be ambitious, sexual or independent.

It’s easy for us to laugh at past efforts:

… Richard Kissam, MD [wrote] in The Nurse’s Manual and Young Mother’s Guide (1834), “If the mind of the mother be withdrawn from her child to other pleasures, her milk will be less nutritious and less in quantity.” Milk loses its basic life-sustaining characteristics if a mother lets herself think private, pleasurable thoughts? The notion was terrible science, but a powerful way to make mothers feel guilty and ashamed when their attention inevitably wandered …

It’s much harder to recognize that the present drive to force all women to breastfeed is no different. The claim that breast is best is terrible science, but a powerful way to make mothers feel guilty and ashamed if they use formula.

The ultimate irony is that the women of the Maternal Guilt Industry (and it is mostly women) imagine themselves as independent and transgressive, bucking the hegemony of patriarchal medicine. The reality is that they are oblivious in knuckling under to the traditional patriarchy of enforced gender norms. Maternal suffering is not a requirement for happy children; but it is a requirement for making women easy to control. And when it comes to controlling contemporary women, the Maternal Guilt Industry has no peer.

  • Dr Kitty

    Isn’t it funny…
    The recipe for making well adjusted humans for the wealthiest 1%, namely paying people to nurse and care for your children when they are tiny, sending them to prep school/boarding school/summer camp/university/finishing school/the military/ the grand tour and seeing them only in carefully controlled situations on high days and holidays, at times that are convenient to the parents has remained virtually unchanged for the last 300 years.

    People raised in what is basically the anti-AP method manage to become captains of industry, politicians, bankers, lawyers, power players, thought leaders and humanitarians.

  • Merrie

    My oldest is now 6 and the whole infant and toddler thing seems so beside the point to me now. My youngest is 4 months old. The choices I am making for him, aside from using stuff safely, will have literally no impact on his life by the time he is his big sister’s age. The choices I am making for her are going to have impact on her, potentially reaching on down the line. The patterns I am setting are going to impact her development and our relationship. What I feed my baby or what kind of carrier I put him in is not going to have an impact. So I am thinking much more about what kinds of patterns I am getting into for how I relate to my kids, and much less about the other stuff.

    • StephanieA

      My oldest is now 4 and in preschool, so we are getting our first glimpse of life beyond the baby/toddler years, and I could not agree more. He was formula fed, we did cry it out, I never wore him, I could go on…and seriously none of that shit matters in the long run. I do feel bad for him a bit, because I’m so much more laid back with my younger son because I have this perspective.

      • EmbraceYourInnerCrone

        Hey, are you me (formula feeding, Cry it out, she was in day care from age 6 weeks) ? I only have the one kid and I wish I could go back and tell myself to be a little more relaxed about a lot of things, I am always reminded (I am in the US) of the diaper commercials that show what parents do with the first kid versus what they do with the second kid (disinfecting everything vs letting the kid play in mud puddles)

        So far Only Kid has survived to adulthood without to much trauma and seems like a semi-happy, employed adult…a snarky, sarcastic, Type A adult but hey that’s what I like about her…(the teen years were fun Not)

    • Dr Kitty

      Once they start school you realise that the kids you want them hanging around will not necessarily have the cleanest clothes or richest parents or healthiest lunchboxes- the kids you want your kid to be around are the nice kids. Who come in all shapes and sizes, from all backgrounds, but generally have nice manners and laidback parents, and you probably won’t know their parenting philosophy, because they probably have a “whatever works to raise functioning humans I enjoy spending time with” attitude.

      The only rabidly AP family at my daughter’s school has kids who aren’t so much “gently disciplined” so much as “completely feral” and my daughter prefers not to spend time with them, having been kicked, bitten and sworn at when she tried to make friends.

      I’m afraid my response to AP mother when she asked for kids to spend more time with her kids, was that she needed to make sure her kids were acting in a way that made peole want to spend time with them, and until that happened I wasn’t forcing my daughter to be around people who made her feel bad, because I didn’t think it was a good life lesson.

      • StephanieA

        Those kids sound terrifying. I wouldn’t make my boys play with them either if that’s how they act. Husband and I are extremely loving and pretty soft with our kids and we absolutely will not spank, but there are very clear rules on politeness and kindness. They are absolutely not allowed to be little assholes to anyone. Obviously it’s possible to be an empathetic parent but still have boundaries and expectations on being a decent human.

    • MaineJen

      My kids are now 5 and 8, and the baby/toddler years are SUCH a distant memory. I wouldn’t go back! They are such cool little people now. I defy anyone looking at them vs their peers to tell me which ones were breast vs bottle fed. It simply doesn’t matter.

  • fiftyfifty1

    A simple question has served me well over the years: “Do men do this thing?”

    Do men wear uncomfortable shoes?
    Do men reflexively apologize?
    Do men disparage their bodies?
    Do men make disclaimers before eating rich food in public?
    Do men apologize for liking what they like in bed?
    Do men accept the first salary they are offered?
    Do men talk on and on about their children when they get together?
    Do men give up their careers?
    Do men tolerate underwear that rides up their butts?

    The answer is usually “Hell no, men would never do that thing.” Then I take a little bit of time to decide whether I really want to do that thing. Almost always the answer is no.

    Do men make a fetish of parenting guilt?

    Hell no. They life lives unencumbered by that. And that’s what I choose too.

    • StephanieJR

      If it works one way, it works the other way, too.

    • Emilie Bishop

      The SAHD’s in our friend circle are way less crazed and guilt-ridden than my fellow SAHM’s. They welcome help, they take time daily to decompress away from anything to do witb their kids, and they’re just more laid back about parenting all around. I’ve learned so much from them…if only I could put more of it into practice!

      • Merrie

        Yeah, dad guilt doesn’t seem to be like a thing. I know several SAHDs and am married to one.

      • fiftyfifty1

        I believe that modeling lack of guilt for other women can help, even if it’s “fake it ’til you make it.” This is why I don’t use Mommy Guilt as a bonding topic with other women. We women are sort of trained to say dumb shit to each other in social settings that normalizes Mommy Guilt, that makes it seem that lots of guilt is a natural part of being a mom. “There’s no guilt that can compare to mom guilt!” etc. I refuse to say that sort of thing just like I refuse to trash my body to other women, even though complaining about your weight is basically a socially expected topic when women get together.

        • Empress of the Iguana People

          my husband does this stuff to himself all the time. There are reasons why we joke that he’s the feminine one and I’m the masculine one.

        • StephanieA

          This is important. Mommy guilt is a constant topic during play dates. One mom I know was in the middle of moving, organizing their things, selling the home, and figuring out where they were going to stay while new house was being built. She was having so much mommy guilt because she felt like she wasn’t doing enough quality activities with her two very young kids. When she told me this my first response was…why?? Her kids were obviously well cared for and honestly won’t remember this brief time in their lives at all. Another friend is pregnant with her third, and was talking about how she is dreading the night wakings and lack of sleep and breastfeeding. My first response was, you don’t have to breastfeed. It’s not mandatory. We are expecting our third as well and there will be no breastfeeding! And no guilt.

  • LaMont

    OTish, with spoilers for “Barrayar”/”The Vorkosigan Saga” by Lois McMaster Bujold

    I wonder how far these anti-woman people truly go. I was talking about the VS with a few friends who’ve read it, and I think that mostly, we all come down on the side of “anti-woman people should read Barrayar b/c it’s a wonderful story about how bad things get when women are not supported”. HOWEVER we had a bit of a thought experiment, realizing that Barrayar could be the worst thing to show the GOP, esp re: anti-choice policy: do you think, those of you who’ve read Barrayar, that the GOP would favor forcing Cordelia to die rather than get the antidote? This given that Miles would have had a chance to survive in a uterine replicator, perhaps even if Cordelia was forced to forgo the antidote in time. Should Cordelia, in an effort to be a “good mother,” have taken that risk, and traded her life for a chance to protect Miles from the effects of the antidote? Even knowing what good Cordelia was able to do throughout her long life, both for Miles and society more generally, would people say that any good woman should make that choice? (I already know that the GOP/anti-woman culture would look at the Kou/Drou scene and say “see, societies w/o sex ed and a culture of consent are FANTASTIC! close your legs if you don’t want these worries”)

  • Sheven

    Might be worth pointing out that when someone says, “I would die for my children,” that that’s not the ideal situation. The proper reply isn’t, “Me too!” It’s, “Yeah, but I’d prefer to live a long life with my children.” And when someone says, “I’m willing to sacrifice my comfort and my ambitions for my children,” the proper reply is, “But it would be better if you didn’t sacrifice. It would be better if you were comfortable and personally fulfilled and also had a good time with your kids. Can we make that happen?”

    • Who?

      It’s like ‘putting the children first’. Every single one of my friends who avowedly put the children first is now divorced from their father. I’m sure there are many reasons for this (my personal theory is that the martyr woman tends to attract cheating arseholes).

      Put the family first, people. Which sometimes means everyone doesn’t get 100% of what they want, or even any of what they want, in pursuit of the ultimate goal. Sometimes the parents, or (shock, horror) a member of the extended family, gets the available tlc, financial support, whatever it is.

      Children’s natural solipsism is tempered, everyone gets most of what they need and some of what they want a fair bit of the time, and no one has to be a martyr. And parents get to decide what’s important and what they will and won’t sacrifice or compromise to get it.

      • Casual Verbosity

        I love how people seem to assume that if a mother doesn’t put her children first she must put them last.

        It seems to relate to this false dichotomy people love to fall into – there is what’s best and everything else must therefore be the worst. So because “breast is best” it doesn’t matter that it’s only best by a negligible margin; if it’s the “best”, that’s what you have to give your children. It’s the same with natural birth. Sure, an unmedicated vaginal birth is technically “best”, but that doesn’t mean everything else is actively harmful. Interestingly you can shake people out of this thinking by giving them scenarios involving older children. If you technically COULD afford to send your children to a very good private school, but you would have to give up family holidays and other luxuries to do so, are you obligated to choose the private school if there is a decent public school they could attend for free? In my experience most people will say in this case that you’re not obligated to give your children the best, but will still insist that when it comes to babies that anything less than best is negligent parenting.

  • Empress of the Iguana People

    Or to put it more succintly, it doesn’t necessarily follow that just because a mom is willing to sacrifice everything for her children, that it’s actually good for any and every family. My parents may’ve had to skip some meals to make sure my sister and I had enough, but we certainly don’t think people who never had to make that sacrifice should feel guilty about it.