Natural mothering and the technocratic model of love

Metal Wheel Concept

There are many ironies embedded within the philosophy of natural mothering.

Chief among them are the mindless embrace of mothering in nature without acknowledging the natural death toll and the fact that our ancient foremothers would have cut off their right arms for the lifesaving medical technology privileged white women ostentatiously reject in performative social media displays.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Children, like plants, are tropic. Plants grow toward the sun. Children grow toward those who love them.[/pullquote]

But in my view, having written about the subject for more than a decade, the cruelest irony is that “natural” mothering is based on the medicalization of love.

What do I mean?

Before the past century in highly industrialized societies, the bond between mother and child was understood as spontaneous and not contingent on any specific practices. Children, like plants, are tropic. Plants grow toward the sun. Children grow toward those who love them.

Natural mothering advocates, in contrast, imagine mother-infant attachment to be a fraught process constantly shadowed by the looming risk that mother and child will fail to bond. Therefore, they have medicalized it.

The Wikipedia definition of medicalization postulates two central claims:

Medicalization is the process by which human conditions and problems come to be defined and treated as medical conditions, and thus become the subject of medical study, diagnosis, prevention, or treatment…

Medicalization is studied from a sociologic perspective in terms of the role and power of professionals, patients, and corporations, and also for its implications for ordinary people whose self-identity and life decisions may depend on the prevailing concepts of health and illness.

In other words, a natural process previously understood to have no medical component comes to be defined as a medical condition to be studied and treated. And the process of medicalization transfers power from individuals to “experts.”

Natural mothering has medicalized love, a process previously understood to have no medical component. Medicalizing the mother-infant bond has empowered self-appointed experts like midwives, doulas, lactation consultants and attachment parenting gurus. With their books, courses and social media sites, they have become the arbiters and mediators of mother-child relationships.

I find the principles of the technocratic model of childbirth, described by sociologist Robbie Davis-Floyd, to be an excellent template for the technocratic model of love.

I would paraphrase David-Floyd as follows:

Despite its pretensions to scientific rigor, natural mothering ideology is less grounded in science than in its wider cultural context; it embodies the biases and beliefs about women of the society that created it. Its hegemony is founded in scientization, effected by technology, and carried out through institutions governed by paternalistic ideologies in a profit-driven economic context.

Within the technocratic model of love, midwives, doulas, lactation consultants and attachment parenting “experts” claim scientific rigor (although they lack it), proselytize through technology like the internet (though they claim to despise technology), and monetize everything that isn’t nailed to the floor.

The tenets of the technocratic model of love include:

The body as machine

In contrast to the previous view of mother-infant bonding as primarily spiritual — thereby encompassing the love between mothers and adopted children, the love of children for mothers who never breastfed them (indeed in wealthy families they may have been breastfed by others) and the fierce love between infants and other family members — natural mothering advocates have reduced it to mechanical behaviors that they claim are necessary preconditions to attachment. Natural mothering experts have insisted that unmedicated vaginal birth, breastfeeding, and continuous physical proximity are the necessary preconditions for love.

The patient as object

Natural parenting experts don’t view mothers as individuals. It seems not to cross their minds that different mothers may have different needs, desires and attachment styles. Instead, mothers are viewed as the objects to be molded by aggressive education efforts in conjunction with selling them books, courses, and accessories.

Babies, too, are viewed as objects to be acted upon, each in exactly the same way as all others. Unmedicated vaginal birth is supposed to be “best” for every baby even though when unmedicated vaginal birth was the only method of birth perinatal mortality was astronomical. Breastfeeding is supposed to be “best” for every baby, even though when breastfeeding was the only method of feeding available infant mortality was astronomical. Baby wearing and the family bed are supposed to be “best” for every baby despite the fact that generations of babies fully bonded to mothers, fathers, grandparents and hired caregivers without either.

Diagnosis and treatment from the outside in

Although natural mothering experts purportedly celebrate maternal instinct, close examination reveals that maternal instinct is only promoted to the extent that it differs with recommendations of medical professionals. In reality, it is entirely ignored when the mother’s instinct conflicts with the ideology (and profits) of natural parenting experts. Maternal request C-sections are viewed with horror by midwives and doulas; formula is viewed with horror by lactation consultants; playpens and strollers are viewed with horror by attachment parenting advocates. Natural parenting experts routinely prescribe behaviors and choices to mothers instead of trusting mothers to make good decisions by themselves.

Authority vested in experts, not in mothers

The central conceit of natural parenting is that its practitioners are recapitulating mothering in nature. But mothering in nature did not rely on books, courses and social media interactions. However books, courses and social media interactions are the only way for experts to maintain control of patients, and the expert considers HER oversight and control over birth, breastfeeding and early parenting to be mandatory.

Supervaluation of science, even non-existent “science”

Natural mothering experts believe that invocation of science enhances their authority and hides their paternalism. They’re not forcing women to forgo epidurals; science “shows” epidurals are dangerous (it does not). they’re not forcing women to breastfeed; science shows breastfeeding has massive health benefits (it does not).

Aggressive intervention with emphasis on short term goals

Is there anything more aggressive than the unsafe, unethical Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative? Is there any program more focused on irrelevant, short term goals — increasing rates of exclusive breastfeeding at discharge — at the expense of the health of both mothers and babies than the BFHI?

Expert hegemony, a profit driven system, and intolerance of other choices

That’s self-explanatory.

In truth, the ultimate irony of natural mothering is that it has come to embody everything it claimed to resent about the medicalization of birth. It is based on a technocratic model of mother-infant love rather than a spiritual model and, as such, it benefits natural mothering experts at the expense of babies and mothers.