Natural mothering makes women agents of their own subjugation

Shocked small business woman under boss pressure

The best selling non-fiction book of 1974 was Maribel Morgan’s Total Woman.

The Total Woman is a self-help book for married women by Marabel Morgan published in 1973… Overall, it sold more than ten million copies… [I]t taught that “A Total Woman caters to her man’s special quirks, whether it be in salads, sex or sports,” and is perhaps best remembered for instructing wives to greet their man at the front door wearing sexy outfits; suggestions included “a cowgirl or a showgirl.” “It’s only when a woman surrenders her life to her husband, reveres and worships him and is willing to serve him, that she becomes really beautiful to him,” Morgan wrote.

The book grew out of an “insight” from Morgan’s own marriage: She could have a happy husband and conflict free marriage only if she knuckled under to her husband’s every whim.

It is no longer fashionable for women to imagine themselves as chattel of the patriarchy. Instead, they are taught to imagine themselves as the slaves and doormats of their children.

The Total Woman embraced four basic principles:

…ignoring the mistakes of the husband and focusing on his virtues, admiring him physically, appreciating him, and adapting to the idea that the husband was the king …

For example:

For both Marabel and her followers, sex is a vital part of the TW treatment: …[wives] are told to be ready and willing for love-making at any hour … (Marabel herself reveals that she has seduced Charlie under the dining-room table by candlelight (“A very creative girl,” he brags) and sent sexy notes to his office.

Other homework assignments include greeting husbands in provocative costumes. One woman stripped to the buff and wound herself in Saran Wrap and a big red ribbon. An NFL player, whose wife had taken the Total Woman course, decided to reverse the game plan and met her at the door wearing only a hair ribbon, an apron and galoshes.

The difference between a Total Woman and any other wife was not what she was willing to do, however, but why she was willing to do it. It’s the difference between being turned on by dressing in a sexy maid’s costume and being humiliated by being forced to dress in a sexy maid’s costume; it’s the difference between welcoming sex and submitting to unwelcome sex.

In order to ensure a successful marriage and a happy husband, a Total Woman must turn herself into her husband’s doormat, servant, and always willing sex slave. The Total Woman understood husbands had needs that must take precedence over anything a wife could possibly want.

The philosophy of the Total Women didn’t merely subjugate women; it made women the agents of their own subjugation.

From our vantage point in 2019, it’s easy to understand that The Total Woman was a backlash to the women’s liberation movement of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Led by activists like Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem and the lawyer Ruth Bader Ginsburg, women were asserting the right to make decisions for themselves based on their own needs and desires. They would no longer accept that their role was limited to being chattel of the patriarchy.

It’s less obvious that the “Total Mother” (aka the “natural” mother) is the contemporary iteration of knuckling under to the patriarchy. In most circles, particularly on the Left, it is no longer fashionable for women to imagine themselves as chattel of the patriarchy. Instead, they are taught to imagine themselves as the slaves and doormats of their children.

As Joan Wolf has written:

…Total motherhood is a moral code in which mothers are exhorted to optimize every dimension of children’s lives, beginning with the womb, and its practice is frequently cast as a trade-off between what mothers might like and what babies and children must have. When mothers have wants, such as a sense of bodily, emotional, and psychological autonomy, but children have needs, such as an environment in which anything less than optimal is framed as perilous, good mothering is construed as behavior that reduces even minuscule or poorly understood risks to offspring, regardless of potential cost to the mother.

The underlying assumption of Total Motherhood is that in order to have happy children, a mother must surrender herself to the agony of childbirth (even going so far as to pretend that it is isn’t painful; it’s pleasurable), surrender her body to extended, exclusive breastfeeding for years at a time, and surrender her entire life to continuous proximity to her child whether awake (baby wearing) or asleep (family bed).

Moreover:

…[W]omen’s needs — to work, control their bodies, or sustain an identity independent of their children — become “weaknesses in individual maternal character, to be corrected through educational messages”. This kind of reasoning, which implies that either ignorance, cowardice, or selfishness is behind a mother’s decision not to do what is best for her baby, rests firmly on assumptions about total motherhood …

The difference between a Total Mother and any other mother is not what she is willing to do, however, but why she is willing to do it. It’s the difference between not wanting an epidural and being denied (or denying oneself) an epidural; it’s the difference between breastfeeding because you want to and breastfeeding because you feel you must; it’s the difference between choosing to give up job or career to stay home with your children and being forced (or forcing oneself) to give them up because that’s what “good mothers” are supposed to do.

It is not an accident that philosophy of natural childbirth was created by a misogynist (Grantly Dick-Read) who wanted to force women out of public life and back into the home. It is not an accident that La Leche League was created by traditionalist religious women who thought convincing women to breastfeed would force them out of public life and back into the home. It is not an accident that attachment parenting was promulgated by Bill and Martha Sears who insist that “wives should submit to their husbands in everything…”

The best part from the point of view of the patriarchy? The philosophy of the Total Mother doesn’t merely subjugate women; it makes women the agents of their own and other women’s subjugation.

Although natural childbirth advocates, including midwives like Sheena Byrom and Hannah Dahlen imagine themselves as empowering women, they are subjugating them by normalizing childbirth agony.

Although lactivists like Amy Brown pretend to themselves that they are empowering women, they are subjugating them by normalizing suffering and exhaustion.

Although activists like Jennifer Block and Alisa Alpert whom I wrote about yesterday believe they are empowering women by pretending that postpartum depression is a metaphysical conundrum instead of a medical illness, they are subjugating them. They wish to offer “support” and services whose only purpose is to allow women to ignore their own needs and desires and focus on those of their children.

The Total Woman taught that women could find true happiness only by submitting to their husbands. The philosophy of the Natural Mother teaches that women can find true happiness by submitting to their children’s every need or desire, no matter how trivial. Although they may seem very different, they are fundamentally united: both are predicated on the belief that women’s role in the world is to serve others, never themselves.

  • keepitreal

    Also known as ‘The Proverbs 31 Woman.’

  • keepitreal

    Also known as the “Proverbs 31 Woman.” https://media2.giphy.com/media/4baoNZ5Qo8dX2/giphy.gif

  • The Bofa on the Sofa

    The 4 basic principles of “the Total Woman”

    …ignoring the mistakes of the husband and focusing on his virtues, admiring him physically, appreciating him, and adapting to the idea that the husband was the king …

    As a guy, I have to say….

    barf.

    1) Don’t ignore my mistakes (but don’t dwell on them). I want to do better, so help me avoid mistakes
    2) Physical attraction starts in the mind
    3) Appreciate me for what I do that deserves appreciation, not for what I am
    4) All I can think of is “His Kajesty the Ming” in Runny Babbit: “Dow bown! Dow bown! Riss my king!” That’s about how serious my wife would take it, that’s for sure.

    Hey, show up at the door in a slutty cowgirl outfit, sure. But do it for you, not for him.

  • AirPlant

    The number of people that have told me that I need to feel the full pain of labor in order to be considered a woman.

    This morning I had a Charlie Horse in my shin that lasted over a minute. I was full tears and arched back from the pain and it only cemented further in my mind that I am 100% getting the epidural.

    • alongpursuit

      These people should feel the full pain of a root canal without anesthetic.

      I had an epidural but only once I was dilated 7 cm. The hours it took to get to that point were painful enough thankyouverymuch.

      Epidurals are glorious marvels of science.

      • AirPlant

        In the words of the Great Ali Wong:

        You have suffered enough.

      • Allie

        I have felt both the full pain of “natural” (i.e. drug-free) childbirth (not by choice, but that’s just how it went down) and excruciating dental nerve pain that started in the wee hours and ended up in an emergency root canal at about 9 am (I did have drugs for the actual drilling, thankfully). Honestly, they were comparable in intensity, and I don’t recommend either.

    • Desiree Scorcia

      I maintain that childbirth without an epidural is the inferior choice, egotistically encouraging women to look at the whole thing as some kind of superiority-complex driven performance instead of focusing on the mind blowing miracle that is meeting your kids for the first time and the process of falling in love with them (which is equally as mind blowing if the kid is adopted, or a step kid, or whatever). So yeah, just out hate the haters and tell them you feel bad for how much the pain limited the scope of what they could feel. Then make a slightly sad face and say you have to run to get a vaccine. 🙂

      • AirPlant

        I mean, I personally think people who want to do it natural are bananas but I also think that about people who run marathons.

        I personally want the needle in the spine. Because being in uncontrollable agony for an unknown amount of time seems like a suboptimal outcome. And also most women are begging for it by the end so why mess around with needless pain trying to put off the inevitable?

        Anyone who objects just gets told I am a cold refrigerator mother and my baby is lucky that her daycare lady is so warm and nurturing.

        • The Bofa on the Sofa

          I mean, I personally think people who want to do it natural are bananas but I also think that about people who run marathons.

          And there is an important difference.

          For a marathon, you can train. Extensively. In fact, I am currently in training for a marathon this fall (bananas, I know!)**** And it takes a lot of work and preparation. But if you go through that preparation, your body is ready for it. Moreover, if it is more than I can handle, I just stop.

          You can plan all the breathing exercises you want, but when it comes to delivery, it is out of your control. And you can’t quit – that baby has to get out, whether you are feeling whether you can handle it or not.

          I don’t see having a baby naturally at being all that similar to running a marathon at all.

          ****I don’t know if I’ve ever talked about my running here, but let me just boast. A year ago this week, I got a treadmill for my 50th birthday. I figure, hey, I’ve tried the whole diet thing for 25 years and it’s not working, I need some sort of exercise. So I get a treadmill and start working my way up in terms of my workouts. About 4 months into it, I am up to 30 minute workouts and going about 2 miles, and I hear an ad for a local 5K. I think, I might be able to do that, so I sign up. I’ve never run 3 miles straight in my life, so the day before, I do a 5K on the treadmill at 10:00 pace, and I complete it. The next day, I go out and run my first 5K race, and come in at 29:07, which is far faster than I could have imagined. As a result, I get stoked. A month later, I run my next race, and have a buddy with me to pace me, and I get to 26:50. I do another 6 weeks later (by this point, I’m using my phone for pacing) and I get to 24:30.

          Noting that I’m getting better, I step up and go for a 10K race. My goal is 50:00, but I come in at 50:43. However, it was a long course, and probably 0.10 – 0.15 mi longer than 10K. At my pace, it’s about a minute extra, so take that minute off, and I make my goal. But I’m still pissed.

          Over the winter, I run a couple more 5Ks, and get personal bests each time out. My most recent was February, where I did 24:10. I am running my next in 2 weeks and am out to break 24 minutes.

          And then 2 weeks ago, less than a year since I got the treadmill and started running, I did my first half marathon, coming in at 1:48. My goal was 2 hr, but I just got rolling and away I went.

          My next goal is the full 26. I’ve started my training for that, in some respects, and have the plan laid out. Nov 9 is my day. Yeah, AirPlant, it’s all craziness. But there is a great saying I have seen by John Bingham in this regard: ““The miracle isn’t that I finished. The miracle is that I had the courage to start.”

          BTW, I lost 15 lbs in the process….
          https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/e6b1174a9acab2faedd0232ba0cf999b9ae8a91c85235bcc19ada6a7a87daaf4.jpg

      • guest

        This is a very valid point. I went drug-free for my first because I wanted to feel the full experience and I was really let down that by the time my son was born, I was so happy the pain was gone that I couldn’t even appreciate the moment with him. With my second, I demanded the epidural specifically so I could fully be present when my daughter was born. It was a much more emotionally satisfying experience.

  • alongpursuit

    The “on demand” part of “breastfeeding on demand” is akin to subjugation as I see it. I cringe whenever I see that phrase. There are equally important parts to my life to feeding a baby and times when I would have the baby wait a few minutes before eating. The “on demand” makes it seem like absolutely everything must be put on pause in order to feed baby. I believe in CPR on demand or Heimlich maneuver on demand, but “breastfeeding on demand”? C’mon people! Can we think of a less subjugating expression? And less subjugating expectations, for that matter?

    • Caravelle

      The way I’ve understood it, “breastfeeding on demand” doesn’t mean “drop everything to feed the baby”, it’s opposed to “breastfeeding on a schedule”. i.e. instead of setting yourself to breastfeed (or feed at all) at these hours, or every this interval, or what have you, you feed the baby when baby seems hungry. Neither of these approaches mean not letting the baby wait “a few minutes”, and neither sacrifices the mother’s needs more than the other – unless mother needs a schedule, but not everybody has the same needs in that respect. I personally did not enjoy the time and effort expended waking my baby at night to feed because I had to feed him over 8 times a day and as a result “mustn’t” let him go however many hours it was without eating.

      Can *you* think of a “less subjugating” way of expressing the concept?

      • Chi

        Breastfeeding on cue? I.E look for hunger cues and feed then?

      • AnnaPDE

        What about “feeding when baby is hungry”? I’m always a bit wary when someone starts complaining about how “on demand” is such a subjugating thing.

        Like sure, you don’t drop everything the very second baby shows the first hunger cue. But those hunger cues usually start like little “ok I could eat something” suggestions and slowly grow before they turn into the full blown “MILK NOOOOOOW” wail. So it’s not like there isn’t any advance notice.
        For a newborn baby hunger is an existential need, and they literally cannot do anything about it — neither feed themselves, nor go particularly long without being fed, nor get a handle on their emotions over it. Just like they can’t control yet when they pee or not. I’m not sure why this kind of need/want is any less worthy of consideration than an adult’s need/want to keep to their own schedule. Especially when compared with how adults expect each other to at least acknowledge requests for attention immediately.

        The whole mindset that makes a power game out of meeting a dependent baby’s needs is just needlessly hostile.

        • Daleth

          I’m not sure why this kind of need/want is any less worthy of consideration than an adult’s need/want to keep to their own schedule

          It’s not, but you may not be understanding what feeding on a schedule means. It doesn’t mean ignoring a baby who’s screaming for food. Of course as human beings you need to allow for some wiggle room… but you probably won’t need it: if you fully feed a baby every 3 hours, it’s almost never going to get hungry between feedings.

          I fed my twins on a schedule, but I used 90% formula topped up with what little breastmilk I was able to make. Feeding them that way, they always got enough to eat.

          And it was an absolute godsend, both because it created a minimum of predictable breaks per day and because it meant that if they were fussy between feeds, it probably wasn’t due to hunger — and knowing that made it easier to figure out what was wrong and solve the problem.

          The problem is if you BF until nothing more is coming out, so you stop and plan to feed again in 3 hours, but your supply is insufficient. In that case, the baby’s going to be hungry again before the scheduled next feeding.

          • AnnaPDE

            The exact interval probably depends on the baby and the time of day, but I get your point and would call this “anticipating when baby is hungry”. That’s completely meeting the baby’s needs. That’s the exact opposite of what makes me concerned when someone speaks up against feeding on demand.

            In my experience, outside the lactivist echo chamber of “baby on boob 24/7”, and the thankfully sensible FiB groups, there is a surprising hostility to the fact that babys want to eat pretty frequently and aren’t good at waiting patiently.

            People have repeatedly berated me for giving milk (both bottle and breast) to a baby who was starting to show escalating hunger cues, because “he can’t be hungry again, make him wait a bit longer” — including deeply loving family members. Baby ate a full feed, but apparently he was just faking it?
            People who insist that babies should gets a pre-measured amount of formula, or a limited time at the breast for a feed, at the set interval of 4 hours (ok, 3 in the first few weeks of life), and if that’s not enough, well “he’ll try harder next time” because “you can’t let him dominate your life.”
            People who talk about their own newborn babies and how they make a point of not responding to crying because they don’t want the child to learn to be spoiled.

            It’s this mindset that sees it as a kind of moral failing for a baby to want to eat when they get hungry, if that’s more often or more than some made-up value of “enough”. Maybe a leftover from the first half of the 20th century, but it’s alive and kicking.

          • KeeperOfTheBooks

            Heh. I posted a reply above that kind of touched on this, but…yes. Exactly. See, to me “on demand” meant that I could never, ever take care of my own needs (using the bathroom, even) because that meant I wasn’t available to baby, while to my fairly sane BFF, “on demand” meant “oh hey, baby is fussy and hungry, I get to feed her without feeling guilty because it hasn’t been three hours yet.”

          • Daleth

            “You can’t let him dominate your life.” HAHAHAHAHA omg really? People said that?! But he was a newborn baby — THAT’S WHAT THEY DO!

          • AnnaPDE

            I know right? And what’s going to make a dent in that is not feeding the baby as soon as they’re hungry (or even before…) but letting them cry a bit. Because it’s possible to get anything done while hearing your baby scream in the background, and knowing that you could solve it SO easily.

        • alongpursuit

          The whole mindset that makes a power game out of meeting a dependent baby’s needs is just needlessly hostile.

          I’m very sensitive to my baby’s needs and I’d rather frame these needs as such, and not as “demands”. I interpret the word “to demand” as “to ask for something forcefully”. What irks me is the language used by adults to describe expectations for my behaviour as a mother as well as my baby’s cues. The subjugation I feel comes from the expression “on demand” and my experience of how “breastfeeding on demand” is the dominant ideology for infant feeding. That language doesn’t include the needs of the mother as well.

          • AnnaPDE

            Maybe it’s my exposure to managing supply chains, but I always understood the “demand” bit in the “supply and demand” context. Seeing how breastfeeding is very similar to a poorly buffered bulk materials supply chain with some feedback effects, it seemed like a good idea to operate it “on demand” as opposed to “scheduled” feeds already from a logistics perspective. (Not to mention the hungry screaming baby, which is not a nice thing to have regardless of breast or bottle.)
            The German version of the term (which I heard first) is Bedarf – it’s exactly that meaning, “need”. So the “forcefully asking” aspect might be a linguistic artefact of English.

      • AnnaPDE

        What about “feeding when baby is hungry”? I’m always a bit wary when someone starts complaining about how “on demand” is such a subjugating thing.

        Like sure, you don’t drop everything the very second baby shows the first hunger cue. But those hunger cues usually start like little “ok I could eat something” suggestions and slowly grow before they turn into the full blown “MILK NOOOOOOW” wail. So it’s not like there isn’t any advance notice.
        For a newborn baby hunger is an existential need, and they literally cannot do anything about it — neither feed themselves, nor go particularly long without being fed, nor get a handle on their emotions over it. Just like they can’t control yet when they pee or not. I’m not sure why this kind of need/want is any less worthy of consideration than an adult’s need/want to keep to their own schedule. Especially when compared with how adults expect each other to at least acknowledge requests for attention immediately.

        The whole mindset that makes a power game out of meeting a dependent baby’s needs is just needlessly hostile.

      • alongpursuit

        What about “breastfeed as needed”? Then it reflects both the baby’s and the mother’s needs. I would imagine that sometimes moms have the need to breastfeed as well – to relieve engorgement or to fill up a baby’s belly before a car ride.

        I guess I don’t like “on demand” because I think of people as needing food rather than demanding it. For example, “I demand breakfast” vs. “I need breakfast” have 2 different connotations.

        • Caravelle

          Sure. Though if I were feeding in any other way I would resent the implication that I’m not fulfilling my baby’s needs.

          I think AnnaPDE has it right – “on demand” has a specific meaning that isn’t so much about the English connotations of “demanding”, but about supply chains (like video on demand, etc). I can still see a problematic connotation even there because the phrase does often imply an immediate response, but I feel there’s a lot of personal interpretation going into how people feel about the phrase. If a large fraction of people have an issue with it I can see changing it but I’m not convinced that’s the case (and I’m definitely not convinced by any of the alternatives proposed here but that’s just me :)). And insofar as people interpret it in a guilt-inducing or controlling way I’m not convinced it’s the expression’s fault, as opposed to the concept itself being misinterpreted.

        • GeorgiaPeach23

          Lol. My baby demands breakfast (and 2nd breakfast and lunch and 2nd lunch and tea and dinner and 2nd dinner…). I’ve got him trained to wake up hungry which means I sacrifice flexibility on meal times for better sleeping. Having a nanny and feminist husband goes a long long way: i nurse only 4 times a day on average.

      • KeeperOfTheBooks

        It is genuinely interesting to notice how differently two women can understand the same phrase. For me, “breastfeeding on demand” meant I was a Bad Mom if Baby Books 1 so much as fussed while I dared to take a three-minute, soap-up-rinse-off shower, so to me it connotates a LOT of unnecessary guilt. For my best friend, who (unlike me) finds breastfeeding pleasant and relatively easy, “breastfeeding on demand” meant that she could feed her baby when she thought it was a good idea to (baby was fussy because of hunger, or, as another person below observed, because they were about to do a car ride or some such), and not feel guilt because it hadn’t quite been 3 hours yet or some such. I would like to think we’re both (relatively) sane moms, and yet we have a very different understanding of the phrase, while at the same time coming to the same conclusion: feed the baby when the baby is actually hungry (in my case, with formula), and there is not a damn thing wrong with saying “I love you, kid, but mom needs to pee first, see you in 30 seconds.”