Is natural mothering a form of religious fundamentalism that replaces God with Nature?

A Better Life

Natural mothering is a cultural pre-occupation of both the Right and the Left.

Consider the lifestyle of fundamentalist mothers: every moment of the day consumed with child and family care. From homebirth to homeschooling, from growing her own food to baking her own bread, from extended breastfeeding to rejection of conventional medical care, women are trapped in their own homes by a never ending series of labor intensive tasks. Above all, they are indoctrinated to ignore their own needs in favor of other family members.

Both feature conversion experiences, trust in and submission to a higher power, a fervor for proselytizing and condemnation of those who make different choices.

Consider the lifestyle of a radical natural mothering advocate: every moment of the day consumed with child and family care. From homebirth to homeschooling, from growing her own food to baking her own bread, from extended breastfeeding to rejection of conventional medical care, women are trapped in their own homes by a never ending series of labor intensive tasks. Above all, they are indoctrinated to ignore their own needs in favor of other family members.

But it’s more than just the superficial similarities. Natural mothering seems to share major philosophical features including conversion experiences, trust in and submission to a higher power, a fervor for proselytizing and condemnation of those who make different choices.

The only difference is that natural mothering advocates on the Right believe they are mandated by God to adopt the lifestyle, whereas natural mothering advocates on the Left believe they are mandated by “Nature” to do so.

Is natural mothering a religion?

I’m not the first person to notice the remarkable similarities, both superficial and deep.

Chris Bobel, in The Paradox of Natural Mothering, describes the centrality of conversion experiences, which she calls shock-shift stories:

These stories unfolded predictably. Soon after the birth of her first child, the new mother was shocked by her overwhelming feelings of love for her baby and her companion feelings of being unable to leave him or her. Next, she shifted her perspective from that of a pregnant woman with careerist aspirations to that of a new mother who simply had to be with her baby around the clock. For her, there was no alternative, no choice.

Women surrender personal agency in the same way they do in religious fundamentalism. Rather than “Let go. Let God.”, natural mothering advocates encourage each other to “Let go. Let Nature.”

Describing the views of one mother, Bobel notes:

[Her] conceptualization assumes that women must willingly submit to biology’s shaping of their lives… [I]ts centrality in natural mothering undermines the mother’s claim of personal agency and free will as the impetus for her lifestyle. Natural mothering, it appears, is less a lifestyle fashioned by individual women making hard choices about the best way to parent than a chosen lifestyle represented in essentialist terms.

Bobel explains how natural mothering advocates like to think about themselves:

If we listen to their narratives of self-motivated decisions to quit jobs and careers and stay at home full-time with babies, we see strong, self-determined women who actively choose a particular lifestyle, even if that lifestyle denies the individual mother’s self-actualization.

But, in truth:

Natural mothers … may actively choose to embrace the “nature is best” ideology, but once they become attached to this ideology  –  buying into it completely and without regret  –  they surrender their capacity to make choices and in some ways become passive objects. Put differently, the ideology begins to take on hegemonic proportions and transforms women into individuals who surrender their own agency in the interest of family.

What they initially describe to themselves and others as a “choice,” comes to seem like no choice:

…[N]atural mothers claim that they could certainly choose to parent like “everyone else” (i.e., like the majority of conventional, mainstream mothers), but at the same time they speak of choice, they speak of being guided by an intuitive, body-derived source of knowledge, one that is undeniable, one that they can never dispute or reject… Natural mothering is the only real choice. The natural mothers in this study were adamant that they cannot turn their backs on the natural ideology so central to their way of living, sleeping, eating, schooling, and consuming.

They’ve surrendered their agency to a “higher power.”

It might be an overstatement to claim that the natural mothers have replaced God or Man as the authority that dictates a life course with nature as represented by the body, but perhaps not. Whether the mothers are controlled by men or religion or some conception of nature, they are still controlled.

They live their lives according to a script, whether that script is religious or based on the worship of nature.

…[C]onstructing a lifestyle on the basis of a body-derived feeling that can neither be explained nor denied is the action not of an agent, but of an individual who is dutifully following a script. In this case the script was written by biologically determinist and historically gendered ideas about women, mothers, and families.

Because — and this is the critical point — our ideas about “Nature” are cultural constructs.

When the mothers spoke of nature, they spoke of a monolithic and static concept, the one true thing that predates dates humankind and remains pure and unadulterated. To them, nature is the perfect model for human behavior because it is separate from and unpolluted by human manipulation. This view, of course, is problematic; it denies the many ways in which nature is indeed culturally constructed …

The way that ancient peoples viewed nature is very different from the way that scientists view nature, for example. The views of ancient peoples are every bit as cultural determined (it was their religion!) as the views of scientists and neither is a completely accurate assessment of nature itself. Natural mothering advocates have simply traded the religion of the present for the biologically determined, gendered and often misogynist religion of the past.

Natural mothering advocates believe, like many ancient peoples believed, that Nature is an irresistible higher power that should be worshipped: venerated, trusted and to which we must submit.

That’s not reasoning or choice; it’s religious fundamentalism.

  • mabelcruet

    Slightly OT, but this is a new one for me:

    https://midwifethinking.com/2017/02/03/understanding-and-assessing-labour-progress/

    So we don’t talk about natural birth (because that means all other types are ‘unnatural’), and physiological birth is similar, so the new phrase is ‘disturbed birth’. Natural (non-medical, midwifery led) births are undisturbed: medicalised births are ‘disturbed’. That’s really going to make women who had some form of intervention feel good about the whole thing. Don’t they ever think about their use of language or stop putting value judgements onto basic processes?

    • demodocus

      I was fairly disturbed by a cat giving birth. That crap is weird.

  • KQ Not Signed In

    I absolutely agree that the natural mothering movement has become a religion – or a cult.

    I’m an atheist, raised secular. All of my friends were atheist/agnostic/secular. But when it came time for pregnancy/birth/motherhood, I went conventional in a group that was crunchy. And I was ultimately shut out of that social circle almost entirely – and at times explicitly – because I was a “nonbeliever” It was the first time I’d ever had the experience of a faith based community turning on me for not sharing the same ideology. And it hurts to this day, even if it’s scar tissue instead of an open wound.

  • mabelcruet

    Personally, I think some of the natural mothering practices are heading towards mental health issues: this seems like a very intense and dominating practice, smothering their child’s developing personality and behaviour, dominating and controlling their activity to a far greater extent than most other mums. Children do best in social environments, learning to play with others, share with others, develop relationships outwith the immediate family. Controlling your child’s development by home schooling, not allowing them to go to after school activities, child minders or daycare and instead only allowing them to interact with you and immediate family-I don’t think that’s healthy at all. I think this tight and controlling bond and form of mothering is heading towards mental health issues for the kids in later years.

    • Merrie

      And they need to be encouraged in their independence rather than being kept small by mom’s restricting them to the home.

      Wasn’t happy to witness uber-babywearing friend insisting that her 4 year old had to ride when he wanted to walk. I can see doing it occasionally, but I get the impression she does this often.

      • Eater of Worlds

        I just read an article that found that babies don’t even need to have this kind of attachment parenting AT ALL in order to bond well with parents. Turns out it’s not how quickly you respond to the child or that you always hold it but rather that you see things through until the child has been soothed. And you only need to do that half the time for the child to bond. That gives mothers a lot of leeway to stop feeling guilt about working or not being able to run to take care of their infant in a multi child household. Baby will be fine if they’re upset while you clean up your toddler’s blow out or you finish cooking dinner, you will continue to bond with your infant if they have to go to daycare a few months after birth because you are there for the child after work and on weekends and you do the soothing they need during those times. I wish this were more known, the article I read wasn’t exactly new.

        • Cartman36

          can you share the link? i would love to read it

          • Eater of Worlds

            I’ll hunt it down again, they looked at a bunch of other papers written over a long time span to get these numbers, I honestly didn’t look that closely, just enough to spout some stuff on the internet 😉

        • AnnaPDE

          I mean it’s nice to have a scientific paper say this outright, but I guess the fact that humans were doing mostly fine and kids were bonded to their parents without major issues before Dr Sears started peddling his ideology should be a major tip-off that the importance and benefit of attachment parenting is vastly overrated.
          And at the risk of doing the classic “kids these days” move, I don’t exactly see the kids who went through the last 20 years’ parenting practices doing particularly well in terms of mental or emotional health compared to generations before.

          • demodocus

            Tangentially: the funniest “kids these days” type of comment came from a fellow secondary education classmate. Mind, I was in my 30s and had already done several years of subbing. “Back in my day” is really, really funny from a kid who’d celebrated her 21st birthday the week before.

      • Cartman36

        OMG! My 5 year old always wants to ride either in the ergo or in a stroller and I am like dude, you are a big boy, you walk. I ONLY carry or push him in situations like, at the airport when we need to be able to move faster than his little legs can carry him so one goes in the ergo and the other two go in the double stroller.

        • Merrie

          Yeah, my now 7 year old was always that kid who wanted to ride, and probably still would if we let her. Now 5 year old was the opposite, though, and refused the stroller and grocery cart from probably age 2 onwards. The current toddler seems to be somewhere in between.

          I get sometimes needing to move faster than kids can move, but I think for the most part encouraging them to do the walking as they get older is good!

          • demodocus

            Preschool boy is pretty easy going, so long as he can get in and out of the double freely. (Sometimes I’ll tie him in when he’s being particularly obstreperous.) I think his little sister prefers the shopping car because that’s how things are supposed to happen.

        • swbarnes2

          The downside to retiring the stroller…its far easier to stow 3L of wine under the stroller for a 15 minute walk back from the grocery store than to hand carry it.

    • mayonnaisejane

      Yup. They don’t promote bonding. They promote ENMESHMENT which is only going to eff the kid up in life. These mothers simultaneously stifle their kids maturity (initialization) and expect selfsame kids to behave in ways specifically designed to bolster their own parent’s self worth and emotional security (parentification.) It’s a recipe for disaster wherein these kids are going to grow up with a single imperative and a single skill: make mommy feel special. Make her proud. Be a willing, good, laudable prop in her performance of “Mother of the Year” and she will take care of everything else. Fail in this… displease mother, after all she has done for you, after everything she has sacrificed for you, after she has gone out of her way to do everything the “RIGHT” way, and you will be shunned, ignored, starved, until you shape up and fly right.

      IT’S EMOTIONAL ABUSE.

      • rational thinker

        Also extreme extended breastfeeding. The cases where the kid is breastfed to 7 or 8 years old may also be emotional abuse. At that point this is for mom and not the kid and I personally think this may leave the child with mental issues also. I will try to find the video and link it but on a documentary about extended breastfeeding 2 girls 8 and 10 I think one of whom was still being breastfed had some very creepy things to say and the mom and sister too. I will try to link it.

        • rational thinker

          https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ko3jXjgTR2g

          If this isn’t mental abuse I don’t know what is.

          • StephanieJR

            I vividly remember reading in a magazine about a thirteen year old boy who still breastfed (if I remember right, the husband of the woman also drank her milk, and there were claims that it cured some health problem of his). One, I’m pretty sure that’s child abuse, especially as he enters puberty (can you say Oedipus complex?!), and two, why would you tell your story to a magazine! The fallout from that becoming public knowledge, particularly at school, would be horrendous.

          • rational thinker

            I dont know if this family was ever investigated, but they should have been. This was on tv in the UK I think. The way the kids are obsessed with the mothers breasts and drawing pics of them is not normal. Then dad says him and the kids suck on them at the same time. If I was the person interviewing this family I would have called the cops as soon as I left the house.

          • rational thinker

            Yeah I dont know why anyone would make that info public. Maybe they are looking for praise and a pat on the back from other lactivists. Sad thing is that that boy probably does not realize that it is abuse at that age. I kind of hope for his own sake that he is home schooled cause that kind of thing being public could get him beat up.

          • mabelcruet

            One of their arguments for it is that humans have always breast fed beyond infancy and its perfectly natural. I can accept that for toddlers and maybe a little later, say up to age 3 or 4 years or so, but I don’t know of any culture that routinely breast fed children after that age. And the countries where extended breast feeding is more common tend to be lower income countries-I recall reading about breast feeding rates in Bangladesh being the highest, so its more than likely that extended breast feeding there is a cheaper way of feeding your kids. But has any culture ever routinely breast fed to grade school age or adolescence?

          • rational thinker

            I can completely understand why they may go that long in poor countries.

            One thing I really hate is when they bring animals into it and say in nature animals all practice extended breastfeeding. That argument is complete bullshit. Anyone who has grown up on a farm or had a pregnant pet knows it is not true. I have seen quite a few mama cats in my life and I witnessed all of them trying to ween their kittens between 6 to 8 weeks. As soon as a kitten latched on mom would stand up and walk away, usually to the food bowl to show them to eat what is in the bowl.

          • StephanieJR

            It was a good few years ago now, so he’s probably an adult. It was in one of those women’s magazines – ‘That’s Life’ or ‘Take A Break’. There was a more recent one where the mother had formula fed her first two, I think, and was currently still breastfeeding her youngest at four. I’m pretty sure that once the kid is old enough to ask for it, you should probably stop.

          • MaineJen

            Yeah that seems ALL kinds of messed up.

        • mayonnaisejane

          TEN?!?!? Look I’m all for extending things some, but TEN? Holey moley.