Natural mothering, intuition and the specter of the “bad other mother”

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Women’s Studies Prof. Chris Bobel’s book, The Paradox of Natural Mothering, is seventeen years old but reads as if it were written yesterday.

In Bobel’s view, natural mothering isn’t just a paradox, it is a plethora of paradoxes. Promoted as radical simplicity, parenting just like our foremothers and offering feminist empowerment, it is in many respects the complete opposite. It is a form of consumerism, confirms traditional misogynistic gender roles, and reflects and reinforces privilege.

The truth is that every caring mother follows her own intuition and does what feels right to her.

Bobel seeks to understand not merely why advocates of natural mothering make the choices they do but how they perceive the choices they’ve made. Her assessment is spot-on:

…[N]atural mothers profess to operate in a realm virtually untouched by social influence. Their ideas, supposedly rooted in nature and fostered by their waxing self-confidence, are not the products of culture, but the products of nature. Natural mothering, then, is an organic experience. The experience of natural mothering is available to any woman who sheds her trust of others and taps into her trust in nature, a trust realized when she begins to trust herself…

But when Bobel asked natural mothers how they knew which mothering practices to choose, they repeatedly invoked intuition. They didn’t “know” what to do; they felt it.

It is clear that the reasons for natural mothering are often literally beyond reason. Rather than being rooted in an epistemology derived from the intellect, this type of “knowing” is intuitive, even instinctual and therefore defies explanation … Decisions are not ultimately based on thinking, but on feeling. Choosing a family bed, child-led weaning, or home birth is not based on reading a good book or even hearing a compelling argument, although those experiences often name dearly held beliefs that inform these decisions… For natural mothers, feeling both prefigures and constitutes her alternativity.

And that leads to yet another paradox, if decisions are made because they feel right to them, isn’t it equally likely that women who make choices of which they disapprove are doing so because it feels right to them?

Absolutely not! Women who make different choices are understood to be “bad other mothers.” The ideology of natural mothering [for it is an ideology, not a product of nature] has inoculated its advocates against the possibility of respecting the different choices of other mothers.

This mother … makes few conscious choices. Rather, she “goes with the flow” of the mainstream, seldom questioning the conventional wisdom that dictates so much of parenting practice. This mother is neither evil nor malicious, the natural mothers tell me; she is simply ignorant – duped by a powerful, child-hostile, expert-and institution-dependent culture.

You can identify her by the “terrible” choices she makes.

The “bad other mother” has her babies by planned cesarean section. She bottle-feeds because she does not want to be bothered by breastfeeding. She feeds her children hotdogs and potato chips for lunch because it is quick and easy. When her children complain of an car infection, she demands antibiotics but cannot understand why her children are chronically ill. She uses the television as an electronic babysitter. But perhaps the most common characterization zation of the “bad other mother” is the woman who insists that she must work, but really does so only “to support her addiction to materialism and careerism,” as one mother said.

The children of the “bad other mother” are imagined to be suffering.

Stories … were regularly invoked to prove the point that others choose wrongly. And their mistaken choices are evidenced by their harried, “miserable” lives. The natural mothers pride themselves on steering clear of the rushed life, the money-and status-driven life, ultimately, the unexamined life. The natural mothers tell me that they have risen above this fray and are never, ever going back.

The irony is that while they are busily criticizing women for copying ideas that are socially constructed, they fail to see that their own conception of good mothering is also socially constructed. Their choices are no more “free” than those of the bad other mothers they imagine as trapped by the conventions of contemporary society.

Whether the mothers are controlled by men or religion or some conception of nature, they are still controlled. Again and again, the natural mothers told me that they “just knew” that natural mothering was right; they could not mother in any other way and live with themselves… I argue that constructing structing 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.

To paraphrase Bobel, scratch the surface of a natural mothering advocate’s account of her brave refusal to follow the contemporary crowd and you will find a woman submissively following the dictates of her great-grandmother’s crowd.

Is that a bad thing?

No!

Because the truth is that there is NOT and there NEVER was a one-size-fits-all, best way to mother children. There is only each loving mother struggling to give each individual child what she feels that child needs.

The truth is that EVERY caring mother follows her own intuition and does what feels right to her.

The mother who chooses to have a homebirth is not more thoughtful than the mother who choose hospital birth; she’s just following an older social convention. The mother who chooses to breastfeed is not more caring than the mother who chooses to formula feed; she’s just making a different, equally healthy choice. The mother who “wears” her baby is not a better mother than the mother who uses a stroller; she’s just opting for a different form of convenience.

Unfortunately, natural mothering advocates have been taught to be contemptuous of women who make different parenting choices. They’ve been instructed that the only choices that are legitimate, authentic and worthy of respect are their own choices. And they’ve been encouraged to believe that they are better than other mothers.

The ugly desire to divide the world into us vs. them is not defiance of contemporary social convention, it is adherence to one of the oldest, ugliest forms of social conventions there it: the compulsion to privilege one’s own group by denigrating another.

  • Cat

    This struck a chord with me. My mother isn’t a “natural parenting” type, but she’s always seemed to feel the need to validate her own mothering skills by running down other women and their choices. Mostly working mothers (“dumping their children with strangers”) but, as I got older, she isolated herself more and more because the “good mother” in-group ended up consisting just of her, pretty much.

    Now she’s a grandmother, I dread it when she bumps into any of my mum friends or sees photos of my outings with them, because her immediate response is to crow triumphantly about what bad mothers they are (“she’s not exactly a natural mother, is she?” “I was absolutely SHOCKED when she spoon-fed him some of that pasta” “Is that a BUGGY I see in that photo?! I’m shocked!” “He’s not exactly a lovely child, is he? He’s very sallow” ). The funny thing is, she seems to think that I’ll be pleased to hear all this, whereas I actually like knowing that my friends are good mothers – it doesn’t water down my own mothering skills in any way.

  • rational thinker

    When it comes to parenting the only person who can judge your mothering skills is your adult child.

    • BH

      I don’t know any adults who judged their mothers on how they were birthed, how they were fed, whether or not they were worn, co-slept or not, etc etc.

      • BH

        As someone who works in the mental health field I have listened a lot of people talk about their issues with their parents, none of that stuff has ever come up

      • BeatriceC

        Me. Kinda. But I was starved. I am not angry with that like I am with many of the other terrible things she’s done. She listened to doctors who told her I lost over 2 pounds and was slow to gain it back because I was just “correcting” for a high birth weight and she must have had undiagnosed GD. I do judge her for not stopping and remembering my father and all his siblings were over ten pounds at birth and built like linebackers and he contributed half of my genes.

  • Mel

    A bit OT: When I was two, I created an imaginary “Other Mother” who lived across the street, had red hair, was married to my Dad and let me do everything that my parents wouldn’t let me do.

    Our next door neighbors were an elderly couple raising their pre-teen granddaughter (who would play with me pretty often) because their daughter was struggling with drug addiction. I was too young to understand that grandparents can raise their grandkids (which my mom tried to explain to no avail) so whenever the granddaughter would visit her mother, I crunched that into she was visiting her “Other Mother” and created my own based loosely on the girl next door and what I figured her mom would look like (hence the red hair and living across the street).

    I pulled my “Other Mother” out whenever my parents set crazy rules for me like “No, you can’t walk alone four blocks along heavy traffic to the local park” caused me to pipe up “My Other Mother lets me do that!” She also let me eat candy all the time, didn’t make me share toys with my twin, let me watch General Hospital instead of taking a nap, and had very liberal policy on staying up all night playing in my bedroom.

    My mom handled the “Other Mother” with great aplomb – although she admits that she was a bit freaked out that she had somehow screwed up raising us since I was creating an alternate mom. I tell my mom that she was doing fine; it was my Other Mother who was hell-bent on killing me before I reached age three from a combination of wandering into traffic, insomnia, incipient diabetes and siblicide.

    • Amazed

      When the Intruder was two, he decided to look for another mother because the one he had wasn’t thrilled with him decorating the bathroom walls with the contents of his potty. Mom just shrugged and said, “OK, there is a line of mothers out there waiting for you!” He went to the window, looked down, saw that there was no such line and became reconciled with his fate.

  • Cartman36

    A working mom only works “to support her addiction to materialism and careerism” – Wow! That is a really ugly thing to say about people you don’t even know. Staying at home wasn’t the right choice for me but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t the right choice for someone else.

    • KQ Not Signed In

      I admit, maybe I wouldn’t work if it wasn’t for my addiction to food and shelter.

      • Allie

        I must have an addiction to giving the bank all my money for mortgage payments : )

    • rational thinker

      It is kind of ironic coming from that group. Being that they judge each other on who has more expensive stroller or car seat or organic food. It is mostly the attachment/natural parents that I see being the most materialistic.

    • Inmara

      Yeah, tell that to mothers who work, for example, in medicine, in schools, in nonprofits dealing with social issues, in environment protection etc., etc.

    • Sarah

      It’s not like everyone even gets a choice about whether to work or not either. There are women forced to work because they need the money, forced to stay at home because they can’t afford childcare or it doesn’t exist.

  • The Bofa on the Sofa

    I have stated many times that I don’t like the advice you see in many parenting books, “Trust your instincts, they are usually right.”

    The reason I don’t like it is not because I think it’s wrong, but because it is too often misused. The problem is when “Trust your instincts, they are usually right” turns into, “…and everyone else is wrong.” But that is exactly what happens.

    As you note, the reason “trust your instincts….” works is because there are so many correct ways to do things, that anyone who is at all thoughtful about it is going to be just fine. Yeah, there are exceptions (I mean, if you are basing your decisions prioritizing your drug habit, yeah, the child will suffer), but for the most part, if you care enough to think about what you are doing, you are doing fine.

    But that’s not good enough for some people. For them, it is only THEIR instincts that matter, and not yours, and if you don’t agree with them, your instincts are wrong. They don’t understand the illogic of that position.

    • attitude devant

      I would say that I was mothered well, so I generally try and think of what my mom would have done in any given situation and use that as a first step. But that’s not instinct; that’s knowing that my mother, a pediatric nurse who raised six of us, was a terrific exemplar of good mothering. That doesn’t stop me from updating a few things, of course.

    • KQ Not Signed In

      My instincts say to freak out about every little thing. Anxiety disorders will do that.

      But in reality, it’s okay. As you put it, there are so many correct ways to do things, that anyone who is at all thoughtful about it is going to be just fine so even if my actual instinct is locked up in panic, whatever choice I make will probably be fine, since I’m definitely being thoughtful (or overthinking – potato, potato)

    • fiftyfifty1

      Instead of “trust your instincts” I wish the books would say “do what works best for you.” This would be better in a few ways: 1) it would stop reinforcing the idea of special mother instincts (that of course fathers don’t possess) 2) It would give mothers permission to do what suits them, which is in nice contrast to the current mother martyr expectation 3) It makes it clear that there is no one right way

    • Amazed

      My instincts are, “Go to the freaking doctor”, “Take the laziest way, as long as you believe the result is the same”, “Being uncomfortable doesn’t make me better so making myself comfortable while going for something is one of my top priorities, as long as the goal is being met” and so on. Basically, my more “naturally” oriented friends are a little scared of me and for me. And that’s without me even being a mother. Imagine what would have been if I had reared a child in this philosophy.

      Why do I feel that my instincts, of which self-preservation is one of the top pnes, aren’t going to be “right’ for many people?