Natural mothering and the subversion of women’s empowerment


On the face of it, it makes no sense.

  • How can women be empowered by rejecting the lifesaving technologies of modern obstetrics in favor of “natural” childbirth?
  • How can women be empowered by refusing pain relief and laboring in agony?
  • How can women be empowered by breastfeeding exclusively for years at a time?
  • How can women be empowered by re-immuring themselves in the home, devoted only to the care of their children?

They can’t. Indeed, the raison d’etre of natural childbirth, breastfeeding promotion and attachment parenting — as articulated by their founders — was specifically to disempower women by convincing them to forgo political and economic emancipation.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]The irony of natural mothering: the women with the least power imagine themselves as the most “empowered.”[/pullquote]

So how can women claim to be empowered by natural mothering?

It’s not merely a failure to understand the term, it reflects a subversion of the meaning of empowerment. Empowerment has been reduced to consumer choice. Thus natural mothering ideologues can camouflage women’s disempowerment as “empowering.”

As Oana Crusmac explains, empowerment has been subverted. It no longer means “the acquisition of power” but rather “self-expression through consumer choice.”

The self-expression right … comes along with the encouragement to “embark on projects of individualized self-definition exemplified in the celebration of lifestyle and consumption choices.” …

But it is not choice per se that is being promoted, but specific, highly restricted and restrictive choices.

Hence you can be “empowered” by choosing homebirth, but not by choosing maternal request C-section.
You can be “empowered” by choosing to forgo pain relief, but not by choosing an epidural.
You can be “empowered” by surrendering your freedom to exclusive breastfeeding, but not by claiming your freedom and using formula.
You can be “empowered” by being so bound to your children that you literally “wear” them, but you can’t be empowered by a high paying job or a satisfying career.

And who decides which choices are empowering? Those who seek to disempower women.

…The autonomy promoted by postfeminism is determined by the fact that “patriarchy has produced desires in women to want the very things that patriarchy needs them to choose.” Hirschmann refers to this subversive elaboration of women’s autonomy as ‘oppressive socialization’ that leads to their false impression that they act freely and autonomously when in fact, women are not the ones which set their preferences and goals.

In this subversion of empowerment, women can only be “empowered” by choosing re-domestication.

As Kumarini Silva notes in Got Milk?: Motherhood, Breastfeeding, and (Re)domesticating Feminism:

…[W]omen are discouraged from making connections with and to other women … that will make a systemic shift for the equitable distribution of recourses and rights. Instead, young women … are encouraged to disarticulate from the systems that question or make visible their own oppressions. In place of the very real work of making these connections and building on them, we are increasingly asked to celebrate various ‘faux feminist’ symbols that permeate (popular) culture.


…When motherhood is discussed within this broader celebratory context of women’s progress and ‘arrival,’ it tends to ignore larger, deeply historical, systemic inequalities associated with race, class, gender, and sexuality that sustain narratives of idealized motherhood. This disarticulation, between the past and present, speaks to the ways in which feminism and feminist discourses become co-opted in the neo-valorizing of motherhood as a domesticated practice.

Breastfeeding is the paradigmatic example.

Silva asks:

Breast is best: for whom?

It’s been touted as best for babies and mothers. But is that the real reason why breastfeeding is now promoted aggressively?

Silva asks us to consider that the explanations typically offered are revealing in ways its proponents perhaps did not intend:

One such example from 2003 is from a brief introduction to the journal Obstetric and Gynecology by Dr John T. Queenan… Queenan noted that during ‘World War II, while men were off to war, women entered the workforce in droves. During the war and in the good times that followed, fewer and fewer American women practiced breastfeeding. Formula feeding was on the rise as breastfeeding fell to an all-time low of 25 percent in 1971.’ … In his description and summary, Queenan seems to imply that women’s transition from private spaces to public spaces, in the form of professional work (and war efforts), jeopardized the ‘important gift’ of mothering vis-à-vis breastfeeding.

“Good” mothers stay home:

…[W]hat is assumed here is a common connection made between women’s transition to the workforce (and the ‘good times’), and the decline in ‘good mothering,’ including breastfeeding. While not explicit, it speaks to the myriad of ways that women’s work outside the home continues to be positioned as ‘bad’ for the welfare of the infant, the family, and, consequently, even the nation state…

That’s why we are endlessly bombarded with unvalidated mathematical models that predict economic benefits of breastfeeding that never actually come to pass:

…[B]reastfeeding becomes … a way of helping the country, and doing one’s part, as a woman. But unlike the past, instead of joining the workforce and earning a living wage, women’s participation in the economy, in this instance, is reduced to her breasts. While breastfeeding is touted as a boon for the nation’s economy, and the family, there is little-to-no conversation about the connections between these macro-economics and the micro economy of women’s lives.

What would it look like if women were truly empowered in their mothering choices?

Both homebirth AND maternal request C-sections would be viewed as empowering.
Both unmedicated AND medicated births would be viewed as empowering.
Both breastfeeding AND formula feeding would be viewed as empowering.
Both stay-at-home mothering AND working mothering would be viewed as empowering.

Instead we have the ultimate irony of natural mothering: women with the least power imagine themselves as the most “empowered”!