In mothering the natural is political … but not in the way you’ve been told

Businesswoman with her baby son working with documents at the office

Natural mothering advocates like to imply that the natural is political. For example, they absurdly claim “peace on earth begins with birth.” The implication is that because we’ve deviated from natural childbirth, we’ve been punished with an epidemic of violence. It’s nonsensical because for most of human existence, childbirth has been entirely natural and violence was far more common in the past than it is today.

But when it comes to mothering, the natural IS political. The “natural” in natural mothering has very little to do with what actually happened in nature, but is a cultural construct meant to control the behavior of women.

Natural mothering is political, not because it improves the world, but because it designed to suppress women.

That’s among the arguments made by Harriet Pattison, PhD of Liverpool Hope University in her chapter The Natural Child from the book Childhood Today.

Both childhood and nature are cultural constructs that have little if anything to do with childhood in nature.

Scholars note that our beliefs about childhood in nature are cultural, without reference to what actually happened in nature.

… [T]he present-day view of childhood is overwhelmingly that childhood is not natural … a social construct. This means that our knowledge of children is shaped not by understandings inherent to the state of childhood but by much wider forces… Beliefs about children … what they need and how to treat them – come not from general facts about children but from interpretations made through … politics, economics, culture, philosophy and religion.

Our view of nature itself is culturally determined.

…[N]ature, like childhood, is not a fixed, immutable entity but a responsive concept, tied to our wider thinking, to our political and social concerns … What also becomes simultaneously clear is that if nature is a construct of human thought then any understanding of nature is liable to be a changeable, shifting phenomenon, open to making and remaking in varied and restless forms

Why does it matter how women mothered children in nature?

If childhood can be successfully grounded in such a solid base as that of nature, then considerable control has simultaneously been gained over … how it should be enacted. Thus the contention here is that new, contemporary calls to natural childhood and natural children embody political desires …

Natural mothering is about the politics of controlling women. Perhaps the biggest irony of this effort is that self-proclaimed natural mothering “experts” invoke science to argue about what is supposedly the province of nature:

The paradox however is … that the scientifically objectified natural child ‘has helped to create an intellectual climate in which childhood was no longer seen to occur naturally. It did this by promoting the idea that childhood needed the attention and intervention of experts’. So we have moved from the natural child whose development is governed by a pre-determined unfolding biology to a child whose development has to be carefully nurtured and managed by trained specialists.

University College London psychoanalyst Ruth McCall amplifies these themes in her chapter Pyschoanalysis and Feminism: A Modern Perspective from the book The Unconscious in Social and Political Life.

Currently there is a fashion for attachment parenting, a mode of looking after babies with maximal psychological empathy and long-term physical closeness. The American paediatrician William Sears and his wife Martha explicitly developed attachment parenting in response to Bowlby’s research findings and advocate that there is no higher purpose for a woman than as mother … Some academic feminists are aghast at this turn. Harvard gynaecologist Amy Tuteur has stated that “Attachment parenting amounts to a new subjection of the woman’s body under social control,” and a recent book by Élisabeth Badinter, The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women, specifically attacks attachment parenting for its retrogressive effects on women’s lives.

But this is not merely a theoretical issue. It leads to tremendous suffering for women.

The terrible feelings of failure and regret that are experienced by women who have difficult births or who cannot or do not choose to breastfeed are very significant. Attachment parenting, designed to be a liberal alternative to nineteenth-century regimens of controlled feeding and crying can also produce anguish.

As Petra Buskens notes in The Impossibility of “Natural Parenting” for Modern Mothers:

Numerous histories of “the family” show us that intensive, romanticized caregiving carried out by biological mothers in the private sphere is an “invention” of modern economic and political arrangements. It was only with the division of public and private and the shift from a domestic to an industrial economy, that mothers were cordoned off to a special occupation called “Motherhood.”

Prior to this, women mothered with a community of men, women, and children and did so in and around a myriad of other subsistence oriented tasks. However, with the social changes brought about by the creation of a public sphere (populated by male citizens) together with industrialization and a free-market economy, women in western societies were no longer welcome to participate in economic and social life; instead they were sequestered to the private sphere as glorified mothers … This pedestal was a dubious and double-edged position generating a situation of profound, albeit romanticized, exclusion.

It reflects political and cultural conservativism:

The emphasis on maternal nurture … provides an invisible subtext of romantic opposition to western modernity. In other words, contained within this radical critique is a thinly veiled conservatism concerning the “natural” place of women … As with earlier historical periods of modernizing social change, mothers thus come to represent … the “traditional” within the “modern.”

William Sears is a paradigmatic example of this thinking:

Sears is specifically opposed to mother’s working outside the home and encourages 24-hour embodied care … Together they amount to an utterly exhausting regime of caregiving and patience for the mother. Her role as isolated caregiver precludes her participation in both paid work and socializing but we are assured this is a “natural” and “traditional” state of affairs. One wonders how such a blatant ignorance of history could go unnoticed by both Sears and his readers, but we have only to remember the emotional power of the word “mother.” In the name of this word, Sears manages to reconstruct the past and foreclose much of the future for new mothers.

The bottom line is that natural mothering is political, not because it improves the world, but because it designed to suppress women. Natural mothering has never been about what’s good for babies; it’s about forcing women back into the home in service to tradition but under the guise of “nature.”

  • demodocus

    Nobody has a more natural childbirth than chimpanzees but even they’ve been known to war against each other.

  • fiftyfifty1

    I’m interested in hearing more about what Ruth McCall thinks about this, but the link is blocked. I’m mainly interested because psychoanalysis seems like so much bunk nowadays, so I’m just generally interested in those people who still subscribe to it (as opposed to those who took it seriously at the beginning when it was a new idea and more plausible.)

  • rational thinker

    “Sears is specifically opposed to mother’s working outside the home and
    encourages 24-hour embodied care … Together they amount to an utterly
    exhausting regime of caregiving and patience for the mother.” This sentence sticks out for me due to my experience of infiltrating a cult. One of the tactics of a cult is keeping the person isolated and exhausted. The cult I observed would have mainly new members perpetually busy. The pastor/cult leader would keep them busy with unpaid labor usually at his home also thru prayer groups and also excercise by having them run 5 miles everyday and many other groups and classes. If someone complained of tiredness he would tell them that the human body only needs 2 hrs of sleep per day.

    This sounds just like attachment parenting and BF on demand or the hellish pumping schedule doesnt it?

    • EmbraceYourInnerCrone

      Yes, the whole “Don’t listen to, or associate with mothers who don’t follow our regime” thing is kind of cult like as well. Or to put it another way “Shun the Non-believer” (I confess I stole that line from Charlie the Unicorn)

      • The Bofa on the Sofa

        Adding this just to provide another upvote for your Charlie the Unicorn reference.

        Any upvotes for this comment will be considered double upvotes for EmbraceYourInnerCrone.

        • EmbraceYourInnerCrone

          Thank you , thank you! I’ll be here all week, try the veal and don’t forget to tip your server.

          I loved that Youtube video, and that line always echos in my head when someone talks about parenting or food choices like they were a religion.