Natural mothering and the conceit of the maternal hero

Pregnant Woman Mother Character Super Hero Red Cape Chest Crest

You cannot understand the contemporary discourse around mothering in the US without understanding this central reality:

Every woman is the hero of her own mothering story.

That’s the essence of the mommy-wars. It has nothing to do with children, although children are ostensibly the focus; it has nothing to do with science, although science is often subverted for the purpose; it has everything to do with women and how they wish to see themselves, especially in comparison with other women.

The mommy wars are fights to the emotional death so some mothers can claim heroic status.

Every time I write about about shaming of formula feeding mothers, I am startled yet again by a total lack of lactivist regret. Lactivists aren’t moved to ask how they might craft a message that promotes breastfeeding without shaming women who can’t or don’t wish to breastfeed. That’s hardly surprising, though, if you understand that one of the central motivations of lactivism in the US is to portray the breastfeeding mother as a hero.

The mother as quest hero is at the heart of nearly all parenting movements based in part, or in whole, on pseudoscience.

Consider this description of a heroic quest:

  • The call to adventure: The hero is “called” by [her]self or others to complete a task that will take [her] away from [her] regular “role” in [her] own society.
  • The entry into the unknown: As a result of the call, the hero must leave the safety of [her] own known community and venture into a world of unknown dangers.
  • Facing tests and trials: The hero faces a number of challenges on [her] journey… Heroes are often tempted to give up or give in.
  • Sages: All heroes have guides to receive unexpected help on their journey…
  • A supreme ordeal: This is the most difficult challenge or obstacle that the hero faces. Completing and overcoming this “trial” marks the end of the “testing” stage where the hero had to prove [her] worth…
  • The return: The hero [her]self receives a reward of honour, acknowledgement, respect and perhaps love for [her] efforts…

Compare that to the classic “birth story” so beloved of birth bloggers, midwives and doulas. The mother is “called” to have an unmedicated vaginal birth and prepares by doing “her research.” She leaves the safety and comforts of medicated hospital birth. She faces tests and trials: refusal of standard preventive tests and interventions, arguments with relatives and friends about the wisdom of her choices, and the attitudes of hospital personnel who are nearly always constructed as unsupportive. She is tempted with offers of pain relief and C-section. Her midwife and her doula are sages who guide her on her quest. The supreme ordeal is navigating labor (the longer and more excruciating the better; the best is to ignore calls that your child is at risk) and “achieving” an unmedicated vaginal birth (preferably with minimal or no vaginal tearing). The hero receives honor, acknowledgment and respect for her achievement. Most importantly, she emerges “empowered.”

The mother is always the hero of her children’s birth stories, and by her heroism, she conveys her superiority over other mothers. Of course, for a mother to be a hero, unmedicated vaginal birth must be vastly superior. It isn’t superior at all, so birth activists subvert science to pretend that it is.

The heroic mother myth is at the heart of contemporary lactivism, where the mother faces pain, inadequate milk supply, and inconvenience, braves the temptation of formula feeding, is guided by a lactation consultant and achieves the quest of not a single drop of formula ever crossing her child’s lips. In order for a mother to be a hero, breastmilk must be portrayed as vastly superior to infant formula. It isn’t; in industrialized countries, the benefits are trivial, but lactivists subvert science to pretend that breastfeeding provides tremendous, lifelong benefits.

Even anti-vaccination advocacy depends on the quest trope. The mother goes on a journey of discovery by reading anti-vax screeds and websites, faces the pressures of relatives, friends and medical professionals, triumphantly refuses to vaccinate, and receives honor and acknowledgement in the anti-vax community for her heroism.

If the heroic mother fantasy affected only those who sought to make themselves mothering heroes, there would be no problem. Unfortunately, their efforts threaten two vulnerable groups. The first, and by far the most important, are children. Sadly, they serve as little more than props in the quest story. They exist to be acted upon and their actual well being is irrelevant.

Hence a natural childbirth aficionado will risk her child’s health and sometimes even her child’s life to complete her heroic quest. A lactivist will let her baby cry desperately in hunger and even let him starve, sometimes nearly to death, in order to complete her lactation quest. Anti-vax parents live in a dream world unmoored from reality where those who expose their children to harm are heroes.

The other group affected by the fantasy of the heroic mothering quest is the women who don’t view mothering as a quest. They can and should ignore those women who are desperate to cast themselves as heroes, but that’s harder than you might think. Why? Because the quest mothers have hijacked public health messages, particularly in the area of breastfeeding.

A heroic mothering quest appears to require shaming women who make different choices. That’s why lactivists don’t ask how breastfeeding promotion might be modified to minimize shaming. They WANT other mothers to be ashamed; they’re HAPPY they are ashamed; the last thing they want to do is to mitigate that shame. If mothers who formula feed aren’t failures at the quest, how can mothers who breastfeed be heroes?

Framing mothering as a quest has NOTHING to do with actually mothering children. It has NOTHING to do with science. The mommy wars are fights to the emotional death so some can claim heroic status while grinding others into the dust. It’s ugly; it’s wrong; and we should refuse to countenance it.

  • Marie

    One of my favourite guilty pleasures as a mom was the moment I poked a hole in another mom’s “hero” balloon. Her claim to fame was two drug free vaginal births. You could just see the superiority oozing out of her when other moms mentioned their c-sections or other interventions. I had my kids a few years after her and was all for pain management and any other intervention that was recommended.
    Well, my second child messed up my plans for me. He arrived after 45 minutes of labour. The doctor arrived to put in my epidural just in time to catch him on the way out. Everything was just fine in the end, but I jokingly call it my “involuntary natural childbirth”.
    You should have seen the look on “hero mom’s” face the next time she brought up the sacrifices of motherhood and the virtues of natural birth and I shrugged and said, “yeah, it’s not a big deal, is it? Billions of women have done it if they want to or not, even total wimps like me”
    Hey, if it’s the greatest accomplishment of your life, by all means, cling on to it, I guess.

  • Cartman36

    What I think it weird, is that they have no concept of how pathetic they look instead of heroic. I hate to sound ugly but some of these women that swoop in to comment on Dr. Amy’s facebook about how much they struggled to EBF and how PROUD they are of their journey and their double platinum boobies are just sad. I read their comments and think you really need a hobby or something to get some real accomplishments versus being proud that your breasts made milk.

    • Cartman36

      And I am grateful that I never felt any desire to EBF. I needed to be able to go out sans baby and also enjoy my wine when I wanted to. I always supplemented my babies when I breastfeeding and stopped breastfeeding entirely when I wanted to. I think they will survive.

    • The Bofa on the Sofa

      Breastfeeding: so natural that everyone can do it, and if you do, you are a hero and should be proud of your accomplishment.

  • mabelcruet

    I genuinely struggle to understand the motivation behind some of the attitudes and behaviours we are seeing-I’m not an anthropologist or psychologist, but the whole of human history has been a long drive to improve our lot. Right back to learning to use fire to improve food and help survival in harsh environments by scaring off tigers; to living in communities to share resources and provide protection in family groups; to learning about the world around us to find answers to disease and natural disasters; to designing equipment and systems that release us from some of the burden of physical work so that we have more time to spend on other interests; to developing systems to share knowledge, and learn from each other. For someone to turn round and say ‘I’m going to reject modern medicine, modern science, modern educational standards’ and then expect to be lauded for denying everything that was suffered and learned over many thousands of years of human existence by all our foreparents just beggars belief to me.

    I’ve said it before, but I had friends who did a medical elective as medical students in sub-Saharan Africa. Some of the mothers they were helping to look after had walked for miles to get to the charity clinic-they had women with obstructed labour causing fistulas, ulcerative and gangrenous mastitis, postnatal sepsis, all sorts of horribleness that needs to wiped from the face of the earth-and yet there are women in privileged communities here that are choosing to birth in the same conditions-minimal antenatal care, no monitoring, no pain relief, no medical care, no vaccinations. I suspect the mothers in deprived communities would be aghast at people choosing deliberately to refuse all that-they were dragging themselves for miles to try and get some medical care. That’s heroic, that’s what being a mother is-doing the very best you can for your baby, and not using him as some sort of prop in your charade.

    • Mel

      I think the hardest part – especially for women who tend to be goal-oriented – is recognizing when what is best for this child you are raising diverges from the goals you thought were critical for raising anychild.

      I had great plans at introducing Spawn to healthy, tasty fruits, vegetables, and whole grains as an infant. He got plenty of tasty foods – but mainly because the only way to have him stay in the 10th percentile for weight and height is to feed him high calorie foods like hot dogs, fruits canned in heavy syrup, and vegetables in cheese or butter sauces.

      I had plans for keeping Spawn at home while doing pre-school like activities until he was 4-5. Welp, that’s going out the window when he turns three since he certainly qualifies for school-based special education services. I can throw together plenty of activities that teach number sense, letter awareness and color; there’s no way I can be the equivalent of a physical therapist and speech therapist.

      For all that I grew up in a family with experience with disabilities, I never expected to be initiating conversations with my son’s doctors and therapists about the fact that his vision, speech, and mobility issues seem to make a lot more sense if he has mild hypotonic cerebral palsy rather than a series of completely random and unconnected issues.

      I didn’t expect being a mom to be like this – but I also didn’t expect how much I’d melt every time he says “Dove you!” or gives me a hug. I knew I’d be proud of my kids – but I didn’t know that I’d be crowing excitedly at work about my son’s new tantrum skills. (Yup, I’m that person.)

      • mabelcruet

        Throwing a tantrum is a good skill to acquire! It shows he’s got a mind of his own, he can measure up what he wants and plan how he’s going to go about getting it, it proves he’s confident enough to stand up for himself and argue his own point of view (ok, maybe screaming his own point of view rather than argue, per se…), and it shows he’s secure enough in his relationship with you that he knows he can throw a strop safely (scared kids don’t tantrum, they keep quiet). So tantrums are GOOD!

      • guest

        “I think the hardest part – especially for women who tend to be goal-oriented – is recognizing when what is best for this child you are raising diverges from the goals you thought were critical for raising any child”

        I just love this quote of yours!

        • Mel

          Thank you!