Natural mothering is a coercive philosophy that “naturalizes” the control of women


Why do so many aspects of natural mothering — ostensibly designed to protect babies — end up harming them?

Natural childbirth, marketed as “safer” than modern obstetrics, was embraced wholeheartedly by midwives in the UK. The result has been the preventable deaths of dozens, possibly hundreds, of mothers and babies and massive maternity scandals like Morecambe Baby and Shrewsbury/Telford. According to the Independent, the government has thus far spent $65 million compensating and caring for the victims in JUST Shrewbury/Telford. And this is only the beginning.

Natural mothering promotes inequality, male dominance and women immured in the home as “natural.”

Breastfeeding is promoted as “best” for babies, but none of the purported benefits predicted for term babies in industrialized countries — reduced infant mortality, reduced severe morbidity, reduced healthcare costs — has come to pass. Worse, exclusive breastfeeding has become the LEADING cause of newborn re-hospitalization (tens of thousands of hospitalizations each year at a cost of hundred of millions of dollars). Shockingly, there has been an increase in babies dying by being smothered in or falling from their mothers’ hospital beds as a result of the closing of well baby nurseries.

Attachment parenting, which fetishizes constant, close contract between a baby’s body and that of his mother is promoted as improving child health, confidence, happiness and achievement. To my knowledge, there is no evidence that even a single parameter of child mental health has improved in the 25 years since its inception, and quite a few child mental health parameters have declined.

Why has a philosophy touted as benefiting babies ended up hurting so many of them?

Because natural mothering was never about babies; it’s always been about “naturalizing” the coercion of women. Given the rising rate of postpartum anxiety and depression, it has been quite successful in its real aims.

Psychologist Susan Franzblau has written about this issue. Although Franzblau refers to attachment theory in her writing, it seems to me that she is criticizing natural/attachment mothering.

First, attachment theory steers women into accepting motherhood as the dominant condition of their lives, by characterizing and then romanticizing women as mother. Second, attachment theory promotes women’s labor within the confines of maternity by narrowing, reducing, and mandating women’s primary role as that of heterosexual mother. Third, attachment theory acts as the overarching paradigm with which to scrutinize women to see if their behavior meets the definition of “good mother.” Finally, if a woman resists the work of motherhood, either in thought or deed, attachment theory pathologizes her resistance.

Natural mothering elides its coercive, misogynist origins by insisting that it has the imprimatur of science. Franzblau describes it as “ideology configured as science.” And it’s not particularly good science because it takes animals, particularly higher order mammals and primates, as a starting point for determining normative behavior for women. In doing so it assumes inequality, male dominance and female nurturance of infants. In other words, the only thing natural about natural mothering is the gender stereotyping.

The ideology of natural mothering conveniently intersects with societal and political efforts to marginalize women. This is not the first time that mothering has been romanticized. It also occurred in the Victorian era and the immediate aftermath of World War II. In both cases, structural issues (the Industrial Revolution, the return of men from the military) made it attractive to pressure women back into the home, reserving employment for men. This was justified by ignoring women’s needs in favor of restricting them to their biological functions.

It the 21st Century, these so called experts are midwives, doulas, lactation consultants and attachment parenting advocates. Women’s needs are ignored and women who don’t want to give birth without pain medication, don’t want to breastfeed, and dare to have careers outside the home are pathologized as weak, lazy and selfish.

The bottom line is that natural mothering has never been about what’s best for babies; it’s always been about manipulating women into pre-approved choices by claiming sexist ideology is science.