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

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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.

  • fiftyfifty1

    Tangentially related:
    There is interesting research on pediatric anxiety coming out of Yale’s Child Study Center. Traditionally kids with anxiety disorders have been treated with medications and/or individual therapy. But instead Yale is intervening with the parents rather than treating the child and it has proven to be as effective, and often MORE effective. They say parents often inadvertently reinforce anxiety, making it worse, which can turn into a lifelong problem. They coach parents how to respond more effectively, and what is striking is that their advice often seems to be the exact opposite of attachment parenting. For example they have found that letting children with anxiety disorders sleep with parents, or comforting them by keeping them “attached” and near, calms the child in the moment but reinforces the anxiety and leads to higher anxiety in the future.

    I’m not sure how to think about this research. I have always felt that inborn traits are the largest predictor of our personalities (anxious or otherwise.) Another belief I hold is that there are many right ways to raise a child and short of abuse it’s hard to “screw up” a child. My bias also is to reject any type of parent-blaming when it comes to mental illness. That said, when Yale retrains parents they are getting amazing results, and anxiety disorders in adulthood can be crippling. The rates of anxiety disorders in our young people are going up fast, and it doesn’t seem to be just more or better diagnosis. Media reports all seem to blame either school shootings or too much screen time. But wouldn’t it be ironic if it were actually due to AP type practices?

    • Cristina B

      That’s interesting. I know that, looking back, my parents definitely made me afraid of the world, rather than teaching me street smarts. It wasn’t until my 20s that a street smart friend helped me get over some of those fears. I don’t think they intended to make me afraid, but my personality definitely internalized it and made it worse. The flip side of that is that my oldest seems to have anxiety issues and I’m so worried that I’ve made things worse.

      • Who?

        I had much the same experience, and was determined to not simply do the same thing. For instance, my parents were always resistant to trying ‘different’ foods, because ‘what if you don’t like it’. With my kids I’d say try a bit of everything, if you don’t like it, no trouble, just leave it. I remember saying to them how will they know their new favourite thing, unless they try it.

        For me the practical outcome was trying to say yes to things unless I had an actual reason to say ‘no’-sometimes the fact that I was overwhelmed or similar would be that actual reason-and also to model the behaviour I wanted by (apparently) calmly facing challenges rather than either running from them or descending into a flap. It also meant putting boundaries around things that I might otherwise have said flat no to.

        Both my kids have a tendency to anxiety, and my daughter was diagnosed with OCD in her early twenties, which is dealt with very well by medication. Apparently lots of kids with OCD that grow up in very ordered households like ours don’t have a problem until they are taken out of that comfort zone, which is what happened to her.

        Lots of things go into what makes our children what they are, and many little apples fall far from the tree. You’re putting thought and care into your daughter, which is the best you can do for her.

        Be kind to yourself too.

        • Cristina B

          He’s very particular and sometimes I wonder if he has a touch of OCD. His dad has anxiety and my mom just told me today that she has anxiety (and didn’t recognize it as such until a couple years ago). He definitely needs things to go a certain way and melts down if he it doesn’t happen. He’s nearly 9.

      • fiftyfifty1

        Here is book about the techniques that parents can adopt to support anxious kids without reinforcing the anxiety:
        Freeing Your Child From Anxiety by Tamar Chansky

    • Mel

      I wonder how much of the work with parents reflects the fact that a lot of inborn predispositions to anxiety are present in both the parent and the kid.

      I struggled a lot with anxiety after my brother died when I was four. I hoped that my son would have less anxiety than I do – but he’s needed a lot of medical procedures and isolation during infancy and early toddlerhood – and shows some of the same symptoms.

      Personally, I use a combination of physical closeness while coaching him through breathing exercises and physical grounding to teach him how to end acute anxiety attacks followed by sending him back out to deal with the stressor. Physical activity is also a good way to physically ground toddlers. Spawn got frightened at an introductory pre-school visit when a classmate grabbed his walker, started running, and Spawn careened about 20 feet faster than I’d ever seen him before I and a teacher ended the toddler turbo boost. I gave him a firm hug to get him deep breathing – but he was still shaking when I tried to eject him from my lap 5 minutes later. I took Spawn’s hands and we went for a supported walk around the room. Pretty quickly, he went from “no! no! no!” in a shaky voice to “Oh, wow! TUCK!” after part of a lap around the room when he saw a toy truck.

  • Leading Zero

    *Morecambe Bay

    I love that quote, “ideology configured as science”. Sums it up in a nutshell!