Mothering in the age of tribalism

definition of Extremist

Most people understand that we live in an era of extreme political and cultural polarization and our country is suffering terribly as a result. It has been going on for the last 25 years, and it’s easy to forget that it hasn’t always been like this nor does it have to be.

Sadly, the polarization has been extended to mothering using many of the same tactics that were deliberately contrived to promote political polarization. Many mothers and babies are suffering terribly as a result.

Lactivsts, like gun rights activists, are extremists.

To understand what is going on in the world of mothering, it helps to review what is going on in the world of politics. It is critical to recognize that the current state of political polarization is not an accident. Certain politicians have manipulated people in order to get elected. How? They have promoted “identities,” created “threats,” stoked grievances, encouraged a sense of victimization, and constructed compromise as sell-out.

Consider members of the National Rifle Association. For 25 years, despite increasingly lax gun policies and soaring numbers of gun massacres, the members of the NRA tell each other that they face the “threat” of all guns being banned, that they are being victimized by anyone who wants common sense gun restrictions, that they must perpetually march loaded down with weaponry to display their sense of grievance and that they must never, ever compromise on their demands.

Gun rights activism isn’t merely a choice of many NRA supporters. It is their tribe and their identity. And the outsize anger of NRA members and their vicious treatment and portrayal of anyone who disagrees is a feature of gun rights activism, not a bug.

Consider extreme evangelicals. Christianity has NEVER been under threat in this country. Yet evangelical leaders tell their followers they are facing the threat of religious persecution, that they are victimized daily by “slights” such as someone saying ‘Happy Holidays’ instead of ‘Merry Christmas,’ that they must perpetually pressure their political leaders by displaying an unending sense of grievance and that compromise isn’t merely forbidden, it is satanic.

Evangelical fervor isn’t merely the religious belief of evangelicals, it is their tribe and their identity. And the outsize anger of extreme evangelicals and their vicious treatment and portrayal of anyone who doesn’t believe as they do is a feature of contemporary evangelical politics, not a bug.

The same techniques are also being used to create extremism in mothering.

Consider lactivism. Lactivism is NOT merely support for breastfeeding. Lactivism is the cultural belief that all babies “deserve” breastmilk, that all mothers should breastfeed, that breastfeeding should be normative (and formula feeding portrayed as deviant) and to the extent that other mothers can’t or choose not to breastfeed, they are the unwitting, uneducated dupes of large multinational corporations.

Spend more than two minutes with any lactivist leader or on any lactivist blog or Facebook page and you will see the techniques designed to create political extremism used over and over again.

Even though there has NEVER been more professional and institutional support for breastfeeding, lactivists imagine they live in a world of unending “threat” to breastfeeding, that they are victimized any time anyone proposes common sense breastfeeding policies (e.g. acknowledging that insufficient breastmilk is common). They perpetually display their endless sense of grievance by demonizing women who can’t or don’t wish to breastfeed and they view any form of compassion for women who make different choices as a sign of insufficient ideological fervor.

Lactivism isn’t merely a choice, it is the tribe and the identity of lactivists. And the outsize anger of lactivists and their vicious treatment and deliberate mischaracterization of anyone who is not a lactivist (they “hate breastfeeding”!!) is a feature of contemporary lactivism, not a bug.

Consider midwives, doulas and childbirth educators, particularly those from the UK and Australia. Spend any time with any midwifery leader or on any birth blog or Facebook page and you will see the techniques designed to foster political extremism deployed repeatedly.

There has never been more professional and institutional support for (cruelly named) ‘normal birth,’ yet contemporary birth workers pretend they live in a world of unending “threat” to unmedicated vaginal birth without interventions. They insist that they are being victimized any time someone points out that birth is inherently quite dangerous for babies and mothers. They perpetually display their endless sense of grievance by demonizing obstetricians as well as women who make different choices; it’s difficult to imagine anything more vicious and cruel than insisting on psychological evaluation of women who choose C-section on request. They view any form of compromise with obstetricians, neonatologists and pediatricians as betrayal of fundamental beliefs.

Promoting “normal birth” isn’t merely the occupation of many midwives and birth workers, it is their tribe and their identity. And the outsize anger of birth workers and deliberate mischaracterization of anyone who can’t or chooses not to pursue unmedicated vaginal birth without interventions (they “want everyone to have a C-section!!”) is a feature of contemporary midwifery and childbirth care, not a bug.

If you want to see the awesome power of extremist politics, just look at the mask “debate.” Right wing extremists aren’t merely willing to overlook the massive disaster perpetuated by the current governing party’s willingness to ignore science and tolerate both the deaths and the economic destruction of anyone besides its wealthiest members. The party’s extremists are willing to bring their own world view in line with the party even though the party is literally killing them. Refusing to wear a mask has become a sign of fealty to extremism.

Easing the current political extremism is beyond my purview, but I do have ideas for addressing the current tribalism among mothers. Lactivists, midwives and birth workers need to understand the ways they have been manipulated toward extremism. Neither breastfeeding nor vaginal birth are being threatened. Women who make different choices are not victimizing them. They should drop their outsize sense of grievance and welcome compromise for what it is — the stepping stone to a better world, not a betrayal of first principles.

I’m not hopeful that those who have tied their identity to lactivism and birth work will be willing to moderate their extremism. But fortunately we don’t have to wait for them. Individual mothers who deviate from lactivist and birth orthodoxy should recognize that making choices that benefit themselves and their children is more likely to lead to thriving families than attempting to placate those have situated their identity in and pledged their fealty to mothering extremism. After all, a thriving family is the ultimate goal.

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  • demodocus

    Really, “normal” cannot be guaranteed, no matter what you do. My sister could hardly have prevented her (previously unknown) cancer from making it impossible for her to give birth vaginally. I’m sure that uterus was about as useful as a damp kleenex in pushing that kid out the usual exit.

    • PeggySue

      Oh my goodness, how terrible. Has your sister survived/recovered? This sounds so sad.

      • demodocus

        Recovered, no. She went into remission for a few years but came out 7 years ago. She’s survived far longer than anyone else in her cohort, and is actually holding down a job, but the cancer’s still there. It’ll probably be her cause of death, though I joke about her having a tragic hang-gliding accident when she’s 82. (40 years from now).

        Why she’s resistent, no one knows, but it could be some gene she inherited from our father. Dad survived a case of testicular cancer so bad that they gave him hours at one point in 1978. It went into remission and he lived another 37 years after diagnosis. (I can’t remember when he went into remission; I was a 19 or 20 mos old when he was diagnosed.)

        • PeggySue

          An amazing story all the way along.

  • KeeperOfTheBooks

    OT, sort of.
    Let me preface by saying that COVID is real, it’s dangerous, don’t screw around with it.
    BUT.
    It’s NOT, I repeat, NOT the only threat out there, and we absolutely have to see the forest of medical threats and not “just” the COVID tree.
    I lost a nephew a three weeks ago because my sister-in-law, 29 weeks pregnant, got what seemed to be a respiratory bug of some kind. Fever, bit of a cough. She called her OB, who, I kid you not, said that since it might be COVID, he couldn’t see her, and she would need to get a negative COVID test before they could proceed with any sort of treatment.
    No advice, no guidelines, just get a COVID test–whose results took 4-5 days to return. Negative.
    In the middle of the night on the fifth day after she called her OB, her husband rushed her to the ER. He wasn’t allowed in with her. Crash C-section 12 hours later for which her husband was able to be present, but they couldn’t save the baby. She was septic. Went into heart failure. Lost a hand due to the heart circulation issues.
    At this point, it looks like she will probably survive, but she woke up to a severe handicap and a dead baby.
    They have been told all this might have been prevented with antibiotics when she first had symptoms, though things are still a bit fuzzy as to what the hell caused all this–current theory is GBS (she’s positive) gone completely psycho.
    Her husband is a first responder, which may have also affected the treatment she got, and negatively: “oooh, what if he brought COVID home? Can’t take the risk!” What utter BS.
    I’m not saying for a second that you should have someone with possible COVID walk into an office full of pregnant women. I AM saying that there has to be some sort of treatment in between “sorry, might be COVID, you’re on your own!” and “septic.”

    • PeggySue

      I’m so very sorry. What an awful thing to go through, and to keep going through, for the rest of her life. I hope her heart can recover enough to give quality of life, but, just, how awful.

    • alongpursuit

      Oh my goodness! I am so sorry. That’s heartbreaking.

    • StephanieJR

      That’s awful and horrific; I’m so sorry for all that your family has gone through.

    • Mel

      I’m so sorry.

    • MaineJen

      Holy shit. I’m so sorry that happened.

      Not only was this pregnant woman’s illness not taken seriously (sadly typical), but the underfunding/underresourcing of covid testing leads to turnaround times that make these tests basically useless.

      Only in America.

    • rational thinker

      Omg, I am very sorry. This is a tragedy that should not of happened. The life saving medical care they denied her and her precious baby is just disgusting.

    • demodocus

      God, I’m sorry. Your poor family

  • alongpursuit

    It’s absolutely true how polarized society has become. I’ve been reflecting on why I’ve been so sad and lonely after having kids and I think it has to do with feeling like I don’t belong with the other moms (so many of whom have formed tribes of lactivism, “natural” childbirth, environmentally-friendly everything, etc.) and the shame I feel as a mom who was unable to really breastfeed. I get reminded of my failure to protect my kids from viruses, bacteria, cancer, etc. and my missed bonding opportunity whenever I go to the medical clinic. It’s been hard not belonging to the “good mom” group.

    I started reading Brene Brown’s Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone and I’m finding it so enlightening. I highly recommend it as an antidote to the Age of Tribalism. I’m still really fighting the stigma of being a formula-feeder and trying to heal from the psychological trauma of having my first baby at a BFHI hospital. It’s strange that even as I write that I think “do I have the right to consider it stigma or trauma”?

    • rational thinker

      Yes, you do have the right to call it stigma and trauma. Your memories of your first child being born should make you feel good, but sadly for many women who give birth in a BFHI hospital it may feel horrible to look back on those memories of mistreatment and in some cases outright abuse.
      I did not feel that much of a stigma because I formula fed but I did feel the stigma of being a teen mom. I was 17 when I gave birth but I turned 18 a month after. The hard thing was that I looked much younger than I was so some people thought I was fourteen so I got a lot of dirty looks. Then when he started preschool only one other mom even bothered talking to me and that made me feel horrible.

      • PeggySue

        Ugh, people. I am so sorry. You deserved much better.

      • demodocus

        *hugs* I got a little of that from people who thought my baby brother was my son. He’s a full 10 years younger. Mostly I just got mad, though. I didn’t reach menarche until he was nearly 5, at 16, my face was young for my age but I was already 5’7″ Must’ve been a lot harder for you.

        • rational thinker

          At first it was tough but after he turned 6 it got a little better. When I started going to his classroom parties at school starting 4th grade all his classmates would come up to me and ask if I was his sister and that happened until he went to 7th grade. I thought it was cute though the kids were all so amazed when I told them I was his mom not his sister.

          • demodocus

            Kids are amazed by the funniest things sometimes. One 5yo came up to my mom at the store and told her “I saw you kissing my teacher” Mom replied “It’s okay, I’m her mommy.” The kid “Teachers have _Mommies_???” Even the 4th graders need to think about that for a minute, lol.

    • PeggySue

      Yes, you do. And I am sorry. I would be walking around in a rage all the time.

    • Kaia Rose

      Full disclosure: I’ve never been pregnant.

      You do have the right to your feelings and your thoughts about your personal experiences. No one else really knows what you went through, although empathy is a wonderful thing. Your feelings are valid, and you don’t need to compare your experience with that of others. Your feelings are just as real, just as legitimate.

      I think childbirth can be inherently traumatic, both physically and emotionally. Your body does new or different things that aren’t under your control, and you might not be happy about those changes. It’s not your fault, and people can be nasty.

      I look at it this way. Car accidents can be traumatic, and I imagine extreme acute pain can be, too. I’ve heard recently that being on a ventilator while battling COVID-19 is traumatic. Surviving a weather disaster can be traumatic. And so can pregnancy and birth.

      I’m speculating, but I suspect the vulnerability, loss of control, and the authoritative nature of taking quick, life-saving actions, which can seem mean or cruel or unnecessary to the patient, contribute to making an event traumatic. (Some medical professionals are less kind of could improve their bedside manner, of course, too.). I also think that midwives and doulas have distorted women’s understanding of childbirth into a candlelit, essential oil-infused, mantra-chanting kiddie pool at-home spa experience that is painless if you believe it to be so hard enough. Dolphins optional.

      I think these unrealistic, misinformed expectations, and then reality not matching up, explain why women with birth plans that abruptly went awry, to save life or physiological functioning, feel traumatized. I think their feelings are valid, too, although I might disagree about how they respond to their experience (such as doubling down on hospitals are evil and trust birth ‘cuz nature knows best.) They were irresponsibly misinformed, and the perfect plan they spent months planning and daydreaming about is shattered faster than she could say ‘wait just a minute here’….because in the moment, that minute might have been too long to wait.

      So she feels traumatized by losing her sense of agency. She grieves the loss of the greatly desired fantasy, that she had believed to be within her reach, that she was sold by ‘natural’ birth educators, with whom she had spent the last months bonding with and trusting. I imagine that powerlessness and helplessness is incredibly traumatizing, even for women with more realistic expectations. Add in the intensity of pain, which might also have been unexpected, and I imagine that makes it even more traumatic. They were blindsided.

      You’re doing the best you can, and your feelings are valid. I can’t imagine how painful it must be to be judged by other parents or to feel isolated because your experiences differ from the extremists around you. And I’m sure they’re so proud and smug and pleased with themselves. I guess they’re doing the best they can, too, while choosing to be self-righteous attention-seekers who desire adoration for their ideological purity. Ugh.

      I would encourage you to try to build a less toxic support system if you’re able. Maybe consider reconnecting with old friends or cousins.

      I would also encourage you, if you’re able, to talk to a counselor or therapist you can trust to talk about your feelings and experiences, perhaps work through some things if appropriate. Maybe your local hospital has a type of support group available that would respect your words without being hostile. (So, not a breastfeeding support group that might contain toxic elements contradictory to your needs.). Tele-medicine might be an option.

      I often recommend therapy because it’s been so helpful to me. At least, once I found someone who was nonjudgmental and didn’t suggest I go out to bars to make friends. “You can have a coke!”. Ugh, that one gave terrible advice.

      And I know nothing about you or your health, but if you’re having very negative thoughts or considering hurting yourself or others, please do consider seeing a doctor. Hang in there, and I wish you the best.

    • Mel

      Allow me to share my definition of a good parent: a parent who does what is in the best interest of their child.

      I was in a NCB-skeptical position before I had my son. I was on-board with modern medicine – but not particularly opposed to breastfeeding or natural childbirth or whatever as long as it worked for us. I was particularly anti-skin-to-skin because newborns are covered in goo and I’m not that thrilled at super-close physical contact.

      We’re almost four years out from when Spawn was born. We are doing well because I dropped anything that wasn’t working for Spawn and I and embraced anything that worked.

      Spawn was born at 6.5 months gestation. I couldn’t hold him for the first 7 days – and then we began skin-to-skin. Spawn did so well during skin-to-skin times that I did it daily for 2-3 hours for six weeks. I liked holding Spawn – but we’re both very warm blooded and he’d overheat unless I had this teeny-tiny baby flopped on my chest with nothing else but a diaper over him. Eventually, he reached 32 weeks gestation and we could hold him in a cradle hold instead. He freaked out at first and tried to get the nurses to make us hold him in skin-to-skin – but after a few days – he loved it.

      Breastfeeding was pumping exclusively for the time Spawn was in the NICU plus one week after he went home. I wasn’t producing enough to feed him; he had damaged lungs so feeding was exhausting for him and he decidedly needed the extra calories from supplementation. So we swapped to formula which worked fine and let me get some sleep so that I could actually parent my kid on top of being a medical/therapist scheduler. Actually, it worked more than fine; Spawn grew at a good clip and got onto the growth curve for baby boys born on the same day as him (but 3.5 months older) by 2.

      “Does it work for Spawn? Can I make it work for me?” have been the two questions I ask when we do anything new – and it’s proven to be a solid way to guide my choices.

    • rational thinker

      Just remember this one thing important about parenting. The only person qualified to tell you if you were a good parent is your grown up adult child.

    • demodocus

      *hugs* I fed my younger child formula not because I couldn’t physically, since I overproduce, but I just couldn’t psychologically. I bf’d my eldest until I quite literally couldn’t stand to be touched on my bare skin one moment more. (That lasted for months, too) He was 10 1/2 months old.

      Aye, it’s definitely a stigma in many circles to ff. Women’d congratulate me on bf’ing my first (which was super creepy) and although I didn’t hear negative comments (hearing impairment has it’s uses) I’m quite sure those same women would be judging me negatively to see the bottle I gave kid2.