Promoting attachment parenting as a way to limit government spending

Is attachment parenting ”best”?

It’s critical to interrogate the dominant philosophy of contemporary parenting to understand whether it is truly the best way to parent children or merely a reflection of unexamined beliefs about the role of women, market culture and subconscious racism and classism.

The ‘good’ attached mother: An analysis of postmaternal and postracial thinking in birth and breastfeeding policy in neoliberal Britain by Patricia Hamilton is a fascinating effort to understand. In her paper Hamilton goes beyond the misogynist religious injunctions of the last century that inspired attachment parenting to market driven, racism inflected beliefs of the 21st Century.

Parenting today is defined by a growing list of ever more specific decisions and duties, often made in the early years of child-rearing. Increasingly individualised, these choices, which include infant feeding options and sleeping positions, have taken on tremendous significance in neoliberal society, a socio-political context defined by market logic…

A new parenting paradigm, attachment parenting (AP), has emerged to guide child- rearing choices and has grown in influence with the entrenchment of neoliberalism. In this paper, I examine the correspondence between attachment parenting … and parenting-related policies advanced by the neoliberal state. This process is illuminated by examining motherhood through the perspective of black women, revealing the raced, gendered and classed dimensions of ‘good’ parenting that neoliberal ideology seeks to disguise.

This is a novel lens. Instead of examining the impact of attachment parenting on the children of those who promulgated its tenets — Western, white, middle and upper class — Hamilton asks us to evaluate the philosophy by its impact on non-Western, non-white poor women. This, she believes, will tell us more about the true purpose of the philosophy.

Hamilton looks specifically at birth and breastfeeding policy in Britain. The state has been very active in aggressively promoting both midwifery and compulsory breastfeeding regardless of what women actually want. According to the logic of AP that’s what’s best for babies. But Hamilton suggest that babies have nothing to do it. Birth and breastfeeding policy are driven by what is good for the neoliberal state.

Consider, for example, midwifery care.

[C]linical practice director, Mark Baker’s … is quoted in The Guardian: ‘Surgical interventions can be very costly, so midwifery-led care is value for money while putting the mother in control and delivering healthy babies’

Baker’s analysis communicates three points: first, it points to cost-cutting as a primary motivation … Second, it suggests that saving money and the promotion of (neoliberal) maternal autonomy and child health are goals with equal value … Finally, the attention to maternal autonomy contributes to the celebration of self-governance central to neoliberal citizenship… Baker’s explanation demonstrates the twin duties performed by the neoliberal state – the cutting of welfare spending is accompanied by an investment in ‘health-related technologies, programs, and healthcare and public healthcare arrangements that aim to produce new kinds of citizens’…

Simply put, the state has identified a way to save money by exerting control over women’s bodies and then pretending that this is what’s best for babies and mothers.

[S]uch programs and technologies contribute to an ideal of ‘good’ motherhood that prioritises a narrowed definition of choice that supports some women and excludes others.

But that’s apparently acceptable when those who are supported are Western, white and relatively well off while those who are excluded are women of color and underprivileged women. Those who are most likely to be harmed come from groups with higher maternal mortality rates and therefore most in need of obstetric, not midwifery, care.

The desire to save money through the bodies of women is even more explicit in breastfeeding promotion. There is an entire subset of the breastfeeding literature that repeatedly calculates the purported savings to entire economies of Western countries if only they could force more women to breastfeed.

It is well known that breastfeeding is social patterned with wealthier white women more likely to breastfeed than women who suffer from racism and economic inequities.

However, despite this recognition, rather than developing policies that address socio-economic inequality, the state’s intense focus on breastfeeding has led to the construction of an idealised version of motherhood that equates breastfeeding with ‘good’ mothering…

For black mothers then, their capacity to feed their infants ‘correctly’ is a measure not just of ‘good’ motherhood but also an indication of deservingness; practices that limit black women’s use of state resources draw attention away from whether they are and ought to be citizens in the first place …

Black women’s “failure” to breastfeed can therefore be constructed as a failure to save the state money, a fraught proposition for women already stereotyped as undeserving.

Hamilton welcomes increased government support for midwifery care and breastfeeding promotion if it increases women’s available choices. But it actually narrows them by foreclosing other choices that women might prefer.

The government has disguised its promotion for midwifery and breastfeeding as what the country can do for babies and mothers — when the reality is that the aggressive promotion of both unmedicated vaginal birth and breastfeeding is what women can do for their country.

That’s much easier to understand when we look at the impact of the philosophy on those it harms.