How wealthy, white women have turned motherhood into a piece of performance art

Lactivism, natural childbirth, attachment parenting. There’s a new moralism that defines motherhood to promote the personal preferences of a select group of women, wealthy, white women from first world countries. Mothering is now measured by a set of socially sanctioned “performances” at purported critical moments. Rebecca Kukla, a feminist scholar, has written a fascinating article in the International Journal of Feminist Approaches to Bioethics entitled Measuring Motherhood examining the middle class penchant of evaluating other women’s mothering by signal moments.

As a culture, we have a tendency to measure motherhood in terms of a set of signal moments that have become the focus of special social attention and anxiety; we interpret these as emblematic summations of women’s mothering abilities. Women’s performances during these moments can seem to exhaust the story of mothering, and mothers often internalize these measures and evaluate their own mothering in terms of them. “Good” mothers are those who pass a series of tests — they bond properly during their routine ultrasound screening, they do not let a sip of alcohol cross their lips during pregnancy, they give birth vaginally without pain medication, they do not offer their child an artificial nipple during the first six months, they feed their children maximally nutritious meals with every bite, and so on…

In other words, mothering has been reduced to a set of achievement tests that can be that can be passed or failed. Among those achievement tests are birth and breastfeeding.

… [W]e have elevated the symbolic importance of birth to the point where it appears to serve as a make-or-break test of a woman’s mothering abilities. If she manages her birth “successfully,” making proper, risk-adverse, self-sacrificing choices, and maintaining both proper deference to doctors and control over her own body, then she proves her maternal bona fides and initiates a lifetime of proper mothering. If, on the other hand, she fails at these tasks during labor, she reveals herself as selfish or undisciplined and risks deforming her baby’s character, health, and emotional well-being, while putting her bond with her child in permanent jeopardy.

Yet these claims have no basis in fact:

…[R]eal risks and their sizes do not seem to be of interest to the lay critics of mothers’ birth choices, who appear quite content with hand-waving references to gains and harms… [I]t is hard not to conclude that the main normative standards at play are ideological, not medical: Our cultural insistence that women make “proper” birth choices and maintain control over their birth narratives is not about minimizing real risks; rather, it supports our desire to measure mothering in terms of women’s personal choices and of self-discipline exercised during signal moments. What is at stake is not the health of babies but an image of proper motherhood, combined with the idea that birth should function as a symbolic spectacle of such motherhood.

Lactivists also make claims that have no basis in scientific fact:

North American breast-feeding promotional materials consistently emphasize exclusive breast-feeding, as opposed to the more productive message that the more breast milk babies receive, the better. “Does one bottle of formula make that much difference? We wish we could say that it doesn’t,” states La Leche League, rather disingenuously, in their breast-feeding guide, “but we can’t”. According to this guide, a single bottle of formula can trigger life-threatening allergies, and any contact with artificial nipples (bottles or pacifiers) can cause nipple confusion, wherein the baby is no longer willing or able to latch onto a breast… there is no evidence for nipple confusion resulting from the occasional use of artificial nipples. A 1992 study found no difference in breast-feeding outcomes between newborn infants who were exclusively breast-fed and those who received one bottle daily. The pervasive fear of instant nipple confusion among new mothers … is itself indicative of the power of the logic of the single corrupting moment.

It is hardly a coincidence that these claims reflect the personal preferences of a small group of Western, white women who are relatively well off.

Thus to the extent that we take “proper” maternal performance during these key moments as a measure of mothering as a whole, we will re-inscribe social privilege. We will read a deficient maternal character into the bodies and actions of underprivileged and socially marginalized women, whereas privileged women with socially normative home and work lives will tend to serve as our models of proper maternal character.

The bottom line is that a small group of privileged women hold their own choices choices regarding birth and infant feeding up as standards to which all women should aspire. This is wrong on several levels: there is no objective evidence that the claims of “natural” childbirth advocates and lactivists are true; there is no objective evidence that single moments of motherhood determine the long term well being of a child or determine the strength of the mother-child bond; and insisting that the cultural rituals of a privileged group of women are the standards to which all other women should aspire reinforces existing cultural and economic prejudices.