The dominant mothering ideology

In my last post, I wrote about Harmony Newman’s PhD thesis Cross-Cultural Framing Strategies of the Breastfeeding Movement and Mothers’ Responses. What I found most compelling about Newman’s explication of lactivism is her claim that lactivism can only be understood within the framework of the dominant mothering ideology, intensive mothering. As she explains:

… [I]ntensive mothering is a belief system that demands that mothers provide unlimited amounts of care, attention and affection to their children. This dominant discourse of motherhood has been described as one that sees mothers as “selfless” and “sacrificial)”. That is, mothers are expected to focus primarily, if not exclusively, on their children’s needs rather than on their own desires and needs. Furthermore, mothers are increasingly being held responsible not only for the health and well being of their children, but also for their cognitive and intellectual development, and their overall short-term and long-term success in life.

Lactivism is best understood as a product of this ideology:

Breastfeeding fits within this dominant intensive mothering ideology as it is constructed as the ultimate infant feeding method—the healthiest way to feed a child and one of the best ways for an infant and mother to bond. Breastfeeding very often requires a considerable amount of time from the mother, as she is the only one who can provide the child this sustenance. A breastfeeding (and/or pumping) mother must also have dedication to persevere through the physical struggles that she may encounter. We see activists in the breastfeeding movement draw on this ideology in the construction of their persuasive arguments, encouraging mothers to fear for their children’s future health and possibly even feel responsible for failing to best protect their children if they do not breastfeed.

Newman points out that while all mothers are aware of the dominant ideology and most believe in it (hence the fact that it is the dominant ideology), there is wide variation in how rigidly mothers follow the prescriptions that flow from the ideology.

The strictly committed women believed that motherhood could not be understood in any way other than according to the dominant standards. In contrast, other mothers were resistant to the idea that one conception of motherhood should be applied to all women. These women were much more flexible in their ideological commitment to intensive mothering.

Those who are rigidly committed to intensive motherhood believe and behave in different ways than those women who have a more flexible commitment.

The women committed to intensive motherhood as ideal had a very particular conceptualization of what “good” motherhood meant. The mothers with a strict commitment described characteristics of good mothers as those who are “selfless” and “present.” …

These women are explicit in their construction of a good mother as someone who puts herself on the backburner, first addressing any needs her children might have. [Some] even [argue] that mothers who do not align with this ideology of selflessness should be considered “bad mothers.”…

This perspective—that “good” motherhood requires an unending amount of attention, affection, and selflessness—is a very demanding expectation for mothers. These women strictly believed in the standards of intensive mothering and expected those behaviors (and sacrifices) both from themselves and other mothers.

In contrast:

… [W]omen with a flexible commitment to the dominant standards of motherhood tended to agree that there was not one cut-and-dried way to parent. Instead, 65 percent of these women argued that mothers needed to figure out what sort of parenting style worked best for them and their children…

These women are critical of the idea that there are … rigid rules for parenting… [T]hey believe that different parents, children, and situations call for flexibility, and spontaneity in figuring out what the most appropriate response should be.

I consider Newman’s most important insight to be the recognition that contemporary mothering reflects one ideology out of many possible ideologies. The contemporary mothering ideology is not “The Truth,” but rather simply the currently popular viewpoint, differing dramatically from mothering ideologies of the past and possibly of the future as well. There is not one “right” way to approach mothering and what is right from one family may be inappropriate for another.

I would expand on Newman’s characterization of the flexibly committed mother to include another variation. It is possible to be personally committed to the ideology of intensive mothering for one’s own family, while being flexible in expectations of other mothers.

When I write about breastfeeding, lactivists often insist that my personal commitment to breastfeeding my four children is at odds with my medical advice to others. I don’t see any conflict. My commitment to breastfeeding is part of my personal commitment to intensive mothering. It would be fair to say that I raised my children in accordance with all the major principles of intensive mothering, particularly the commitment to always being present. BUT, and this is a very important but, my commitment to intensive mothering does not extend to belief that intensive mothering is the “right” way or the only way to raise children. It was right for me and my family; that doesn’t mean that it is right for everyone. Moreover, I now have the advantage of seeing how my children and other children are turning out. It is more obvious to me than ever that there are many ways to raise happy, healthy, well adjusted children.

There’s nothing wrong with the dominant ideology of intensive mothering. There is something wrong with insisting that the dominant ideology is the only correct ideology.