Natural childbirth, attachment parenting, and policing women’s bodies


It is a sad fact of history that men have spent a tremendous amount of time policing women’s bodies. And an even sadder fact is that women have often been the prime enforcers in this effort.

Consider female genital mutilation. It is a practice designed by men, for men, to preserve men’s privileges, but it is performed exclusively by older women on female children in order to make their bodies “respectable” for men.

You might think that the time of women as enforcers of policing other women’s bodies has passed. You’d be wrong. There are now entire movements devoted to policing women’s bodies: the natural childbirth movement, the lactivist movement, and the attachment parenting movement.

In fact, with the exception female genital mutilation itself, it is difficult to think of a historical movement that placed more emphasis on the insistence that women use their bodies in the “proper” way. These philosophies are the intellectual equivalent of the burqa. They function in large part to keep women trapped in the home, invisible, and incapable of pursuing the same goals as men.

I recently had something of an epiphany. I’ve been maintaining a version of this blog for more than 6 years. There have been literally hundreds of thousands of comments in that time. The epiphany is that most of them have been in response to, or in defense of what women should or should not be doing with their bodies. Should women experience pain in labor? Do they have a right to abolish that pain? Should women breastfeed? Should women persevere if they have pain or difficulty in breastfeeding? Should women feel free to supplement or replace breastfeeding with formula? Should women carry their infants around all day? Should women have their children sleep in the marital bed each and every night?

This blog is noted for its full throated condemnation of the myths and lies of the homebirth and natural childbirth movements, and emphasizes the fact that homebirth results in preventable neonatal deaths. But I’d like it to also be noted for something else: the firm conviction that NCB, lactivism and attachment parenting are anti-feminist. All three locate the center of women’s worth in her body (specifically her vagina and breasts) and generate elaborate prescriptions for women’s use of their own bodies that essentially control how they use their bodies every minute of every day. I firmly believe that women’s bodies should be controlled by women themselves, not by groups who prescribe the “correct” way to give birth, the “correct” way to nourish a baby, and the “correct” way to nurture a baby.

I’ve joked about the sanctimommy who has advice for everyone on every aspect of mothering. I’ve pointed out that a great deal of the appeal of being a part of the NCB, lactivism and AP movements is the opportunity to feel superior to other mothers, and to belong to a like minded community whose primary purpose seems to be praising themselves. Yet that is merely the incentive to joining these movements, not the purpose of them. The true purpose, sometimes conscious and sometimes unconscious, is to generate so many prescriptions around mothering that women cannot possibly leave the home and participate in the larger world.

It’s hardly a coincidence that the prime movers behind these philosophies are men, particularly men deeply disturbed by the idea of women rejecting the conventional roles to which men have relegated them. From Grantly Dick-Read, the father of natural childbirth, a sexist who decried women’s efforts at political and economic emancipation, to Dr. William Sears, the father of attachment parenting, who is a religious fundamentalist, these efforts at policing women’s bodies began with the ideas and efforts of men.

And I suspect that it is hardly a coincidence that the leading female enforcer of policing pregnant women’s bodies is Ina May Gaskin. She’s a woman in the shadow of a man who is not merely her husband,  but the leader of the cult (The Farm) to which she belongs. Based on her own admission, she was pressured into letting one of her own children die at homebirth because her husband did not want to use the medical system when that baby was born prematurely, on a bus on the freezing Great Plains, in the dead of winter. She was relegated by her cult to the “women’s work” of midwifery, and she has done a fabulous job of making that work important. But no one should ever forget that Ina May Gaskin was relegated to midwifery, and that the only control she was allowed to have was control over other women.

In an ironic twist, the current enforcers of these movements have turned to men to make the job of enforcement easier. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s bizarre effort to promote breastfeeding by shaming women who want to use formula is a case in point. In first world countries, the public health benefits of breastfeeding, while real, are trivial. Yet lactivists have convinced Mayor Bloomberg and his staff that it is their right and their obligation to put obstacles in the path of women who don’t want to use their breasts to feed their babies.

Lactivists have created the Orwellian designation of “baby-friendly” hospitals to force women into signing waivers explicitly stating that those who refuse to use their breasts to feed their babies are knowingly choosing an inferior method of caring for them. Can you imagine the howling from the NCB movement if every woman who came to the hospital with a birth plan for avoiding interventions was forced to sign a statement acknowledging that childbirth without interventions was an inferior, and less safe, method of birth? Yet many of these same women seem to positively gloat at the idea of other women metaphorically branded as lesser mothers simply because they refuse to use their breasts in the approved manner.

I tend to focus on the validity of the claims of the NCB, lactivism and AP movements. It’s easy to do so since most of their empirical claims are factually false. However, we shouldn’t forget that these movements are, at their heart, retrograde, anti-feminist and ultimately concerned with policing women’s bodies.

Make no mistake: there is nothing wrong with unmedicated childbirth, breastfeeding or attachment parenting if those are the choices that work best for individual women and their families; I chose to do all of them with my own children. But there is something very wrong with philosophical movements devoted to forcing those choices on other women, essentially policing their bodies for every moment of the 9 months of pregnancy, the hours of labor and childbirth, and the years of parenting small children.