Everything I like is natural; everything I don’t like is a cultural construct

green natural and bio sign

If there is one thing that natural parenting advocates are sure about, it is that natural is always best. Evolution (or an intelligent designer, if you prefer) has created perfection and the key to happy, healthy children is wholeheartedly embracing that perfection.

Yet the definition of both natural and unnatural are both strangely elastic and there’s a reason for that. Natural no longer means “as occurs in nature”; it is a substitute for the word “good.” In other words, for natural parenting advocates, everything they like is “natural” whether it actually is or not; and everything they don’t like is “unnatural,” involves “chemicals” or is nothing more than a cultural construct.

I’ve written before about goofy unnatural practices that natural parenting advocates insist are natural. These include:

eating the placenta
lotus birth
tandem nursing

None of these practices are found among indigenous human populations, yet they are beloved of natural parenting advocates everywhere. They are not natural at all, they are cultural affectations of early 21st Century industrialized societies. The same thing applies to cranio-sacral therapy, herbal preparations, supplements and birth affirmations.

Conversely, labor pain, breastfeeding difficulties, and mother-infant separation are deemed cultural constructs, when, in fact, they are entirely natural. Natural parenting advocates are downright laughable in their insistence that labor pain is all in women’s heads, that breastfeeding rates are low because women aren’t “educated,” and that letting a baby cry himself to sleep causes brain damage.

The refusal of lactivists to take women’s breastfeeding difficulties seriously is a particularly egregious example of the tendency to ignore reality in favor of personal beliefs. It makes sense, though, once you realize that natural parenting advocates (and natural health advocates, too) have created a strictly dichotomized world where everything is either natural or unnatural, and where natural is always good and unnatural is always bad. Cognitive dissonance makes it impossible for lactivists to contemplate the high frequency of breastfeeding difficulties because, according to their way of thinking, breastfeeding is natural, therefore breastfeeding is good, therefore breastfeeding works perfectly. When confronted with women who have breastfeeding difficulties, lactivists face two choices. Either they can acknowledge that natural is not always best or they can pretend that women who are having problems with a natural function are doing it wrong or not trying hard enough.

This cognitive dissonance is particularly pronounced when considering childbirth. No matter how much evidence you present to natural childbirth advocates about historical and contemporary high rates of neonatal and maternal deaths, they insist that complications and bad outcomes are rare. Either they could acknowledge that natural is not always best, or they can pretend that complications are rare, or that doctors cause complications, or that there are no complications because everything is just a variation of normal. Clearly they’ve picked the latter strategy.

Natural parenting advocates, in creating an artificial dichotomy between nature and culture, fail to appreciate a central reality of human existence: for human beings, culture IS natural. In many ways, the ability to create and transmit culture is the defining feature of the human species. And not just one culture, but many different cultures whose characteristics can vary widely from group to group. Spoken language is both a natural biological function and a cultural construction with a myriad of variations. Written language has become a natural function over time, so natural that we can identify the specific area of the brain that is responsible for it. Yet the ability to create written language is a cultural achievement of the highest order. Moreover, no one has been complaining that reading and writing are unnatural even though they are undoubtedly cultural constructs.

The ultimate irony of natural parenting is that it is entirely cultural. It is a specific set of behaviors and beliefs chosen by Western, white women of first world countries as a means of creating an identity. It is neither especially natural or especially good; it is simply a matter of personal preference.