Motherhood and the tyranny of the N-words

letter n

Words have power.

Therefore, I am rather surprised at the vehemence with which some people in our multi-day Twitter conversation are defending the use of the word “normalizing” in reference to breastfeeding. Perhaps they simply don’t realize the viciousness with which many mothers wield the two ugliest N-words in contemporary parenting discussions: normal and natural.

Both are used to justify elevating some mothering choices over others, e.g. normal birth, natural childbirth, normalizing breastfeeding, etc.

Obstetrician and bioethicist Anne Drapkin Lyerly explains the problem in her paper Ethics and “Normal Birth”:

… “normal” indicates something that is normative or morally preferable—a state we ought to strive for. The result is a “fundamental tension” between normal as an “ordinary healthy state” and a “state of perfection toward which communities can strive.” In this way, the “normal” birth becomes (in hearts and minds) the good birth, potentially leaving women who use technology to conclude that they have somehow failed …

In other words, there is a fundamental ambiguity between normal as “common” and normal as “morally preferable.”

[pullquote align=”right” color=”#0e533c”]Better to be precise and kind than inadvertently vicious and shaming.[/pullquote]

When natural childbirth advocates and lactivists use the word “normal,” they mean “morally preferable” or normative:

… an ideal standard of or model, or being based on what is considered to be the normal or correct way of doing something.

The word “natural” is used in the same way, and it, too, embodies a fundamental ambiguity between natural as “the absence of technology” and natural as “a state of perfection that can only be marred by technology.” The second use is embodied in the naturalistic fallacy that undergirds so much of alternative health and quackery, the belief that because something is a certain way in nature, it ought to be that way always.

When birth activists promote natural birth or normal birth, they are using the N-words as normative and morally preferable. Natural childbirth is presented as better, safer and healthier than birth with technology. It’s not merely natural, it’s normal, too, the way that birth is supposed to be. Anyone who deviates from natural childbirth has failed her child in a fundamental way.

When lactivists promote normalizing breastfeeding they are also using an N-word to signify normative and morally preferable. Breastfeeding is routinely presented as “best” just in case calling it natural and normal did not convey that good mothers breastfeed exclusively. Anyone who deviates from breastfeeding exclusively has failed her child in a fundamental way.

Birth and breastfeeding advocates are aware that describing childbirth and breastfeeding in these ways is vicious, creating two classes of mothers, good mothers and bad mothers. They want to use these terms viciously but they don’t want to be accused of doing so. Therefore, they exploit the fundamental ambiguity to create plausible deniability. No, no, no, they don’t mean that normal birth is better; they just mean that it is the common way to give birth. No, no, no, they’re not trying to shame formula feeding mothers, they’re simply pointing out that breastfeeding is the normal and natural way to feed an infant.

We shouldn’t let them get away with it.

Words have power and birth and breastfeeding activists use the power of normal and natural to denigrate women who use technology (epidurals in particular) in birth or technology (infant formula) to nourish their babies. Then they capitalize on the ambiguity of those words to claim, with straight faces no less, that they weren’t trying to make anyone feel bad, when that was precisely what they were aiming to do.

Let’s not let them get away with it.

When used in the context of mothering, N-words are explosive and destructive, so let’s not use them. I implore people to think carefully before employing the words normal or natural to describe either childbirth or breastfeeding. We should strike the term “normalize” entirely from any discussions about mothers.

We should support unmedicated vaginal birth for those who seek it, but we should never call it normal or natural, and we should never try to normalize it.

We should support breastfeeding for those who choose it, but we should never call it normal or natural, and we should never try to normalize it.

Words have power, and those who believe they are using the N-words to signify “common” or “expected” should keep that ambiguity in mind. Otherwise, they are contributing to the vicious effort by some mothers to denigrate other mothers. Better to be precise and kind than inadvertently vicious and shaming.