An excerpt from Push Back: Guilt in the Age of Natural Parenting


Last night I sent in the final edits for my forthcoming book Push Back: Guilt in the Age of Natural Parenting. I’m posting an excerpt in celebration. The book will be published by HarperCollins on April 5, 2016.

When I was a practicing obstetrician, I spent a lot of time correcting the misinformation of natural childbirth advocacy, and comforting women who had had healthy babies but still felt guilty for not “achieving” a vaginal birth or a birth without pain relief. Though I was aware of the emotional response from my bedside visits, it took years of blogging about the subject, corresponding with mothers, and arguing with activists to appreciate the true depth, breadth, and prevalence of misinformation coming from the natural parenting movement, and how this has come to blight the experience of mothering infants for so many.

Twenty years ago, when I began writing on the web, I thought that the problem could be solved with more and better information. Most of what passes for knowledge within natural childbirth, lactivist and natural parenting communities is flat out false. Yet simply correcting that myriad of falsehoods seemed to be fruitless. I came to understand that natural childbirth, lactivism and attachment parenting actually is about privileging the process over the outcome.

Natural childbirth, lactivism and attachment parenting are highly stylized, profoundly idealized representations of parenting. How do we know that they are idealized? Primarily it’s because the scientific evidence does not support most of their central tenets. That’s not to say that natural parenting advocates don’t believe in science; they do and they invoke science a lot. However, a close examination reveals that they often subvert the scientific evidence to arrive at predetermined conclusions.

Why would anyone want to subvert the scientific evidence on childbirth, breastfeeding and attachment parenting? Because each of these ideas have morphed into businesses, complete with trade unions, lobbying groups and brilliant marketing. Simply put, misinformation is being promoted by birth and breastfeeding professionals, as well as parenting gurus, as a way to make money. These factions portray doctors as the enemy, and their primary product has become distrust of the medical profession. They created alternate worlds of internal legitimacy in the same way that creationists and anti-vaccine activists had done before them, complete with books, journals, conferences and certifications to signify “expertise.” The internet has been their greatest enabler, allowing women to “research” parenting decisions without ever leaving a massive echo chamber.

There’s far more than money at stake. Beliefs about women and their role in society undergird natural parenting. It seems to me to be more than coincidence that natural childbirth, breastfeeding and natural parenting share a variety of disturbing characteristics: all imposed an inordinate amount of work and pain on women, and all ostensibly exclude fathers and other family members, making women not merely the primary caregivers but the only acceptable caregivers a majority of the time. And by requiring intense, round the clock effort, it makes it nearly impossible for women who want or need something in addition to mothering (a job, a career, free time) to be “good” mothers. It all seems suspiciously like the classic ploy to control and judge women by the performance of their reproductive organs.

When I dove deeper, I was not surprised to find that most of these movements were created or promulgated by elderly white men. Advocates represent natural childbirth, lactivism, and attachment parenting as the ultimate expressions of parental love, combining scientific evidence with maternal devotion, feminism and respect for maternal choice. The reality is far different. It is an interesting question how these philosophies that gather under the rubric of natural parenting put forward a pro-woman agenda but in fact are quite the opposite. In this book, I will show the evolution of each of the aspects of natural parenting—natural childbirth, lactivism and attachment parenting, from their origins to the big business they are today, from a search for authentic experiences to a prescribed experience that relegates women back into old-fashioned roles prescribed by gender.

Push Back tackles the natural parenting industry from all sides, hopefully alleviating guilt so many women unnecessarily face, revealing it to readers as the damaging, sometimes dangerous construct I think it is.