Are natural parents 21st century Victorians?

Old family photos laid out on wooden background

Natural parenting is a backlash to women’s emancipation.

Grantly Dick-Read was painfully honest that he created the philosophy of natural childbirth as a way to keep women at home; only there could they find true happiness by fulfilling their biologic destiny, and then they would stop agitating for political, legal and economic equality.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Natural parenting promotes the Victorian ideal of women’s proper place … in the home.[/pullquote]

La Leche League and the lactivist movement were founded for similar reasons. Their message that breastfeeding is obligatory because Nature intended for women to breastfed is a reflection of their belief that staying home is obligatory because God intended for women to stay home.

Attachment parenting purports to reflect the science of attachment, but is the exact opposite of what we know about infant attachment. The reality is that attachment parenting reflects the Bill and Martha Sears fundamentalist Christian beliefs about traditional gender roles.

And, of course, natural parenting is always more work for mother. In a society where women can no longer be forced to stay home with small children, natural parenting is the perfect stealth vehicle for manipulating women into believing they must stay home. While ostensibly promoting the wellbeing of infants and small children, it’s really about weighing down mothering with so much work and so much moralizing that a “good mother” can’t possibly do anything but mother.

In other words, natural parenting promotes the Victorian ideal of women’s proper place … in the home.

Victorian ideals were a display of privilege; only families with wealth could afford to allow a mother to stay home. Similarly, modern natural parenting is also a display of privilege.

I’m not the only person to have realized this. In a fascinating piece entitled Twenty-First Century Victorians, Jason Tebbe explains:

The nineteenth-century bourgeoisie used morality to assert class dominance — something elites still do today.


Although the nineteenth-century upper middle class was not nearly as prudish and stern as we imagine, it did adhere to strict behavioral codes. These normative codes reflected the period’s shifting class structure and the ascendant bourgeoisie’s desire to assert its moral superiority …

For this dedication to pay off, however, these enriched Victorians had to display it, making their difference from both the wealthier and the poorer obvious to all.

Today the display of privilege involves conspicuous physical fitness, eating overpriced organic food, getting your child into a good college and natural parenting.

Child-rearing practices get more onerous with each passing year, demanding that parents exercise extreme discipline and self-denial…

Mothers must breast-feed for an extended period, provide only organic food to their children, and keep screen time to nil. Slip-ups indicate failure. This represents perhaps the clearest link between Victorian values then and now: both restrict women and reinforce gender hierarchy.

It’s all about displaying privilege.

It is hardly coincidental that these new expectations require money and time. A working mother who has to juggle multiple service-sector jobs will find it much harder to pump breast milk at work than a woman in an office job. (Not to mention the disparity in parental leave between white- and blue-collar workers.)

And, of course, asserting moral superiority:

The moralistic imperatives now attached to breast-feeding allow working-class women — who are less likely to breast-feed — to be judged moral failures…


Today’s upper middle class maintains the fiction of a meritocratic society, just as the Victorians did. This story allows them to shore up their economic position behind the backs of workers, who are taught that their health problems and dismal career prospects represent individual faults, not systemic dysfunction.

Of course, exercising, eating organic food, and pushing children to use their spare time usefully are not inherently bad things. However, they become markers of bourgeois values when they are marshaled to assert one class’s moral superiority over another and to justify social inequality. It was just as obnoxious in the nineteenth century as it is today.

Natural parenting is simultaneously a display of Victorian sexism (relegating women to the home) and privilege since it implicitly requires marriage and a partner who earns enough to support the natural parenting lifestyle.

That is not a coincidence. Natural parenting is not about children’s needs, it’s about parents striving to display the Victorian virtues of privilege: forcing women back into the home and the sense of moral superiority that comes with it.