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.

18 Responses to “Are natural parents 21st century Victorians?”

  1. Who?
    November 11, 2016 at 6:10 am #

    Another little one dead thanks to his parents’ obsession with the ‘natural’.

  2. Sue
    November 10, 2016 at 10:54 pm #

    Yes. One-to-one parenting is all about privilege, in any era.

    My (Southern Italian) grandmothers weren’t doing one-to-one with their string of kids – they were occupied with the household chores of a peasant society. The older kids looked after the younger kids. As soon as the kids finished primary school, they were out with the goats, helping in the household or sometimes working for the wealthy families of the town.

    The privileged, in any era, have either technology, or home help with household tasks and childcare, and/or can limit their fertility.

    Try doing one-to-one parenting if you have to grow your own food, make your own bread, weave your own cloth to make your own clothing, and raise a large family.

    • EmbraceYourInnerCrone
      November 11, 2016 at 1:32 pm #

      My Breton french grandmother was very similar. She was one of the oldest of 14 children. She spent her early tween years, ages 7 through 13 taking care of younger siblings and helping with the farm work. At 13 she started working as a maid. At 19 she left for the U.S. as her other options were early marriage and childbearing or the Church(be a nun). I have a photo of her with her family at about age 17. Her parents are about 50 and look ancient…

  3. Marylynn
    November 10, 2016 at 10:25 pm #

    My parents were in fairly gender-specific roles. My mother nursed me four months and then switched me to cow’s milk and solids. I played with Barbies and I loved the color pink.

    And I so don’t care what people think. Why do people care so much about others’ opinions of them? I’m 40. I dress like, for lack of a better word, a tomboy. I adopted my son, so I never nursed him. I’m a single parent. I never co-slept, my son was in a separate room, and he had a baby monitor on him. I sleep-trained him when he was 5 weeks old, with the help of my mother. He ate solids at 4 months old and he couldn’t sleep any other way but on his stomach.

    When people ask why I didn’t breastfeed, I get a kick out of telling them that it was because I didn’t feel like it. I tell them my son slept 12 hour nights at 12 weeks and I was cool with that. He’s a champion sleeper. He goes to daycare. I work. And I put him to bed at 7:45 so I can get some time to unwind (and so he’s not crabby).

    This worked for me and for him. My son is bonded to me. I am to him. We love each other.

    Whatever works for you and your kid, do it. I wish moms would take the pressure off themselves to be better and more martyrish and suffer more for their kids so they can compete with someone else doing the same.

    I wish women would bring formula to the hospitals with them, look the LC in the eye and say, “Yeah, my kid’s hungry. I’m giving him Enfamil. Please leave me alone before I squirt my colostrum in your eye.” If they’re out on a park bench, I wish they’d take that bottle of formula and give it to their child without being apologetic. I wish if they’d turn to anyone who asked, “Can I ask why you’re not breastfeeding,” and say, “Um, no. You can’t. Please stop stalking me in the Target formula aisle before I chuck this can at your head.”

    Be proud of your not-popular choices (or non-choices, just life turns). It confuses people.

    • Burgundy
      November 11, 2016 at 1:12 am #

      Do you need to bring formula to the hospital? I gave birth to my daughter at a baby friendly hospital 4 years ago. I asked for formula samples and the nurses gave me 2 big bags from 2 different companies (6 sample cans total). The words must got out or I was the only mom that ask for it. They gave me another bag when I checked out.

      • Marylynn
        November 11, 2016 at 7:44 am #

        I’m not sure. I brought some because my son’s birth mother suggested I do. I was, however, given samples and those little pre-mixed formula bottles. I am not sure if that was because I adopted or if they would give those to anyone.

        I wonder if they would give them to people who had the ability to nurse but didn’t want to.

        • cookiebaker
          November 11, 2016 at 10:18 am #

          Out of curiosity, how did you manage powdered formula in the hospital? I’d breastfed in the hospital, but if I have another, I want to FF from the start. Our hospital has the ready-to-feed stuff, but my last 2 kids did better on the generic powder. At home I boil filtered water, then cool to room temperature before mixing with formula. Did you take water to the hospital, too?

          • Heidi
            November 11, 2016 at 10:31 am #

            I know I’m not the OP but maybe you could ask they bring you disposable bottles. I would think they’d have them in stock, especially for women who need to pump in the NICU. They are standard sized and they fit with those standard sized disposable nipples the hospital uses. I’m sure they have access to sterile water but probably wouldn’t hurt to get a jug of water and bring it.

          • Marylynn
            November 11, 2016 at 9:13 pm #

            I’ve never done anything but just use hot tap water in bottles I washed out with soap and water. My doctor told me we did not need to sterilize anything. My son never had any issues with it and he’s now 3 years old. 😀

          • Maud Pie
            November 11, 2016 at 10:01 pm #

            I used a bottled water called Nursery Water. It’s purified water with flouride. You could bring a bottle with you if you want to mix powdered formula in the hospital. I never sterilized formula and never had any problems with it.

  4. Box of Salt
    November 10, 2016 at 3:43 pm #

    I am raising two children, one of each gender, for just over a decade now.. Apologies in advance for formatting issue due to copying from Word.

    Last night I realized that I have raised my daughter in a color blind world, but one that she already realizes is gender biased against her.

    My post election playlist included Aerosmith’s “Living on the Edge” for the line “if you can judge a wise man by the color of skin . . . ”

    My daughter didn’t get why this was an issue. She viewed a YouTube Trump Grinch parody which referenced the KKK. She had no idea what that was. Yeah, I explained it.

    But she lives in a world where she knows she can make 70 cents to her brother’s dollar, and girls don’t get to play Major League Baseball.

    I feel as though we have failed my daughter’s generation. We’ve allowed the biological essentialists to assume the “feminist” label, while being complacent about the small gains we’ve made in the workplace. We’ve been manipulated into “Mommy wars” over pain relief during labor and breast vs formula.

    This has to stop.

    Our daughters deserve better. And our sons deserve better – they deserve partners in life who can function with self assurance and strive for themselves and their families.

    The world will be a better place when we acknowledge that what you do matters more than your biology.

    • J.B.
      November 11, 2016 at 8:00 am #

      If you’ve read nurtureshock it’s not really true that kids are colorblind. There are differences in our society that kids pick up on, so you have to consciously talk about them and work on making them better.

      There is work to do and intersectionality needs to be part of it.

      Over 50 percent of white women voted for Trump, because that part of the tribe or set of policies meant more to them than his awfulness towards women. This sucks. We can do better.

      • EmbraceYourInnerCrone
        November 11, 2016 at 1:39 pm #

        I loved that blogpost when she first put it up and still send it to people. I have to print it out…

  5. fiftyfifty1
    November 10, 2016 at 12:58 pm #

    “conspicuous physical fitness’
    This phrase describes it well. The fitness craze is all about appearances. People will claim that it is just about being healthy and strong but that’s not the case. The muscles can’t just be strong, they need to be “defined” and “toned”. It matters not at all that a 6 pack or defined triceps are not correlated with health or longevity.

    • Maud Pie
      November 10, 2016 at 1:18 pm #

      Fitness has become a religion, in which the adherence to rituals of exercise matter more than the benefits. Some extreme regimens are pretty much equivalent to self-flagellation. Food is a matter of morality, in which overindulgence is literally classified as sin, and certain foods are designated forbidden.

      • Roadstergal
        November 11, 2016 at 11:34 am #

        I wish I could upvote this more than once. That’s so completely accurate.

    • Mishimoo
      November 10, 2016 at 5:33 pm #

      Exactly! My untoned, fatigued body can walk further and faster than some guys I know who basically live at the gym, simply because they focus on appearances instead of functional fitness.

    • Ayr
      November 10, 2016 at 7:54 pm #

      Couldn’t agree more! A body can be strong, but that doesn’t mean it is healthy.

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