Why have we allowed the Maternal Guilt Industry to blight new motherhood?

Bad Peach

Becoming a mother is an experience like no other.

As Alexandra Sacks, MD wrote in The New York Times:

The process of becoming a mother, which anthropologists call “matrescence,” has been largely unexplored in the medical community. Instead of focusing on the woman’s identity transition, more research is focused on how the baby turns out. But a woman’s story, in addition to how her psychology impacts her parenting, is important to examine, too…

The process is joyful, but the joy is not unalloyed. In addition to welcoming a beloved new child, women giving birth for the first time are experiencing a change in identity, a sudden weight of tremendous responsibility, the reality of motherhood vs. the fantasy, and possible ambivalence at the change.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Natural childbirth, breastfeeding and attachment parenting aren’t merely unnecessary; they have nothing to do with mother-infant bonding at all.[/pullquote]

In other words, even in the best and easiest cases, matrescence is a fraught process. So why have we allowed the Maternal Guilt Industry to make it harder by promoting the holy trinity of maternal suffering: pain, fear and anguish?

What is the Maternal Guilt Industry?

As I wrote last week, the Maternal Guilt Industry encompasses the professional and lay advocates of natural childbirth, lactivism and attachment parenting. The bedrock principle of the Maternal Guilt Industry is this: children’s wellbeing can only be ensured by mothers’ suffering.

It starts with the well known imperative to endure the agonizing pain of labor and not dare to abolish it with an epidural. The imperative to embrace suffering continues with the extraordinary pressure to breastfeed exclusively. It is reinforced by attachment parenting, which recommends that a mother erase her identity and limit herself to continuous physical proximity to her child. And it is made possible by the guilt and shame heaped on women who refuse to comply.

As Dr. Sacks writes:

There’s also the ideal mother in a woman’s mind. She’s always cheerful and happy, and always puts her child’s needs first. She has few needs of her own. She doesn’t make decisions that she regrets. Most women compare themselves to that mother, but they never measure up because she’s a fantasy. Some women think that “good enough” (a phrase coined by the pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott) is not acceptable, because it sounds like settling. But striving for perfection sets women up to feel shame and guilt.

In my view, the Maternal Guilt Industry sets women up to feel guilt and shame in order to push sales of their products and services.

As Chavi Eve Karkovsky, MD wrote in a fantastic piece for Slate entitled Sorry You Were Tricked Into a C-Section; What disapproving friends don’t understand about cesarean births:

You’d think any woman who has recently had major abdominal surgery and has a newborn to care for would have enough to deal with, but too often there’s more. This is what I see a fair amount of the time: A woman who has had a cesarean birth gets comments from her friends—online friends, IRL friends—mostly congratulations, but also messages of regret. Coming from everywhere are intimations that the surgery wasn’t warranted, suggestions that something underhanded occurred. Her friends and relatives point out that the cesarean birth rate in this country is too high. It can’t be the case that all of those surgeries are necessary.

So her friends and relatives tell her, outright or through subtext, that she must have been snookered. She was fooled and then underwent some shady butchery. Perhaps the fate of her child was held hostage: “Something might happen to the baby,” she was told, and under these manipulations, she allowed herself to be cut. But, her friends say, it wasn’t right.

That’s the Maternal Guilt Industry, natural childbirth branch, at work. But when it comes to guilt and shame, the natural childbirth branch has nothing on the lactivism branch. The Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative, which is not baby friendly and is downright mother hostile, grossly exaggerates the benefits of breastfeeding and ignores the risks in order to shame women into breastfeeding.

The central premise of the attachment parenting branch, that maternal infant bonding is fragile, uncertain and contingent on following the admonitions of the natural childbirth and breastfeeding branches, completes the trifecta of pain and fear with the anguish that new mothers have ruined their babies before they are even a week old.

Why have we allowed the Maternal Guilt Industry to blight new motherhood?

It’s certainly not because we believe in their medical or psychological claims. Unmedicated vaginal birth has no benefit for babies and substantial risk of injury and death. The benefits of breastfeeding in industrialized countries are so trivial as to be meaningless (a few less colds and episodes of diarrheal illness across the entire population of infants in their first year). And maternal infant bonding is not uncertain and contingent; it happens spontaneously in every situation except severe abuse and neglect (and bonding often takes place even then).

We’ve allowed it to happen because doctors have been too busy taking care of people to worry about the aggressive tactics the Maternal Guilt Industry uses to promote itself.

We’ve allowed the Maternal Guilt Industry to frame the issues and made only half-hearted efforts to debunk their nonsensical claims.

We’ve allowed the Maternal Guilt Industry to portray their products and services as “feminist” when they are the opposite: sexist, retrograde and aimed at controlling women, not increasing their freedom.

We’ve allowed natural childbirth charlatans (most doulas and childbirth educators) into hospitals and let them spread the poison that eats away at the self-esteem of new mothers.

We’ve committed the unpardonable sin of letting a private organization, the Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative, have free reign inside a hospital. To my knowledge, no other private organization has been allowed to do so for the obvious reason that private organizations are committed to what benefits them, not what benefits patients.

We’ve allowed attachment parenting gurus to proclaim their beliefs, contradicted by scientific evidence, without attempting to publicly debunk them.

In short, we’ve repeated the same mistakes with the Maternal Guilt Industry that we committed with the Anti-Vax Industry and women and children are suffering pain, fear and anguish as a result.

New motherhood is hard enough; we should not allow the Maternal Guilt Industry to make it harder.

It’s time to force the Lamaze certified childbirth educators out of hospitals and replace them with science based childbirth educators. The Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative should be ended immediately; it causes far more harm than good since the benefits of breastfeeding are trivial. Most importantly, we should spend time educating women about the actual scientific evidence about mother-infant bonding and emphasize in the strongest possible terms that there are many, many ways to be a good mother and that natural childbirth, breastfeeding and attachment parenting aren’t merely unnecessary; they have nothing to do with mother-infant bonding at all!