Don’t breastfeed? Didn’t have an unmedicated birth? Congratulations, you’re in the majority!


Yesterday I wrote about the fact that midwifery philosophy has been notoriously unsuccessful. Despite tremendous rhetorical efforts to demonize inductions, epidurals and C-sections, the rate of all three has only increased. Breastfeeding professionals have been similarly unsuccessful. Despite aggressive promotion of exclusive, extended breastfeeding — involving both hospital and government backing — exclusive, extended breastfeeding rates are still quite low in many industrialized countries. More women try breastfeeding, it’s true, but most stop when they find it’s painful, inconvenient and, most importantly, doesn’t satisfying their babies’ hunger.

What’s going on? Despite relentless pressure on women to avoid childbirth interventions and infant formula, the vast majority of women have pushed back.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Campaigns to promote unmedicated vaginal birth and breastfeeding have largely failed except in one area: peer pressure exerted through social media. But those women are not your peers.[/pullquote]


Many women don’t believe the claimed “science” behind natural childbirth and lactivism since their own experience as well as that of their mothers, sisters and friends, contradicts it. Although epidurals, C-sections and formula are claimed to have “risks,” those purported risks are so rare that most people have never met anyone who experienced them.

Most women reject the sexist notion that their pain does not matter as much as the pain of men. If men aren’t empowered by the agony of passing a kidney stone, they reason, women aren’t empowered by the agony of childbirth.

Many women reject the traditional view, beloved of both religious fundamentalists and advocates of a “natural” lifestyle, that women are obligated to use their bodies to serve children regardless of the physical and psychic cost to themselves.

So the aggressive campaigns to promote unmedicated vaginal birth and exclusive, extended breastfeeding have largely failed except in one area: peer pressure, particularly pressure exerted through social media.

Many midwives and natural childbirth advocates routinely pathologize women who refuse to conform to their dictates. In Pushing Ecstasy: Neoliberalism, Childbirth, and the Making of Mama Economicus published in the journal Women’s Studies, Kate Rossiter explains:

…[W]hat on the surface may appear to be an ethic of care that empowers women in their choice-making ability is in fact a tactic that individuates and ultimately disempowers women …

Rossiter notes:

…[T]his discourse juxtaposes two images of the birthing mother: one wild, and one under technocratic gaze; one pure and authentic, and one living uncritically and irresponsibly within contemporary culture. Paradoxically, in order to access this wild self, the mother must work very hard to regulate herself and her surroundings in order to ensure that her ecstatic potential is realized… This is a mother who, through her diligent preparedness has optimized her natural capacity to birth … This is the mother who forgets herself in the face of her baby’s needs, and, crucially, enjoys this erasure of her non-maternal self…

It pathologizes women who refuse to go along, attempting to shame them into conforming:

This model holds no place for alternate reactions, such as ambivalence, grief, or anger. Rather, the implicit correlation is that deviation from the ideal of the ecstatic mother marks some kind of failure or pathology—suggesting that the birth circumstances were not optimal, or the mother’s hormonal system is somehow faulty, or that she herself is not a natural mother.

Women who can’t or don’t want to breastfeed are similarly pathologized.

Sunna Simmonardottir notes in Getting the Green Light: Experiences of Icelandic Mothers Struggling with Breastfeeding:

This idea that women have a ‘natural ability’ to breastfeed is culturally very strong but at the same time is counteracted with messages about the possible ‘faults’ that the women possess. They are discursively situated as both ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ at the same time, and in order to successfully breastfeed they have to rectify those unnatural faults often by going through quite technical processes, involving a range of breastfeeding aids such as breast pumps, artificial breasts and finger- or syringe feeding systems.

There is tremendous effort expended in shaming these women to force them to conform:

Should a mother exercise her own agency and decide for herself that the best thing for her would be to give up on trying to breastfeed, she runs the risk of being constructed as the villain, the selfish mother who didn’t want to inconvenience herself for the sake of her child. The biggest sin according to this cultural script of good mothering is not trying hard enough and giving up without a fight…

Social media like Facebook and Twitter can and do provide support for women who wish to pursue natural childbirth and/or exclusive, extended breastfeeding. But it often seems that they devote nearly as much effort to vicious criticism of women who don’t share their views. The tremendous number of likes, share, and approving comments may give these women the impression that they are part of the majority and may result in shame and guilt in those whom they attack.

But social media is not the real world. In the real world most women choose and enjoy epidurals, follow the advice of their obstetricians, and welcome any interventions that might assure the safety of their babies. In the real world most women use formula at least some of the time. In the real world, women who consider themselves more than the sum total of their reproductive performance are too busy working or caring for their families to waste time avidly liking and sharing posts that disparage women who make different choices.

People are swayed by what they think their peers are doing. Women who chose epidurals in labor, who requested C-sections, who couldn’t or wouldn’t breastfeed their babies often feel shame because they are the “only ones” who didn’t fulfill the script. But they aren’t the “only ones,” they are the majority and can find comfort in numbers.

Just about the only area in which natural childbirth and lactivism have been successful is in promoting peer pressure, particularly on social media. But the truth is that natural childbirth advocates and lactivists are not the peers of most women. Their peers are the majority of women who made the exact same choices they did.