Natural parenting embodies twin fears of industrial modernity: pollution and alienation

Smoke Billows from Oil Refinery Chimneys

The conceit of natural parenting is that it recapitulates the way that children were parented in nature. The reality is that the mythical past to which natural parenting advocates hark back never existed. Natural parenting is actually a thoroughly contemporary movement reflecting thoroughly contemporary fears of the modern industrialized society: pollution and alienation.

Suprisingly, the philosophy of natural parenting owes a great deal to contemporary environmentalism. A new paper in the Journal of Women’s History explores the connection around childbirth, but it extends to breastfeeding, attachment parenting and vaccine hesitancy. In Mothers’ Nature: Feminisms, Environmentalism, and Childbirth in the 1970s, Flannery Burke and Jennifer Seltz explain:

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Anti-vax is fear of the pollution of children’s bodies causing the alienation of autism [/pullquote]

In the 1970s, natural childbirth proponents paired their activism with two critiques of industrial modernity: worries about pollution, especially of infants’ and mothers’ bodies, and worries about alienation, especially of parents and children from each other.

The thalidomide tragedy of the early 1960’s highlighted that substances in the mother’s bloodstream could cross the placenta and wreak havoc on the developing baby. This observation was immediately incoporated into natural childbirth ideology:

…Suzanne Arms, author of Immaculate Deception, stressed the point even more. “How many times must it be said? Drugs get to the baby. Drugs adversely affect the baby. Drugs may permanently damage the baby.” Ina May Gaskin recalled her husband Stephen saying of their early intentional community: “If we had a platform, it was clean air, sane people, and healthy babies.” Natural meant unpolluted and healthy in the minds of many natural childbirth advocates, qualities embodied by women laboring naturally and the children they bore.

Pollution is no longer called pollution, however. Its new name is “toxins,” and fear of them is a pervasive thread in every area of natural parenting.

Similarly, breastfeeding activists have portrayed breastmilk as “pure” and formula as if it were poison. They emphasize formula’s industrialized origins by calling it “artificial baby milk” and cautioning mothers about the “dangers” of just one bottle.

The fear of alienation is also central to natural childbirth and breastfeeding advocacy, but it masquerades under a different name: bonding.

If there’s one thing that natural childbirth and breastfeeding advocates are sure of, it’s that mothers and babies are “designed” for vaginal birth and breastfeeding. Yet the same people who insist that birth and breastfeeding happen naturally insist that bonding does NOT happen naturally. It must be prodded and controlled in a series of ritualized behaviors (vaginal birth without pain relief, skin to skin contact, no formula use, baby wearing) promoted by attachment parenting advocates; otherwise children will presumably end up “detached.”

Ironically, given that attachment parenting is promoted as “natural,” the idea that maternal-infant attachment occurs naturally, that mother and child might love each other simply because they belong to each other, is rejected out of hand.

As Charlotte Faircloth notes in the essay The Problem of ‘Attachment’: the ‘Detached’ Parent in the book Parenting Culture Studies:

It hardly seems controversial to say that, today, we have a cultural concern with how ‘attached’ parents are to their children. Midwives encourage mothers to try ‘skin-to-skin’ contact with their babies to improve ‘bonding’ after childbirth, a wealth of experts advocate ‘natural’ parenting styles which encourage ‘attachment’ with infants…

Previously a mother’s love for her child had been romanticized and ascribed to inherent characteristics of women, mother love has now been medicalized, requiring participation in rituals prescribed by experts.

But there is nowhere in natural parenting more emblematic of the twin fears of pollution and alienation than anti-vaccine advocacy.

After all, what is the central claim of the contemporary anti-vaccine movement — vaccines cause autism — if not a fable of the pollution of children’s bodies by chemicals causing the ultimate alienation of children from parents?

The characteristics of the vaccines may vary (live attenuated, killed), the route of administration may vary (oral, injection), the characteristics of the diseases that they are designed to prevent may vary (everything from smallpox, to polio, to pertussis), but supposedly they all cause autism.

The purported active agent may vary. The harmful ingredient might be the vaccine itself, the preservative, a contaminant, combinations of vaccines, the list is endless. But the purported harm is always autism: particular dreaded, typically diagnosed within years of childhood vaccinations, and perceived to be on the increase.

Natural parenting is concerned not so much about children as it is with rejecting the purported ills of modern Western civilization. As Flannery and Seltz note:

Childbirth was the first step in raising a child in a less artificial world. In an article advocating co-sleeping, one author in Mothering lamented: “It is interesting that during the past 150 years . . . mother began to be replaced by the bottle, the crib, the stroller, the playpen, the pacifier, the daycare center, other natural things began to be replaced by unnatural ones. There seems to have been, and still is, a weirdly enthusiastic movement to ‘better nature’, and to find synthetic and chemical substitutes for natural originals.” Readers concurred. “I have decided to raise my child with breast milk, whole foods, and lots of love and cuddling,” wrote one mother. “I look around me and see the results of following the advice of child rearing specialists—drugs, crime, people in search of themselves and love from others. And when I see all this I figure I can’t do any worse with my methods.”

In other words, by avoiding industrial pollution of children’s bodies, natural parenting promises to avoid alienation. In contrast to what its advocates believe, natural parenting has nothing to do with historical “nature” and everything to do with contemporary angst.