Natural mothering and the 3 P’s: purchasing, patriarchy and privilege

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Yesterday I wrote about the tendency of anti-vax mothers to view themselves as heroes. Though they view themselves as rebelling against “the system,” the truth is that they are merely submitting to a different system, characterized by deeply valued fantasies including the illusion of control of the health of their children and the radical uniqueness of their children, almost always in conjunction with ignorance of science, medicine and statistics.

While researching for that post I came across a fascinating book, The Paradox of Natural Mothering By Chris Bobel, an associate professor of Women’s Studies. In Bobel’s view, natural mothering isn’t just a paradox, it is a plethora of paradoxes:

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Though natural mothers imagine themselves as transgressive advocates for social change, in reality they are both privileged and self-absorbed.[/pullquote]

It is a movement of radical simplicity that promotes rabid consumerism … albeit for non-traditional products.

It venerates a highly romanticized “natural” form of parenting that not only was never practiced by our foremothers, but is thoroughly modern.

It stresses feminist empowerment through total submission to a traditionally gendered division of labor.

It isn’t so much a paradox as it is an oxymoron.

Natural mothering may resist certain capitalist and technological prescriptions for family life, but it does not resist essentialized, even romanticized, conceptions of women that manifest themselves in a rigid sexual division of labor.

In truth, natural mothering reflects the three P’s: purchasing, patriarchy and privilege.

Purchasing

Bobel notes:

For many of the natural mothers, consumerism is a key feature of what they regard as mainstream culture. Typically, natural mothers perceive themselves as fervent critics of American consumption practices. They assert that every individual must make a pledge to live simply if the planet and its inhabitants are to survive. Moreover, consumerism sustains the capitalist system, which is increasingly dependent on mothers who work outside the home. When a mother refuses to “buy into” the notion that her worth is established by a paycheck or a job title, she performs an act of resistance. Furthermore, when she is home, she is “freed up” to construct a lifestyle less dependent on the goods and services designed to assist overly busy people who do not have time to cook, sew, garden, and build.

The irony is that there is virtually no aspect of natural mothering that does not require the purchase of expensive products and services. As sociologist Norah MacKendrick explains in her paper More Work for Mother; Chemical Body Burdens as a Maternal Responsibility:

The ideology of intensive mothering infuses spaces of consumption by urging mothers to buy with the best interests of the child in mind. Consumption is therefore entangled with other routine activities that parents — and mothers in particular — view as integral to securing a child’s future outcomes. Indeed, women’s transition to motherhood is marked by the consumption of specific material goods…

Eggs must be cage-free, clothes must be unbleached cotton and homeopathic treatments must be devoid of GMO’s. And all of it must be organic and therefore quite expensive. Natural childbirth requires a midwife, doula and rented inflatable tub, not to mention books and courses. Breastfeeding requires a lactation consultant, lactation cookies, herbal supplements and specialized clothing designed for ease in breastfeeding. The list of products that are required for radical simplicity is quite long and constantly growing.

It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that natural mothering, touted as a rejection of contemporary consumer culture, is merely a niche form of the very same consumer culture that is purportedly being rejected. In other words, just as the women who feed their children McDonald’s take out, let them play with plastic toys, and allow them to watch TV are obviously responding to rampant consumerism, natural mothering advocates who hire doulas, treat everything with homeopathic remedies, and wear their babies in slings are unwittingly responding to the exact same consumerism they claim to deplore, carefully curated to appeal specifically to them.

Patriarchy

As Bobel explains in the section Putting Family First and Mom Last: Natural Mothering and Accommodating Patriarchy, natural mothering requires an almost complete capitulation to the misogyny of the patriarchy:

…[N]atural mothers do not resist patriarchal constructions of motherhood. While they make the fairly radical claim that female productivity must be ascribed social value, they do not resist the most fundamental assumptions about what it means to he a woman in the contemporary age. Natural mothering, rooted in biologically determinist understandings of gender, reifies a male-centered view of role-bound women. The “natural” in natural mothering may liberate mothers from a mechanized and commodified experience of their maternity, but it reproduces a gendered experience that subordinates their needs to those of child and husband and models that experience for their children…

Natural mothering, then, adapts to patriarchal notions about women and men, including … the preeminence of biology as shaper of human destiny. It accepts a standard that rationalizes women’s inferior social position…

Women are taught to seek “feminist” empowerment through submission to traditional gender norms.

Privilege

Privilege is a sine qua non of natural mothering and not merely the economic privilege that allows natural mothers to purchase expensive specialty products. One must have access to a highly technological lifestyle in order to give meaning to rejecting it. That’s why unmedicated vaginal birth is an “achievement” for a suburban white women, but not for a woman of color living in an African village without access to epidurals.

Moreover:

Natural mothers … enjoy a privileged position in which their alternative lifestyle is possible. That is, it is because they enjoy a secure economic status, solidified by their racial, educational, and class status, that they can afford to take the social risks involved in nonmainstream practices. In this sense, their privilege serves as a sort of safety net, protecting them from a nasty fall should they, for instance, he challenged for nursing their toddler in a public place or refusing conventional medical treatment for an illness. Being white and middle-class, they are less likely to come under attack. A poor woman of color spotted breastfeeding an older child could risk censure and certainly judgment. A mother receiving state benefits is required to vaccinate her children; waiving vaccinations is not an option. An immigrant woman known to use herbal remedies to treat illness risks a scolding by her family physician.

Though natural mothers imagine themselves as transgressive advocates for social change, in reality they are both privileged and self-absorbed.

The most striking thing about the paradigm of natural mothering as a politicized lifestyle is the specific way in which it is realized. Rather than taking to the streets, running for local office, or dedicating their lives to grassroots community organizing, these women strive to effect social change through the day-to-day practice of mothering outside the mainstream.

But they are not effecting social change, they are reifying their own privilege and passing it on to their children to the exclusion of other children.

Natural mothering — promoted as radical simplicity, parenting just like our foremothers and offering feminist empowerment — is in fact the complete opposite. It is a form of consumerism, confirms traditional misogynistic gender roles, and reflects and reinforces privilege.

  • space_upstairs

    Mere consumerism is not the only reason for a woman or mother to work. Although consumer industries may have been what made the world this way (or what, more realistically, drove women with spouses and kids *back* to work between the family farm/workshop era and today), women working even when they have spouses and kids is also a practical matter for getting basic needs met. Relationships fail, spouses get fired or quit their jobs, not all straight men have higher earning potential than all straight women who might love them yet can still be excellent husbands and fathers, and someone has to pay the rent or mortgage and make sure there’s enough food on the table. (In my case, the third scenario because I chose to marry a great guy with less socioeconomic privilege than myself, he largely takes care of the food while the mortgage is my domain, and both our food and shelter could be considered mid-market. We’re not both working to try to buy the fanciest stuff, but just to be able to save or invest a little, also a good idea in an unstable economy. Also to have a more varied life than just the home and a hobby or two.) Those who claim to be rejecting consumerism by not working outside the home are also ignoring the broader economic reality…hence the privilege issue.

  • RudyTooty

    “…natural mothering, … is merely a niche form of the very same consumer culture that
    is purportedly being rejected.”

    YES

  • Zen
    • RudyTooty

      Cognitive dissonance.

    • RudyTooty

      It might be worth responding to, but it will be exhausting.

      A lot of mis-truths, half-truths and delusion to untangle.

  • Lisa

    I don’t know why men put up with child-worshiping attachment parenting wives! How do you hope to maintain a marriage when the kid is a year old and still constantly “on” the mother in some way. Any intelligent husband will support his wife in NORMAL breastfeeding, but the hyper-focus on the child of A.P. has to be ruinous to a marriage.

    • Occasionally it is. I know two women whose husbands couldn’t put up with it and their marriages ended in divorce.

    • sour_sadie

      I would say 50% of those men end up cheating on their wives.

  • Lisa

    Amy please, please, please analyze Meghan Markle’s bump cradeling!

    • mabelcruet

      There was a moronic comment I read online somewhere from some woman who was described as a hypnobirth specialist. She claims that the baby would be aware of her mother’s embrace (cradling the bump) and this would strengthen the maternal bond and make the baby feel protected, especially in crowds, which is why women cradle their bump in public-they are practicing defensive mothering.

      Aye, right…

      • AirPlant

        So I am 15 weeks pregnant and my bump is just beginning to form.

        I do cradle it, but that is because it is freaking weird that my body is changing and it is a compulsion to touch it like picking a scab. I assume as things progress I will continue finding it bizarre particularly with the presumed addition of baby kicks.

        I am not sure why my scientific interest in my changing body is somehow supposed to indicate anything along the lines of these naturalistic fan fictions.

        • LaMont

          See, AirPlant, you’re understanding this all wrong! A pregnancy isn’t a medical condition that changes a person’s body – it’s a spiritual existence of another human being whose soul was known by god since the start of time! /s

          • AirPlant

            Fifteen weeks in and already failing as a mother.

        • mabelcruet

          I’ve never been pregnant, but my older sister used to cradle her bumps (x3) with her hands shoved down her maternity leggings-she has Reynauds and always had cold hands, but the bump radiated heat better than a hot water bottle!

          • AirPlant

            I like to poke at it. The last few days if I poke lucky I can feel little flutterings like I have trapped my fetus and she is frantically trying to get away. I’m sure its fine right?

        • guest

          I couldn’t leave my bump alone either, because it was all so fascinating/odd. Also, as I got further along, it was nice to hold it up sometimes to take pressure off my back.

      • MaineJen

        I used to touch my bump just to feel the baby kick, because I thought it was freakin cool! More commonly, instead of cradling it, I would find myself swaying from side to side when standing as though rocking a baby (which I suppose I was).

      • swbarnes2

        FWIW as best I can remember, I sometimes would rest my hands on top of my bump, but I never put them below. But I had a small bump, so I was never really tempted to support its weight with my hands. (smallish baby came early)

      • AnnaPDE

        Yeah sure. It’s so the baby doesn’t feel scared of the surroundings they can’t see. And not because the damn bump is pretty sensitive, especially that sticking-out belly button. Or because it’s, well, a bit uncomfortable at times.
        Plus the already-mentioned fascinated feeling/patting/picking thing…
        No no no. Has to be telepathy.

        • Kelly

          Mine hurt so badly at the end so I would cradle or massage it to make it feel better. I used to massage my kid’s knee out of my side too because it hurt so much.

      • Or, you know, maybe she’s just feeling protective of her body because it’s dimensions have changed almost entirely in one way and that’s how you wind up walking into things you thought you weren’t that close to.

        • MaineJen

          I work in a lab and I measured my pregnancy by how close I could get to the microscope 🙂

        • mabelcruet

          I wasn’t criticising women who cradle their bumps, I was saying that to claim the baby in utero is feeling anxious or worried and the touch of his mother’s hands on the bump would calm him down was rather far fetched.

          • And I wasn’t criticizing you. I was adding another reason other than the malarky in the news.

  • Mel

    There’s also an ableist theme within natural mothering.

    Like…one of the implied promises is that if you do everything right you will not have a kid with a disability – or at least a disability that you can’t cure using herbs. *rolls eyes*

    It’s a little clearer when you’re a parent of a kid who had a rough start like Spawn. Plenty of people are understandably interested in how he showed up 26 weeks early – but there is an almost frantic edge to the questions from natural parenting folks to figure out what I did wrong so they could avoid it.

    I try not to mess with their minds too much – but I’m grateful for modern medicine since it’s given me a sweet toddler boy to raise.

    • demodocus

      Happy birthday season to Spawn!

      They really don’t get it, do they. There’s nothing I -did- to keep my own spawn to term, just plain luck. Good in my case, complicated in yours. And there’s no guarantee that if there’s ever a Spawn2, and you do everything just the same, Spawn2 may be carried to term.

    • rational thinker

      I cant even remember how many of those people told me that if I would just give my very autistic daughter cod liver oil every night she will magically start talking within a week. She is partially verbal now but that was from years of speech and aba therapy not a magic pill.

    • Hannah83

      I went into severe preterm labor with my oldest at 28 weeks, though I had done everything as “right” as possible. Two rounds of steroids, 7 weeks on strict bed rest and several hospital stays later, baby showed up long after his due date. For subsequent pregnancies, I followed the basics (no alcohol, no raw eggs and that stuff) and they turned out just fine. I was incredibly scared though and often wished it would be possible to return to the comfortable state of control illusion.

    • PeggySue

      There’s ableism in hospice too, or maybe more specifically “What caused this so I can prevent it in myself?” Remember admitting a young patient with a GBM to the acute care unit, went up to the front desk and the patient’s nurse was asking the doctor what caused GBM. I muttered “crap for luck” under my breath and the doc agreed.

      • The Bofa on the Sofa

        I’ve said it before, there is always the question of :why does it matter what caused it?”

        For example, in the case, it didn’t matter if the patient got it from deliberately jumping into a swimming pool full of GBM-causing germs, the treatment is going to be what it is.

  • Cartman36

    Dang it Dr. Amy. Now I have to go buy Dr. Bobel’s book because you peeked my interest. Maybe I can convince my library to buy it.

    Great article!

  • Cristina

    I was thinking something similar yesterday. My mom has Mormon neighbours and, not being Mormon, I don’t know what all that entails, but they heartily embrace traditional gender roles and more … traditional values? Making their own clothing and having a huge veggie garden with chickens running around. In a lot of ways, they are living a natural parenting guru’s dream. The major difference, I would think, is that they probably don’t have social media. They’re too busy living that life to brag about it on Facebook. Oh, she also had her babies in the hospital, so I guess they’re not quite “natural” enough.