Natural mothering and the technocratic model of love

Metal Wheel Concept

There are many ironies embedded within the philosophy of natural mothering.

Chief among them are the mindless embrace of mothering in nature without acknowledging the natural death toll and the fact that our ancient foremothers would have cut off their right arms for the lifesaving medical technology privileged white women ostentatiously reject in performative social media displays.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Children, like plants, are tropic. Plants grow toward the sun. Children grow toward those who love them.[/pullquote]

But in my view, having written about the subject for more than a decade, the cruelest irony is that “natural” mothering is based on the medicalization of love.

What do I mean?

Before the past century in highly industrialized societies, the bond between mother and child was understood as spontaneous and not contingent on any specific practices. Children, like plants, are tropic. Plants grow toward the sun. Children grow toward those who love them.

Natural mothering advocates, in contrast, imagine mother-infant attachment to be a fraught process constantly shadowed by the looming risk that mother and child will fail to bond. Therefore, they have medicalized it.

The Wikipedia definition of medicalization postulates two central claims:

Medicalization is the process by which human conditions and problems come to be defined and treated as medical conditions, and thus become the subject of medical study, diagnosis, prevention, or treatment…

Medicalization is studied from a sociologic perspective in terms of the role and power of professionals, patients, and corporations, and also for its implications for ordinary people whose self-identity and life decisions may depend on the prevailing concepts of health and illness.

In other words, a natural process previously understood to have no medical component comes to be defined as a medical condition to be studied and treated. And the process of medicalization transfers power from individuals to “experts.”

Natural mothering has medicalized love, a process previously understood to have no medical component. Medicalizing the mother-infant bond has empowered self-appointed experts like midwives, doulas, lactation consultants and attachment parenting gurus. With their books, courses and social media sites, they have become the arbiters and mediators of mother-child relationships.

I find the principles of the technocratic model of childbirth, described by sociologist Robbie Davis-Floyd, to be an excellent template for the technocratic model of love.

I would paraphrase David-Floyd as follows:

Despite its pretensions to scientific rigor, natural mothering ideology is less grounded in science than in its wider cultural context; it embodies the biases and beliefs about women of the society that created it. Its hegemony is founded in scientization, effected by technology, and carried out through institutions governed by paternalistic ideologies in a profit-driven economic context.

Within the technocratic model of love, midwives, doulas, lactation consultants and attachment parenting “experts” claim scientific rigor (although they lack it), proselytize through technology like the internet (though they claim to despise technology), and monetize everything that isn’t nailed to the floor.

The tenets of the technocratic model of love include:

The body as machine

In contrast to the previous view of mother-infant bonding as primarily spiritual — thereby encompassing the love between mothers and adopted children, the love of children for mothers who never breastfed them (indeed in wealthy families they may have been breastfed by others) and the fierce love between infants and other family members — natural mothering advocates have reduced it to mechanical behaviors that they claim are necessary preconditions to attachment. Natural mothering experts have insisted that unmedicated vaginal birth, breastfeeding, and continuous physical proximity are the necessary preconditions for love.

The patient as object

Natural parenting experts don’t view mothers as individuals. It seems not to cross their minds that different mothers may have different needs, desires and attachment styles. Instead, mothers are viewed as the objects to be molded by aggressive education efforts in conjunction with selling them books, courses, and accessories.

Babies, too, are viewed as objects to be acted upon, each in exactly the same way as all others. Unmedicated vaginal birth is supposed to be “best” for every baby even though when unmedicated vaginal birth was the only method of birth perinatal mortality was astronomical. Breastfeeding is supposed to be “best” for every baby, even though when breastfeeding was the only method of feeding available infant mortality was astronomical. Baby wearing and the family bed are supposed to be “best” for every baby despite the fact that generations of babies fully bonded to mothers, fathers, grandparents and hired caregivers without either.

Diagnosis and treatment from the outside in

Although natural mothering experts purportedly celebrate maternal instinct, close examination reveals that maternal instinct is only promoted to the extent that it differs with recommendations of medical professionals. In reality, it is entirely ignored when the mother’s instinct conflicts with the ideology (and profits) of natural parenting experts. Maternal request C-sections are viewed with horror by midwives and doulas; formula is viewed with horror by lactation consultants; playpens and strollers are viewed with horror by attachment parenting advocates. Natural parenting experts routinely prescribe behaviors and choices to mothers instead of trusting mothers to make good decisions by themselves.

Authority vested in experts, not in mothers

The central conceit of natural parenting is that its practitioners are recapitulating mothering in nature. But mothering in nature did not rely on books, courses and social media interactions. However books, courses and social media interactions are the only way for experts to maintain control of patients, and the expert considers HER oversight and control over birth, breastfeeding and early parenting to be mandatory.

Supervaluation of science, even non-existent “science”

Natural mothering experts believe that invocation of science enhances their authority and hides their paternalism. They’re not forcing women to forgo epidurals; science “shows” epidurals are dangerous (it does not). they’re not forcing women to breastfeed; science shows breastfeeding has massive health benefits (it does not).

Aggressive intervention with emphasis on short term goals

Is there anything more aggressive than the unsafe, unethical Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative? Is there any program more focused on irrelevant, short term goals — increasing rates of exclusive breastfeeding at discharge — at the expense of the health of both mothers and babies than the BFHI?

Expert hegemony, a profit driven system, and intolerance of other choices

That’s self-explanatory.

In truth, the ultimate irony of natural mothering is that it has come to embody everything it claimed to resent about the medicalization of birth. It is based on a technocratic model of mother-infant love rather than a spiritual model and, as such, it benefits natural mothering experts at the expense of babies and mothers.

  • seenthelight
    • Mel

      That looks awesome!

      I routinely tease my mom about how her careful adherence to the best parenting advice when we were young included positioning us to sleep face down to prevent choking on vomit, putting lots of colorful hanging objects on the inside of our cribs and letting us fly around the house in heavy metal walkers that combined the risks of head injuries with digit amputations.

      I end my joke with “I can’t wait to see how I’m risking Spawn’s life and limbs when he’s a dad!”

  • BeatriceC

    OT: Thursday and Friday I attended a symposium for Rare Disease Day that focused on the bone disease my kids have. (Link for a description of the disease: https://www.mherf.org/about-mhe ) Quite a few of the lectures were over my head, but MrC loved all of it. There were a couple very exciting things that were talked about. The most exciting thing is that there is a drug now in the first stages of human trials that aims to prevent new growths in children. What’s even more exciting is that in mouse models there’s some evidence that this drug not only prevents new growths, but it shrinks existing growths. This opens up a whole world of options for people who are no longer growing (for the most part, the exostoses stop growing when the person stops growing). If they get similar results in this trial of children, they will apply to have a trial of adult humans. The current treatment is surgery to remove exostoses that are causing significant pain and/or deformities and fix the deformities as best as possible, and then leave the rest alone. The idea that a drug could prevent the need for extensive surgery is extremely exciting. This leads us to the second exciting thing. While most of the presenters were lab scientists, one of the presenters was a clinical doctor who exclusively treats MHE patients. He disagrees with the current treatment approach, in that he doesn’t believe MHE absolutely has to be a chronic pain disease. He believes that smaller issues that are currently ignored deserve to be treated, because those issues are likely to cause long term complications like osteoarthritis down the road. He’s agreed to let my oldest send him his medical records for an evaluation and decide if there’s anything he could do that could improve his quality of life and extend the time he has in his chosen career. He’s graduating this year with his fire-rescue credentials, with the idea that he’ll only be able to work for 5-10 years before his body gives out and he’ll have to move into a desk job of some sort. Imagine facing the reality that you’ll be too disabled to work anything but a desk job by the time you’re 25, and then having a doctor come along and say “maybe we can extend that to 35”. As you can probably imagine, this makes my oldest extremely excited.

    • mabelcruet

      That sounds promising-we have a few kids in our catchment area with it, when you get a new lesion sent to the lab, you pull up their previous history you see a long, long list of previous ones from the patient being sent regularly over the years. Slowing down growth or stopping growth means no more regular admissions for surgeries, no more anaesthetic risks, less time spent with the education being disrupted by hospital stays, quite apart from reduced pain, reduced risk of fractures/deformities etc.

      • BeatriceC

        Yes, exactly. My youngest just had his 20th or so operation (I’ve lost count). Each time he goes under general they do a minimum of 2-3 different procedures to reduce the number of times he has to go under general. And still, he’s starting to have a difficult time. His wake up time is becoming delayed, and he’s developed an allergy to something we can’t figure out (hives are happening and are getting worse each time). Education disruption, etc., have all been issues he’s faced as well. He does have a major comorbidity being a former 24 week preemie, which doesn’t help anything (muscle tone issues, plus minor neuro and cardio issues further disrupting school). My oldest doesn’t have quite as severe a case, but he’s still faced a multitude of issues. He’s “only” had 10 surgeries, with some of them being multiple procedures at once, and his schooling wasn’t quite as disrupted, but it still wasn’t pleasant. The idea that future generations may not have to deal with all of this, or at least to this extent, is extremely exciting.

  • mabelcruet

    OT, but there’s a bit of discussion ongoing on twitter about midwives leaving the profession to become Doulas. Doula Maddie (‘just because you’ve had a double mastectomy and your breasts, complete with nipples, are in the path lab doesn’t mean to say you can’t breastfeed’) has suggested it’s a shame that there isn’t movement the other direction, that doulas could serve an apprenticeship to become midwives. Sounds like she’s angling for something like the USA CPM level of training-scary slippery slope.

    • momofone

      I’ve shared this before, but not long after my double mastectomy a couple of people were concerned that I would assume that breastfeeding was no longer an option for me. They assured me that I could still produce milk, and the hypothetical baby they were concerned about could access it under my arms. The magic of breastfeeding was not out of reach!

      • mabelcruet

        She’s trying to defend it but insisting that what she meant by breastfeeding was that the mother would be holding the baby against her breast (and close to her heart, natch) so even if the baby was formula-fed, she would still be held in the breast feeding position.

        • The Bofa on the Sofa

          And the part about generating milk from her armpits?

          • mabelcruet

            Given her understanding of anatomy, I suspect she has no idea of what a total mastectomy actually means. Even if a surgeon was incompetent and left the tail of the breast with active glandular tissue behind, and that tissue was sufficiently active to produce milk, how is it going to get out? Unless you have an accessory nipple in your armpit, and that accessory nipple connects up with the underlying breast ducts (which the vast majority of accessory nipples don’t, they tend to be fairly superficial skin lesions), there’s no chance of breast feeding from your armpit.

            If there was a successful case of a woman feeding her baby exclusively from axillary breast tissue having had bilateral total mastectomy, it would be written up as a case report and published. Yes, the axillary tail can produce milk, but it’s only available if the breast is intact and all the ducts still there. Extrapolating that to ‘you can still breast feed after a mastectomy because you’ve got breast tissue in your armpit’ is beyond ridiculous.

        • EmbraceYourInnerCrone

          Oh, so she means how most people, male or female, birth mother or not, hold a newborn when feeding it?

          • mabelcruet

            I think so-she’s brought in her flying monkeys to tell people how lovely and caring she is, and she would never be so hurtful and dismissive of a woman who couldn’t breast feed because she had no breasts, and she only suggested the SNS system to be helpful and now everyone is being mean to her and misunderstanding what she was saying. And she’s deleted a few so it doesn’t make much sense any more.

            I’ve never breast fed, but I thought the SNS system was a tube shoved in the baby’s mouth alongside the nipple to supplement breast feeding. So it still won’t work if you have no nipple for the baby to suckle on. I think she genuinely had no understanding of what a total mastectomy means. She probably thinks of it as just a little nubbin taken away leaving all the lovely milky goodness behind.

        • Mel

          Too bad Spawn was fed nearly exclusively in left-side lying position wedged between the arm of the couch, a Boppy and my flank or sitting upright on my lap starting at around 3 months adjusted.

          I should say “I’ve always thought Spawn and I were well-bonded, but I think our relationship would be better if he had spent more time next to my heart rather than my spleen and kidney” in a thoughtful, but wistful tone added to my standard spiel about his infancy and toddlerhood as we meet some new educational professionals in the next few months 😛

          • mabelcruet

            The baby of one of my closest friends was breast-fed but would only feed when she was held like a rugby ball, tucked up under her mum’s arm (usually the left one) curling her body round with her feet on her mum’s back. All you could see of her was the top of her head-it looked a bit odd but it worked.

            I’ve only ever fed kitten babies-rescue kitties have to be fed upright, if you feed them lying down on their back (like a human baby) they’d choke.

  • StephanieJR

    If there’s one thing that pisses me off, it’s all this bullshit about ‘bonding’. I used to call my mother’s close friend ‘Mummy Donna’ because she babysat me a lot; I would spend almost every weekend with my gran for a decade and we’re pretty damn close; my brother is ‘Uncle Teddy’ (though his name is Dave) to a little girl he has no blood relation to. Hell, my bunny is so closely bonded to me, she’ll fall asleep in my arms and dream, and we’re entirely different species.

    It’s so incredibly insulting, demanding that the mother, and only ever the mother (the father doesn’t seem to matter), must perform a special ritual in order for her and the baby to love each other. What a load of horseshit. What about adoptive families, particularly those of older children; what about surrogates, what about gay couples, what about single fathers with sole custody, what about any family that does not, in any way, suffer from the lack of these rituals. All this squawking about bonding is going to do is damage many woman’s mental health, and severely impact the early years of their children’s lives.

    Love your damn kids, and love yourself, too.

    • BeatriceC

      I have three living children, but I have at least a dozen extra kids. I somehow wound up as “community mom”. My kids bring over their friends for mom advice fairly frequently, and quite a few of them now just call or text me on their own now. Kids bond with the people who love them and show them that they care about them. That’s all. That’s the magic. Give a shit about kids. Love them. Accept them for who they are. That’s the magic.

  • AirPlant

    So the other night I was tossing and turning in bed trying to get my third trimester body comfortable enough to sleep. Every time I changed position my little baby wiggled herself so that her back was down and her face was looking up. When I realized this was happening I almost teared up because the idea of her having this little preference was so overwhelmingly sweet. It made me imagine when in a few months she will be cradled in my arms in the exact same position and it made me imagine the little wiggles my husband makes when he settles in for the night and she is already so much my little girl that it is impossible to imagine not loving her.

    Every night my husband and I lie in bed with his hand on my stomach and every time he feels a kick he kisses where he felt it and starts talking to her about how much he loves her.

    I am unsure how my future mode of childbirth and infant care made us love her this much being that she is still inside of my body but I am sure there is a perfectly logical explanation.

    • rational thinker

      I know what you mean. Most women start bonding as soon as that test comes out positive, I know I did. So I find it so ridiculous when people say “but breastfeeding encourages bonding”. No it does not.

      • AirPlant

        I am going to go ahead and assume that spending time thinking about and care taking for with your baby is what encourages bonding right? Like now that my baby can hear I spend my morning commute singing to her so that she will recognize my singing voice when she is born. It is a recommended practice all over the internet and by my doctor as an easy way to promote early bonding and provide familiarity to a baby and I happen to love singing so it is no imposition to me. Hopefully she springs forth from my body recognizing my voice and my morning lullabies are able to soothe her transition to the world but it isn’t a horse anyone should die on if music isn’t their thing.

        Modern lactivism seems to be like if not only did I choose to scold other mothers who did not choose prenatal singing as a tool for bonding but if I pointed to my years of piano and voice lessons as vital and manditory preparation for motherhood, without which my child would fail to love me. If I kept a list of all the choirs I have gotten into, the solos that I have performed and then claimed it as evidence that I had some natural propensity to motherhood and my child would have better outcomes as an adult due to the sweetness of my voice. If I started a campaign against radio and white noise machines as crutches for lazy mothers unwilling to put in the work of singing their baby to sleep.

        I sing to my baby because I want to. I probably would have without the helpful people at what to expect when you are expecting. It helps me bond but no sane person would mandate it the way we do with NCB practices.

      • Oh yes. Gender determination with ultrasound became common in Israel only when I was pregnant with my third, and last child. It was great, knowing that it wasn’t a little fish, but my daughter Naomi, swimming around inside, and we had some great antenatal conversations.

  • fiftyfifty1

    English to English translation of “bonding”:

    Warning! Warning! If you don’t___________*, you will not love your baby and your baby will not love you. And all the therapy in the world won’t be able to put the broken pieces back together again!

    * insert prescribed bonding practice here (e.g. “lie naked and wet belly to belly within 15 minutes of being born.”)

  • space_upstairs

    Technocratic domesticity is not new. 30-40 years after first wave feminism peaked, when women could vote and complete their educations and many had worked during World War II while their husbands and boyfriends fought, women were stuck at home until their youngest child was in kindergarten, and sold all kinds of fancy housekeeping products to make them feel more like they were technical experts doing what their great-grandmothers did in the 1870s when in theory they could be taking on the world. Now, 30-40 years after second wave feminism peaked, with even more technocratic education for women but hangovers of sexism in the workplace and lack of both personal and institutional support for men to be more active in domestic life, women are sold all kinds of fancy child-rearing products so they can feel better about once again being stuck at home (or tempted to go back home due to the above frustrations) until their youngest is in kindergarten (or beyond that if their CV is too out of date). We’re due for a fourth wave, since the third wave already exists, that’s more organized than the third wave and addresses all sorts of unfinished business from role flexibility for men and masculine non-binary types to addressing concerns more specific to minorities and the poor in a pragmatic way, beyond just political correctness.