Natural mothering, intuition and the specter of the “bad other mother”


Women’s Studies Prof. Chris Bobel’s book, The Paradox of Natural Mothering, is seventeen years old but reads as if it were written yesterday.

In Bobel’s view, natural mothering isn’t just a paradox, it is a plethora of paradoxes. Promoted as radical simplicity, parenting just like our foremothers and offering feminist empowerment, it is in many respects the complete opposite. It is a form of consumerism, confirms traditional misogynistic gender roles, and reflects and reinforces privilege.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]The truth is that every caring mother follows her own intuition and does what feels right to her.[/pullquote]

Bobel seeks to understand not merely why advocates of natural mothering make the choices they do but how they perceive the choices they’ve made. Her assessment is spot-on:

…[N]atural mothers profess to operate in a realm virtually untouched by social influence. Their ideas, supposedly rooted in nature and fostered by their waxing self-confidence, are not the products of culture, but the products of nature. Natural mothering, then, is an organic experience. The experience of natural mothering is available to any woman who sheds her trust of others and taps into her trust in nature, a trust realized when she begins to trust herself…

But when Bobel asked natural mothers how they knew which mothering practices to choose, they repeatedly invoked intuition. They didn’t “know” what to do; they felt it.

It is clear that the reasons for natural mothering are often literally beyond reason. Rather than being rooted in an epistemology derived from the intellect, this type of “knowing” is intuitive, even instinctual and therefore defies explanation … Decisions are not ultimately based on thinking, but on feeling. Choosing a family bed, child-led weaning, or home birth is not based on reading a good book or even hearing a compelling argument, although those experiences often name dearly held beliefs that inform these decisions… For natural mothers, feeling both prefigures and constitutes her alternativity.

And that leads to yet another paradox, if decisions are made because they feel right to them, isn’t it equally likely that women who make choices of which they disapprove are doing so because it feels right to them?

Absolutely not! Women who make different choices are understood to be “bad other mothers.” The ideology of natural mothering [for it is an ideology, not a product of nature] has inoculated its advocates against the possibility of respecting the different choices of other mothers.

This mother … makes few conscious choices. Rather, she “goes with the flow” of the mainstream, seldom questioning the conventional wisdom that dictates so much of parenting practice. This mother is neither evil nor malicious, the natural mothers tell me; she is simply ignorant – duped by a powerful, child-hostile, expert-and institution-dependent culture.

You can identify her by the “terrible” choices she makes.

The “bad other mother” has her babies by planned cesarean section. She bottle-feeds because she does not want to be bothered by breastfeeding. She feeds her children hotdogs and potato chips for lunch because it is quick and easy. When her children complain of an car infection, she demands antibiotics but cannot understand why her children are chronically ill. She uses the television as an electronic babysitter. But perhaps the most common characterization zation of the “bad other mother” is the woman who insists that she must work, but really does so only “to support her addiction to materialism and careerism,” as one mother said.

The children of the “bad other mother” are imagined to be suffering.

Stories … were regularly invoked to prove the point that others choose wrongly. And their mistaken choices are evidenced by their harried, “miserable” lives. The natural mothers pride themselves on steering clear of the rushed life, the money-and status-driven life, ultimately, the unexamined life. The natural mothers tell me that they have risen above this fray and are never, ever going back.

The irony is that while they are busily criticizing women for copying ideas that are socially constructed, they fail to see that their own conception of good mothering is also socially constructed. Their choices are no more “free” than those of the bad other mothers they imagine as trapped by the conventions of contemporary society.

Whether the mothers are controlled by men or religion or some conception of nature, they are still controlled. Again and again, the natural mothers told me that they “just knew” that natural mothering was right; they could not mother in any other way and live with themselves… I argue that constructing structing a lifestyle on the basis of a body-derived feeling that can neither be explained nor denied is the action not of an agent, but of an individual who is dutifully following a script. In this case the script was written by biologically determinist and historically gendered ideas about women, mothers, and families.

To paraphrase Bobel, scratch the surface of a natural mothering advocate’s account of her brave refusal to follow the contemporary crowd and you will find a woman submissively following the dictates of her great-grandmother’s crowd.

Is that a bad thing?


Because the truth is that there is NOT and there NEVER was a one-size-fits-all, best way to mother children. There is only each loving mother struggling to give each individual child what she feels that child needs.

The truth is that EVERY caring mother follows her own intuition and does what feels right to her.

The mother who chooses to have a homebirth is not more thoughtful than the mother who choose hospital birth; she’s just following an older social convention. The mother who chooses to breastfeed is not more caring than the mother who chooses to formula feed; she’s just making a different, equally healthy choice. The mother who “wears” her baby is not a better mother than the mother who uses a stroller; she’s just opting for a different form of convenience.

Unfortunately, natural mothering advocates have been taught to be contemptuous of women who make different parenting choices. They’ve been instructed that the only choices that are legitimate, authentic and worthy of respect are their own choices. And they’ve been encouraged to believe that they are better than other mothers.

The ugly desire to divide the world into us vs. them is not defiance of contemporary social convention, it is adherence to one of the oldest, ugliest forms of social conventions there it: the compulsion to privilege one’s own group by denigrating another.