Combative mothering: natural mothering normalizes constant competition among mothers


Divide and conquer!

What better way to subjugate women than to have them fight with each other about who is the better mother? Not only will it keep them too preoccupied to challenge misogyny, it is self-perpetuating. Shame one woman and she might temporarily be unable to fight back; teach women to shame each other and you’ll never have to worry about controlling them again.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Shame one woman and she might temporarily be unable to fight back; teach women to shame each other and you’ll never have to worry about controlling them again.[/pullquote]

I’ve written extensively about problems with the ideology of natural mothering.

It is based on the naturalistic fallacy, a logical fallacy that claims because something was a certain way in nature, that must be the “best” way. It is based on a serious misunderstanding of natural selection, imagining that evolution produces perfection and survival of all when it actually leads to survival of few (the fittest). It is anti-feminist: natural childbirth, breastfeeding, attachment parenting were deliberately created to keep women at home, out of the workforce.

But perhaps its most pernicious impact is that natural mothering is combative mothering. It relies on constant competition, and the associated shaming and blaming, to force women to regulate their own behavior.

As Abetz and Moore explain in “Welcome to the Mommy Wars, Ladies”: Making Sense of the Ideology of Combative Mothering in Mommy Blogs, the mommy wars used to refer to conflict between working mothers and stay at home mothers, but that has changed:

The “mommy wars” metaphor has since evolved to refer to an expanded set of rivalries between mothering philosophies and practices, and is undergirded by the ideology of combative mothering, which mandates that mothers be in constant competition with one another to be the best mother. Now more than ever before, mothers appear to be fragmented into smaller and smaller camps, often defending their own parent- ing choices as best for their children…

Abetted by social media, we live in the age of combative mothering.

The mothering ideology that normalizes constant competition between mothers, especially in terms of parenting philosophies, practices, and choices, is termed combative mothering… The metaphor of the mommy wars problematically pits mother against mother, overshadowing social and structural issues of motherhood that negatively impact working families, such as paid parental leave and flexible scheduling. In the contemporary mommy wars, mothers become separated into competing factions based on their parenting philosophies, where they must justify and defend their own choices and practices against contradictory philosophies. The mommy wars metaphor … strip women of agency by constraining possibilities for maternal identities.

I would argue that stripping women of agency is the point of the competition. Moreover, when women are competing with each other over who is the better mother, they are not competing with men over jobs and power, economic as well as political.

Abetz and Moore examine mommy blogs, but they could just as easily be describing the many Facebook groups that slice and dice women based on ever more arcane parenting practices that provide ever more opportunities for women’s self-abnegation.

These new mommy wars are referred to by one blogger as “the ‘everyday’ mommy wars,” which “are about methods of baby feeding, sleep training, working mothers and sometimes even screen time.” This evolution beyond the stay-at-home versus working mother indicates that combative mothering relies on fragmentation and particularization as debates about new philosophies and practices proliferate …

…[M]othering choices are used to impose certain conditions … where good mothering relies on continued self-improvement and individual empowerment to make the best decisions for their families. This competition creates rivalries and sustains divisions between mothers, ultimately constraining opportunities for vulnerability and support across differences in parenting practices.

And that, too, is the point. Divide and conquer. It’s always about making mothering harder, not easier. If they were able to support each other, mothers might realize that they are being manipulated by ideologies that aren’t about what’s good for babies, but about constraining mothers.

Shame is integral to natural mothering.

One blogger observed that “moms can be shamed from anything these days”, through statements like, “Did you see how she’s feeding her baby? I can’t believe she thinks that’s ok?!” “He goes to bed where? What kind of parent would let their child sleep that way?”. Another stated that “Whether a mum works or stays home, breastfeeds or bottle feeds, co-sleeps or sleep trains. (…) there is still so much ‘mummy shaming’ out there”.


…[T]he ideology of combative mothering is perpetuated and sustained through mothers’ anticipation and experience of judgment from others mothers. One blogger shared an experience of feeling shamed, where the other mothers were not trying to make her feel bad: “it’s a habit of we modern moms. We’re conditioned to feel the burn of judgment — or the defensive suspicion that we were being judged. It’s something we’ve come to expect”. This ideology operates within a broader neoliberal framework that recasts mothering as “a competitive exercise in highly personalized decision-making.”

Though some mothers regret the shaming and blaming, curiously they do not question the ideology of combative mothering that is making so many mothers miserable:

…Overwhelmingly, these solutions do not challenge the ideology of combative mothering, and instead shame and blame mothers for not keeping judgments to themselves … A few also assert that judgment is natural and essential, and therefore identify the problem as the expression of judgment, not the judgment itself.

The authors conclude that combative mothering is the dominant contemporary mothering ideology:

…[W]e contend that due to the sustained cultural relevance of the mommy wars, combative mothering should be acknowledged as a dominant mothering ideology in the United States that is distinct from intensive mothering and new momism. Mothers are not only compelled to devote themselves completely to their children, through time, energy, resources, and knowledge, but are also obliged to compete to be the best mother, superior to all other mothers, in a zero-sum battle where some mothers are winners and other mother are losers.

But is combative mothering really distinct from intensive mothering? I don’t think so. Indeed, intensive mothering is not supported by scientific evidence and, indeed, has been largely debunked by science. It persists because the pressure to compete persists.

I strongly agree, though, with the authors’ articulation of the rationale for combative mothering:

The pitting of mother against mother can also be contextualized as part of a much broader patriarchal ideology that undermines female solidarity and positions women as their own worst enemies who could never unite across difference. This “divide and conquer” strategy weakens women’s potential to resist existing patriarchal structures…

Resentment between women is an integral part of this systemic misogyny that relentlessly pushes the message that women are not one another’s allies. Thus, combative mothering presents a contemporary articulation of multiple historical ideals that, when couched within the mommy wars metaphor, obscures its ideological legacies…

Natural mothering isn’t about what’s good for babies. If it were, it would be judged a failure. Natural mothering is, and has always been, about controlling women by diverting them into fighting with each other.

By that measure, it has been a stunning success.