Is intensive mothering becoming more intensive?


Intensive mothering (often called natural mothering) is the dominant mothering ideology of industrialized countries in the early 21st Century.

Hallstein et al. explore intensive mothering through the lens of celebrity moms in a chapter from the new book The Routledge Companion to Motherhood. They describe it as “the new momism.”

Intensive mothering replaces women’s traditional subservience to their husbands with subservience to their children.

The new momism is the form of intensive mothering that emerged in the 1980s and continues to be in full force today, albeit in new and more intensive ways… Douglas and Michaels argued that this “good mothering” ideology rests on three core beliefs and values:

“the insistence that no woman is truly complete or fulfilled unless she has kids, that women remain the best primary caretakers of children, and that to be a remotely decent mother, a woman has to devote her entire physical, psychological, emotional, and intellectual being, 24/7, to her children”.

… In addition to creating impossible ideals of mothering, the new momism also defined women first and foremost in relation to their children and encouraged women to believe that mothering was the most important job for women, regardless of any success a woman might have had prior to motherhood.

Simply put, intensive mothering is a way to constrain women by replacing their traditional subservience to their husbands with subservience to their children.

What is the role of celebrity mothers?

… Douglas and Michaels argued that celebrity mom profiles primarily worked to encourage guilt and failure in mothers because the profiles always showed celebrity moms juggling it all – work, family, and mothering – with ease and without difficulty… The hallmark of these profiles was to show celebrity moms glowing, happy, content, and with their children, often one-to-two years postpartum, while the moms extolled the virtues of motherhood.

The entire chapter is fascinating but one issue in particular caught my eye because it confirms something I have been observing for at least a decade: intensive mothering is becoming more intensive!

While there is no doubt that the new momism has always been a demanding approach to mothering, by the late-2000s, scholars and writers … began to argue that intensive mothering was intensifying and contemporary mothers were doing even more motheringrather than less, even though more and more American women were working…

This intensification does not mean, however, that the three core principles of the new momism have changed. Rather, the core principles have only become more demanding and exacting for mothers and require mothers to devote even more time and energy to their mothering and children in order to be “good” mothers.

What has changed, then, is that contemporary motherhood requires mothers to have and utilize yet more energy to meet the even-more demanding requirements of “good” mothering today.

You can see this in the realms of natural childbirth, breastfeeding and attachment parenting.

The father of natural childbirth, Grantly Dick-Read, thought that natural childbirth meant “awake” childbirth unlike the majority of women who had general anesthesia for birth. Over the years, particularly after the advent of the epidural, which allowed women to be both awake and pain free, the goal posts were repeatedly moved. Natural childbirth came to mean avoiding any pain medication, any interventions of any kind, using a midwife and doula, and preferably giving birth at home far from medical aid.

Breastfeeding promotion used to mean breastfeeding and nothing more. Now it is hedged around with ever more onerous restrictions including the fetishizing of exclusivity (“just one bottle can be harmful”), the closing of well baby nurseries, and the entirely new phenomenon — found in no other historical or contemporary culture — of expecting women to fully care for their babies from the moment the placenta detaches.

Attachment parenting fetishizes proximity. Mothers are supposed to “wear” their babies and never be parted from them even to sleep at night.

The ultimate irony is that the intensification of intensive mothering has made it dangerous for babies. Homebirth and the arbitrary refusal of obstetric interventions increase the risk of death for babies; exclusive breastfeeding now results in the re-hospitalization of tens of thousands of babies each year; bed-sharing is literally deadly for babies. No matter. Intensive mothering has NEVER been about what’s good for children; it’s always been a way to control women, keeping them out of the workforce and protecting men from the economic competition that they represent.

There’s nothing wrong with intensive mothering if that’s the choice that a woman thinks is best for her children and herself. But there’s something very wrong with constructing intensive mothering as an ideal and pretending it is the sum total of good mothering.

Natural childbirth, breastfeeding and attachment parenting have little to nothing to do with the way that children turn out. I’m not aware of a single physical or mental health parameter that has improved for children because of intensive mothering.

Mothering is far more complex than fetishizing breastfeeding exclusivity or fetishizing maternal proximity. But that doesn’t matter when the real goal is to keep women subservient.

9 Responses to “Is intensive mothering becoming more intensive?”

  1. StephanieJR
    December 17, 2019 at 2:52 pm #

    ‘the insistence that no woman is truly complete or fulfilled unless she has kids’

    Well, you’ve lost me there. Bullshit from the beginning, bullshit to the end.

    • alongpursuit
      December 17, 2019 at 4:01 pm #

      When I was in my 20s and women asked me if I wanted kids, I would reply that I didn’t know if I wanted any. Frequently they would respond that it was the most wonderful thing in the world and that I would be missing out if I didn’t. Now that I have kids I can say that parenthood has wonderful moments but I’ve also had similar wonderful experiences being in nature, travelling, spending time with loved ones, learning new things or making art. I firmly believe that a woman can be truly complete and fulfilled by following her dreams whether these dreams include kids or not.

      When a mother says to a childless woman that she can’t be complete or fulfilled without having kids, that mother is just wanting to see her choices and efforts valued.

      • StephanieJR
        December 18, 2019 at 9:31 am #

        I’m sure parenthood is wonderful to those who want it. I’m also sure that I don’t. For as long as I can remember, I never wanted to be a mother, just brief moments of agreement to ‘maybe in the future’ when under social pressure. I only ever wanted to play with my toy animals, and all that’s changed is that they’re real now. I am fulfilled by caring for my rabbit and ensuring her health and happiness.

        I have a very minor quibble over word choice; just that to me, ‘childfree’ is for those people who do not want children, and will not have them, and that ‘childless’ is for those that very much want children, but are unable to have them, and may never do so. I’m not certain how important this distinction is, but claiming a woman can’t be complete without children is deeply insulting to both groups, for different reasons.

        I truly hope that all childless people who want children get to have them, or at least find something in their lives that helps. I would be devastated if I could never have more rabbits; I love them so much, being denied a future with them is one of my worst nightmares. I can only imagine how much it hurts to want a child so much, only to be denied one.

        I also hope that the choices of childfree people continue to gain mainstream acceptance, that no woman is treated like a failure/defective for nor wanting children, and that everyone can just mind their own business at times.

        • alongpursuit
          December 18, 2019 at 9:53 pm #

          You’re absolutely right about the childfree/childless distinction! It is very important and I missed that in my first comment.

          • StephanieJR
            December 19, 2019 at 9:25 am #

            No worries, just thought we’d clear it up a little for anyone lurking.

        • AnnaPDE
          December 19, 2019 at 10:21 pm #

          The childfree/childless distinction is really important, but I’m always missing the proper term for the “probably yes down the line but none yet” situation, which is very frequent among younger people.

          • StephanieJR
            December 20, 2019 at 3:31 pm #

            Me either.

        • demodocus
          December 24, 2019 at 9:47 am #

          Aye, neither of my best friends has kids. This was always the plan for one, but the other is wishes she could. At 43, her odds aren’t getting any better, either. Being gay probably doesn’t help. Neither wants comments from thoughtless people about it, either.

    • December 17, 2019 at 4:52 pm #

      That statement reminded me of a conversation I was in with two very nice, very concerned members of academia who were in a near state of panic that the graduate program I was attending wasn’t adequately preparing students for the rigors of a Ph.D program to launch their career in academia.

      The statement “What will happen to the students?” was said more than once.

      My response was “Figure out how to support a family like the 99+% of Americans who are not tenure-track academics. ”

      People can rapidly forget their own biases. I have found raising my son to be far more challenging and rewarding than I expected – but I’ve also seen enough people crushed by raising kids to know that mileage varies a great deal.

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