“Why isn’t it natural? Why isn’t anything about mothering and parenting natural?”

Length warning: this isn’t a post. It’s not even an essay. It runs on for more than 2,200 words. It would make a space-conscious editor cry. So if you’re on the run and just skimming right now, skip me. Come back when you have time for a leisurely read.

2012. One of the tough consequences of being a writer, especially one prone to documenting life as it unfolds—and one’s life philosophy as it develops—is that you leave behind a record of what you used to think. Non-writers can rewrite their history much more easily than those of us who write…

As we were discussing my “recycling” of past posts to build up this blog’s archive, a friend asked for this, what she remembered as one of my most “powerful and poignant” posts, written in the fervour of new motherhood when Cinder was three and Flora nine months old, an impassioned rant about why “parenting” (in very self-conscious quotation marks) wasn’t—here come those quotation marks again—“natural.”

I found it… read it… and wasn’t sure what to do with it. See, I’m glad I wrote it then. But I could not write it now. As I evaluate it from this vantage point, I have mixed feelings. It’s important. It expresses my frustration and anger and passion and, dare I say, mission at that stage of my journey. And it makes me blush a little at the zeal, and wonder how much judgement for those on a different path, or a different tangent, or simply a different stage along the path, is (or was) hiding behind the zeal and the passion. 

I started editing it to… soften it? Write it as I would argue it now, because the key points are important—and I could argue them so much more effectively and rationally now, because I would do so with much more compassion and understanding. But then, I stopped. I will write that post—the more rational and compassionate one. But this one, impassioned, inflamed, and zealous, flawed though I now think it is, deserves to stand alone.

Well. With that sort of build up… what follows better deliver.

2005. The idea for this piece was borne out of a discussion we had on a local Attachment Parenting discussion group when some of our dear friends struggled with breastfeeding issues and later post-partum depression. To alleviate, at the very least, their sense of alienation—”Everyone else seemed to be such a happy, together AP mother, what’s wrong with me?”—we shared stories of our own struggles with getting the latch right, maintaining breastfeeding despite the discomfort (and outright pain), dealing with the fear that our babies weren’t getting “enough” milk and with the pressure from partners, doctors, and even lactation consultants to supplement or do other things we did not feel were right for out babies, and dealing—or not—with lack of sleep, anxiety attacks, emotional instablity, and all those other “not-so-warm-and-fuzzy” challenges of new motherhood. The common thread that ran through many of our stories was, to a certain extent, one of betrayal: “Why was this so hard? Women have been doing this for millennia. Birthing is as `natural’ as nature gets. Breastfeeding should be instinctive for mother and child if the human species is to survive—are there any other mammals who have this much trouble with the latch, or so many issues with supply? And, beyond that, shouldn’t we just “know” how to mother? And if we don’t—and so many of us don’t! else how do you explain the popularity of parenting books—is there something wrong with us?

Our short, communal, answer to this, was, of course, no. There isn’t anything wrong with any of us who has struggled with the latch, with PPD, with learning to parent a spirited toddler. But there is something wrong with the world in which we parent—or rather, a world in which we are parents (I return to this distinction shortly). It’s a world in which precious little, least of all motherhood, is natural.

This observation is hardly original: one of the things that differentiates us as a species from, say, chimpanzees or dolphins—for that matter, pigs, dogs, or birds—is that we are cultural beings. What I’m doing right now—typing on a laptop computer—is hardly natural; when my children wake up from their nap, I’m going to engage in the equally unnatural act of reading them a story (we will then get into the unnatural car and drive to the unnatural grocery store). Note that I’m not trying to set up a nature/culture good/bad divide here (I am a big fan of the unnatural act of reading; ditto the grocery store); I am merely stating a fact. Human beings are complicated creatures, and their most “natural aspects”—say, sex—are immensely influenced by culture.

Sometimes culture builds upon nature—I would say attachment parenting is a cultural construct that builds upon the physical, natural reality of a mother and a child. Sometimes culture attempts to trump nature. Sometimes, this is good, as when we teach our children to express their feelings with words instead of following the apparently natural instinct to, when frustrated, pummel, shove, or pull hair. Sometimes, less so—and unfortunately, much of current cultural practice around motherhood, and parenthood, fits into that category.

We are all attachment parents here, so I will skip the rant against mainstream parenting practices in which culture clearly violates nature (letting infants “cry it out” tops the list). But even when culture tries to support nature, as is increasingly the case these days with breastfeeding, many of us find there is nothing natural about this supposedly natural, “instinctive” way of feeding our children. Why is getting that nipple into the infant’s mouth so damn hard?

My answer: because our culture gives us no models for this. Or, to put it another way, because the nuclear family sucks.

Consider. Before holding your own baby at your breast, how many times have you seen a mother breastfeeding a newborn? I’m not talking about those plump, five-month old babies that star in most breastfeeding videos and go crazy with joy at the sight of mama’s breast. I’m talking about a tiny, 7.5 pound fresh-out-of-the-womb infant. The answer, for me: Never. In fact, the answer is never even if we’re talking five-month babies. Until I had my son, I have never, ever seen a woman latch a baby to her breast. And the last time I held a baby was probably 10, if not more, years ago.

My experience mirrors that of most of my generation. Apart from the fact that many of us were products of the bottle-feeding culture—which meant our mothers, our most immediate link to the cultural/natural lore of motherhood, wouldn’t necessarily be able to offer help, advice or support—we’ve also grown up in isolation. Few of us have memories of younger siblings or cousins at a mother’s breast. Even those of us lucky enough to have such a memory—or to have had a breastfeeding friend “blaze” the trail—were unlikely to have seen that mother, stripped to the waist, slowly but steadily working at the latch (and perhaps bursting into tears when, 10 minutes later, the baby was still screaming off the nipple). We saw her six weeks (if not months) later, when she could pop that nipple into her babe’s mouth with her eyes closed. (I skip over the portrayals of motherhood in books, films, or television commercials— have any of them made mothering, never mind breastfeeding, easier for us? I honestly cannot think of a single example…)

The nuclear family sucks because it makes us reinvent the parenting wheel in virtual isolation (while, of course, staying on top of our one-family house and, likely as not, working). This isolation makes us vulnerable to the “experts” who have replaced mothers, aunts, older sisters, grandmothers, friends with older babies, etc. These experts—doctors, midwives, lactation consultants, authors of all those parenting books—are products of culture too. And, as too many of us have experienced in areas such as breastfeeding, these experts offer culturally sanctioned solutions that effectively defeat nature. Trouble with the latch? Trouble with milk supply? No worries—there are cultural constructs galore ready to step in: the pump, the plastic nipple, the endless supply of formula.

Not that those of us who have not been able to breastfeed, for whatever reason—be it biology or the cultural demand of having to go back to work—aren’t grateful that those cultural artifacts were available to us. Feeding a baby is a natural act; keeping your baby alive and well is the primary natural drive. But it takes place in a cultural context.

Watch a bottlefeeding AP mother and a bottlefeeding “CIO” mother and you will grasp the essence of what I mean. The AP mother essentially treats the bottle as a breast, holds the baby, and nurtures more than the body as she feeds; the non-AP mother may prop up the bottle and leave the baby alone in his carseat or crib. Each mother is performing a natural act—feeding the baby— but in a vastly different cultural (and philosophical) context. (2012 Interjection: So this is one of the bits that makes me cringe now. I’d never write this now. I’d never think like this now… make this kind of distinction, judgement. But here it is. So it was.) So is the case with all mothering. What is natural—we all dearly hope—is loving our babies, caring for them, doing our best to ensure they (and therefore our genes—nature is not particularly sentimental) survive. Everything else is cultural. Our instincts can be nurtured by culture or blunted by it. Culture can nurture our instinct to respond immediately and emphatically to our babies’ cries, or it can blunt that instinct and desensitize us to its effect by advocating that we let our children “cry it out.”

I alluded earlier to a distinction earlier about the word “parent” as noun and as verb. Follow me now as I couple one with nature and the other with culture. To be a parent—a mother, a father—is natural. You simply are the person who birthed—or contributed to the creation of—this baby creature. Parenting (in other words, “to parent” as a verb) is a cultural construct, and a very recent one. People simply used to be parents, to have children and raise children as part of life. Today, we talk about parenting—and when we say parenting, society being what it is, we most of the time mean mothering—as, essentially, a job.

There is nothing natural about that. Culturally, however, it makes perfect sense. As a culture, we value work and we see it as a sphere that’s separate from… well, life (if that doesn’t seem to make sense, that’s because it doesn’t make sense). To place any kind of value on parenting, we cast it in terms of a “job.” Ironically, many women who embrace motherhood as a joyous, “natural” state simultaneously buy into this cultural notion of parenting as a job. I would posit there is nothing natural about being a stay-at-home-mom. Ditto being a “working mom” juggling the proverbial double burden. Natural parenting would be… walking much of the day, baby at breast, toddler running alongside you helping you gather edibles for dinner (ever notice how your toddler is happiest in the park gathering pinecones?).

Unfortunately, there aren’t too many “hunters and gatherers wanted” job opportunities around. Our world is, and will remain, a cultural construct. Even as we pursue what we call natural practices, be they breastfeeding or baby wearing, we do so in the context of a very specific culture. There is nothing natural, after all, about the sling. It’s a man-made—well, in most cases, woman-made—artifact. But we have to make an effort, as individual mothers and as a community of mothers, to make culture and nature work together for the benefit of our children—and ourselves. Nature has given us breasts that will nurture our children; our challenge is to build a culture that makes this natural act culturally viable. (I almost wrote acceptable: that is not enough. And even “viable” doesn’t seem strong enough. Desirable? Inevitable?) The same goes for virtually every other aspect of motherhood. If “natural parenting” involves working and living alongside our children, we should strive to create a culture in which we do work, learn, and play—in other words, live— together, instead of spending most of our waking hours separated, one at work, the other in school.

It isn’t easy. And, for many people, it isn’t viable. (I work at home, but neither my nine-month-old nor my three-year-old work alongside me when I sit at the computer. They’d make stellar mushroom gatherers though—and Cinder, with eerily accurate rock throwing aim, has all the makings of a natural hunter. Unfortunate child of vegetarian parents…)

But the world can be changed in small increments, by individual people making radical choices. We change the world by living as if it already was the world we want: by breastfeeding our babies wherever they need to be breastfed. By treating the bottle we give our babies as nourishment for more than the body. By taking our babies to work when we can, and assuring they are in the arms of a loving caregiver when we can’t. By spending less and “working” less, so that we can “live” more. By building communities and bridges that break us out of our nuclear family isolation. Every time each of us takes any of these actions, we make motherhood a little more “natural”—and a little less “hard”—for ourselves and for our fellow mamas.

Jane”

An occasionally overextended, but generally happy AP mother to Cinder, age three and a quarter (and very much in tune with the “caveman” inside), and Flora, nine months going on nine years. I dedicate this piece to two growing communities, our online discussion group and our Thursday playgroup. I can’t imagine how difficult this natural- cultural act of being a mother/mothering my two children would be without your support.

Breastfeeding symbol

PS 2012. Want to know what annoys me most about the above? My penchant for putting ordinary words in quotation marks. As an editor, I’d take just about every single one of them out. … Well. Seven years is a long time.

8 thoughts on ““Why isn’t it natural? Why isn’t anything about mothering and parenting natural?”

  1. Well! I like the quotation marks, but I too have “softened” in my thoughts on what defines a mother. I meet so many amazing women who all do it differently and each of them are gentler, kinder and more partient than I. Perhaps the comment, made to me by a mom parenting a few years before I was and who chose to go back to work full time after her one year leave (even though the choice to work part time was available her) has some weight; “I’m a better parent to my children with time to pursue my own life in parallel”. 7 years ago I threw up in my mouth when she said that to me as I walked away mumbling “then why the hell did you bother having children”? Now I see a beautiful relationship with her children who are well adjusted to their lifestyle and have so much to offer – really bright and thoughtful kids. There is little to no fighting, no screaming, no door slamming. They do well in school (so have learned that game) and love to go. Evenings, weekends and holidays are family time and they spend it engaged together. Nope. I’m in no position to criticize.

    • Thanks for forgiving the quotation marks. I’m glad I’ve kept a record of my thoughts and rants from the early days… and I’m glad too that my thinking around some of this stuff has evolved. I do miss, sometimes, that certainty… that fire. But I do think what’s replaced it is, ultimately, better.

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