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The Rhetoric of Motherhood by Abby Arnold

page three

From the moment they either decide to try to get pregnant, or find out they have become so, mothers are told by many experts that they must be “natural.” This does not mean behave and parent in ways that come naturally. This means following a strict agenda of natural (attachment) parenting, that will, again, be the only sure-fire way to insure not only the healthy physical development of the child, but also the kind of adult they will turn out to be. Peggy O’Mara, the editor of Mothering magazine (note the title) wrote in the Oct. 2003 issue about what good friends she and her adult children are, a self-serving diatribe meant to be inspirational: “we sit on my bed in the morning and sometimes talk about how unusual it is that we all get along so well.” Later, she and her adult women friends also gather on a bed, the pre-teenage children “nuzzling and cuddling [with them]just like little puppies.” The cause of all this heartwarming, animal slobbering, bed-sitting: natural parenting, including unmedicated childbirth, taking “our babies into our arms and carry[ing] them around with us everywhere” [italics mine], co-sleeping, breast feeding until the child gives it up, home schooling. O’Mara states, in what could be the mantra of the natural parenting movement, “that the bonding and attachment of the early years provide a rich foundation for a lifetime of love.”

Doesn’t that sound lovely? Don’t we all—whether we are mothers, children or both—want that? Unfortunately, what is implied here—and in all the literature of natural parenting—is that this high intensity parenting is the only method that guarantees this love, this development. Or, as Dr. Sears, the man who gave the name “Attachment Parenting” to this high intensity style, says, “we have found that attachment parented children are likely to be: smarter, healthier, more sensitive, more empathetic, easier to discipline, more bonded to people than things” (17) than the non-attachment parented child. He doesn’t say just how he found this out, or what the millions of non-attached children are actually like.

Of course, these results of can be automatically assumed by the way Dr. Sears and others have appropriated the terms “attachment parenting.” and “natural parenting.” If you want to be bonded and attached with your child (and vice-versa), you’d better follow Attachment Parenting. If you want to be a natural mother, you’d better mother Naturally. By extension, those who choose other childrearing methods must not be attached, must be unnatural. Too bad if your way of being natural doesn’t fit into this mold. Too bad if you do not have the ability, the temperament, the time to carry your baby everywhere with you, sleep with her, nurse her until she is two. You and your child will not be as attached to each other, your child may not develop normally, her adulthood will be scarred and your relationship will be jeopardized. Oh, and according to O’Mara, if you took pain medication during childbirth your child is more likely to become addicted to drugs as an adult. So you’d better get to work and ‘be natural.” Don’t worry if this all seems to much for you. According to Dr. Sears “instead of feeling tied down, mothers feel tied together with their babies” (15). None of these “natural” experts seem to take into consideration that a mother and child tied together can still drown.

I do believe there is, for some mothers, however they parent, a mysterious connection between mothers and their children that circumscribes time and space and does make us feel “tied together” with our babies. But this bond is not present in all women, is not the same for the women who possess it, and is utterly irrelevant in the day to day job of mothering. To say that maternal nature is the main reason mothers are good at mothering is to turn mothering into a passive act that denies the mother any consciousness or skill, shames her into believing she should be at all times the enthusiastic and gifted primary caretaker of her children, and relieves any other person or group (including the father) from any real obligation.

The truth is, motherhood is not a natural act, it is a learned one. The more education, resources and economic security a woman has, the more effective a mother she will be. To say that women know how to mother naturally is like saying a construction worker can build skyscrapers because he or she is comfortable with heights. This denies the importance of training, hammer and nails, safety ropes, teamwork, disability and unemployment insurance in case something goes wrong, life insurance in case the worst happens. Mothers have few of these safeguards. Instead, mothers are told that emotional satisfaction is both our motivation and its own reward, and that to ask for (mothers don’t demand) any other security or compensation is unnatural, unwholesome and inappropriate.

In her seminal work Of Woman Born, Adrienne Rich had this to say about the assumptions behind “natural” motherhood:

First, that a “natural” mother is a person without further identity, one who can find her chief gratification in being all day with small children, living at a pace tuned to theirs; that the isolation of mothers and children together in the home must be taken for granted; that maternal love is, and should be, quite literally selfish; that children and mothers are the “causes” of each others sufferings (22).

I’m sure that there are many women who would not ascribe these assumptions to their own lives yet who believe they should act in accordance with the beliefs these assumptions engender, or feel that there is something wrong with them when they do not.

No wonder mothers feel the pressure to be all and more for their children, no matter who we are and what the circumstances of our lives. So much of popular culture as well as parenting literature leaves us little option but to feel that every time we do the slightest thing for ourselves alone, without focusing on our child, we are putting him or her at risk. No wonder many mothers feel so constantly inadequate, guilty, and quick to judge the choices of others. We are told there is too much at stake in our behavior to feel otherwise.

the “birth experience”

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