In March of this year, one of my respected colleagues and I published a short essay in Pediatrics in which we critiqued the use of “nature” in public health campaigns, specifically regarding breastfeeding promotion. The piece came out on the heels of the publication of my first book, which examines the “back-to-the-breast” movement and the ideology of natural motherhood. Over the course of researching and writing this book, I grew incredibly sympathetic with many of the views and efforts of the mid-century women who helped bring breastfeeding back from the brink of extinction in modern America. This work inspired me to look into other “natural motherhood” practices, like placentophagy, and to think about the many ways in which “natural” practices have historically aligned with female knowledge and technologies.
In my own life, we chose a natural childbirth for my daughter, practiced attachment parenting, and breastfed on demand until after she turned two. All in all, on the eve of our essay’s publication, I thought of myself as a natural motherhood sympathizer, if anything. Within a few hours of publishing our essay, however, my own perspective on the use of “nature” arguments in mothering would begin to shift, largely as a response to the vitriolic backlash that ensued.
Our paper’s critique of public health breastfeeding promotion campaigns grew out of numerous and lengthy conversations that my colleague and I had about breastfeeding over the course of many months. All of these discussions eventually revealed our shared concern that there was something wrong with the way that public health authorities address “nature” in their messaging. We honed in on what seemed to be a pretty straightforward and interesting observation: the “nature” arguments used by vaccine skeptics to critique public health efforts seemed highly reminiscent of the “nature” arguments used by public health authorities to promote breastfeeding.
In short, we suggested that public health authorities might want to reconsider the use of “nature” arguments in their promotion of breastfeeding since these are very similar in language and meaning to the kinds of arguments made by opponents of vaccination efforts.
In submitting this piece, we expected pushback from public health and breastfeeding advocates and vaccine skeptics, who we predicted might be angered by any critique of nature arguments. However, we were unprepared for the scope of the public rage that this essay provoked. In the weeks and months that followed, my colleague and I received numerous media inquiries in which we were asked to clarify our points and to respond to various forms of the question “what were you thinking?” We also received dozens of (mostly angry) emails, and even a death threat (on Twitter) from people who came across news of our piece on social media sites, or in mass emails sent out by natural-living and mother’s rights groups. These events have changed how I think about natural motherhood ideology today.
Many of the people who reacted the most strongly to our argument were mothers themselves who felt that in making our critique we had attacked their strongly-held beliefs about gender and motherhood, or had insulted women’s intelligence. Those responses were unfortunate given our intentions, but also understandable. What was less expected and more concerning were the vehement and derisive comments that grew out of conservative and male-dominated networks. Many of these responses attacked my co-author and I on gendered grounds, targeting the legitimacy of our ideas, the validity of our expertise and our credentials, and cruelly denounced our fitness (or unfitness as many saw it) for motherhood. In other words, two female PhDs who wrote a critical piece about “nature” ideology and gender in health care were viciously attacked in popular discourse with all the fervor of a modern day witch hunt.
As a result of these responses, I’ve become much more skeptical of “natural” arguments in general. To be clear, I love the history of natural motherhood that I uncovered during the course of writing about breastfeeding in my book. However, I also think that “nature” arguments have become increasingly entangled with very conservative political ideologies that are often laced with racist, classist, and misogynistic undertones (and sometimes overtones).
Although I don’t think we ought to abandon the value we find in our experiences of natural processes or the natural world, the strong and passionate backlash against our attempts to critically evaluate “nature” suggests that “nature” is not always our friend. Ultimately, I’ve come to the personal and scholarly conclusion that as women, we don’t do ourselves any favors by relying on “nature” to make our arguments for us.
Women should be allowed to make reasonable decisions about how to care for their bodies and the lives they create within them. If experiencing an unmedicated and low-tech birth, for example, contributes to a woman’s sense of self and empowerment, that’s great. If a woman wants to breastfeed and attachment-parent her newborn for two years and feels a sense of accomplishment and pride in doing so, that’s great too. Aside from the obvious issues of privilege that simmer beneath these choices, however, sits a deeper and and even more troubling assumption about what it means to be female.
Women and their bodies have historically borne a significant and unfair burden in carrying the torch for the “natural” into the high-tech modern era. The flipside of women feeling empowered by “natural” processes is when women feel pressured or coerced into living by different rules or expectations regarding their use and interactions with medicine and technology than men. Our society requires so much more of women’s bodies, despite the complete lack of effort that goes into creating supportive environments (in every sense of the word) for them. We expect women to create healthy and “natural” (i.e. pure and pristine) uterine environments for their developing children. We expect women to want and to be able to provide that kind of individualized environmental protection and control outside the womb as well, through infancy and childhood, despite the many hurdles. These are not only unfair expectations, they are arguably impossible to achieve in the modern era without significantly reshaping society. Promoting these impossible standards of mothering “naturally” as public health goals then, just seems plain wrong.
Work needs to be done on all fronts to improve the health and lives of women and children in our society, but “nature” has been given a free-pass for too long. When we begin to peel back the layers of meaning embedded in this deceptively benign term and its variants, it becomes clear that all sorts of problematic ideas and assumptions have been lurking there all along. The time has come for feminists to once again examine “nature” arguments critically, particularly when it comes to motherhood and women’s bodies. Doing so will allow us to see all the complicated ways that “nature” can both work for and against women in their pursuit of equality, independence, safety, and autonomy.