The XX Factor

The Lurking Sexism Behind Natural Parenting

Preparing a vaccination.
A school nurse preapres a vaccine against whooping cough before giving it to students at Mark Twain Middle School August 7, 2012 in Los Angeles, California.

Photograph by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images.

Feminist writer and founder of Feministing Jessica Valenti’s new book Why Have Kids?: A New Mom Explores the Truth About Parenting and Happiness is part parenting memoir, part political analysis of modern parenting, and part feminist mommy manifesto. It’s also likely to set off quite a bit of controversy, because Valenti joins an increasingly populated group of feminist critics of the new, upper-middle class trend of naturalistic mothering (often incorrectly called “parenting,” to conceal that fact that it’s mothers who have to step up more to meet demand), a trend that includes XX Factor’s own Hanna Rosin, who has written skeptically of the breast-feeding-at-all-costs mentality. Valenti casts a critical eye on trends like attachment parenting, breast-feeding as if it’s the only way to love your children, and especially of the extremes the more-natural-than-you mothering takes on, such as with anti-vaccination activism or the diaper-free movement that functionally requires women to hold their babies over a toilet all day.

Unlike other feminist skeptics like Erica Jong or Elisabeth Badinter, Valenti comes to her skepticism the hard way. As she explains in the book, she wanted to believe and was entranced by the claim that going all “natural” was perfectly compatible with feminism, and may even be a super-feminism that’s gone past that boring old feminism of demanding equality between men and women. Instead, she discovered that the world of super mommies isn’t actually geared toward helping women raise children without losing their feminist ideals at all. On the contrary, a cult of self-negation to prove how much you love your children seems to be the order of the day, and women who refuse to get on board—even for perfectly understandable reasons, such as a physical inability to keep a baby alive with breast milk—can expect to be treated like they tell their children to go play in traffic.

What becomes quickly clear is that the cult of “natural” motherhood is just the latest manifestation in a long history of reducing women’s bodies and lives to status objects to mark class privilege. In the mid-20th century, middle-class families signaled that they had arrived by displaying idle housewives. A man with means was one who could not only to afford not to have a wife who works but also to stuff his house with time-saving appliances that allowed her to spend much of her time playing bridge and watching soap operas. Because of feminism, idle female hands have become suspicious commodities, so instead a cult of natural motherhood has arisen. It’s still true that  family signals wealth by having a woman who has downscaled at work or quit to stay home altogether, but it’s in order to tend to the ever-rising demands of “natural” motherhood. This is why studies on the effects of breast-feeding can’t meaningfully separate long-term breast-feeding from the benefits of being born with class privilege; long-term breast-feeding is a cultural signifier of having class privilege. Breast-feeding is good for babies, but it’s becoming clear that its become such a big deal because it goes back to the long-standing belief in their own moral superiority held by the upper middle class. 

The effects of this trend extend beyond the problem of dressing up the same old treatment of middle class women as status objects as if it’s “feminism.” It also has negative health consequences for everyone, as varsity level holier-than-thou upper middle class mothering now comes complete with rejection of vaccination. As Valenti demonstrates in her book, it’s not just bad information that’s driving the trend, but also the faddish belief that nothing about raising children should be easy. Giving them a shot so they don’t get sick feels like cheating; a properly self-sacrificing mother should be at the ready to stay at home to wipe feverish brows. The result is predictable: the percentage of kids in California private schools that are unvaccinated is twice that of public schools, and whooping cough is making its triumphant, child-torturing return