Anti-Cesarean Movement as Part of the Sacrificial Motherhood Philosophy

Reader Rimi asked me to talk about the anti-cesarean movement in North America. This movement is part of a wider phenomenon I refer to as “the sacrificial motherhood philosophy.” It started to develop as part of the backlash against the feminist advances of the 1970ies. As we all know, I come from a different culture, one that still believes the myth that everybody is profoundly feminist in North America. It took me a while to discover the main tenets of this philosophy. Here they are as I see them right now. Feel free to add your own.

– You can never do enough or sacrifice enough to be a “good” mother.

– A pregnant woman is a sort of an invalid who needs to renounce many things in order to have a “correct” pregnancy. For instance, the list of foods a pregnant woman is not supposed to touch is mile-long. Seeing that list made me envy my illiterate great-great-grandmother who had 6 perfectly healthy children without ever discovering that tomatoes were supposed to be poison for her.

– There are correct and incorrect ways of giving birth. The correct way is to have a “natural” birth. If you want an elective C-section or an epidural, you are not a real woman. If you do not enjoy getting together with other women or accosting pregnant women in public to share your horror story of shredded vaginas and horrible deliveries, you are not a real woman.

– Breast is best. Which means that if you can’t or don’t want to breastfeed until the child is old enough to walk and talk, you are a vile monster. If you want to use a breast pump, you are also a vile monster. If your kid doesn’t get enough nourishment from your breast milk and you supplement it with formula, you are a truly vile monster. And, of course, there is yet another endless list of foods a breast-feeding woman is not supposed to touch.

– Kids benefit from being around their mother 24-7. So if you return to work while your child is at a pre-school age, you are a horrible mother and your kid will grow up to be all kinds of criminal.

– A pacifier is a horrible thing. I haven’t yet been able to find out why some people have fits when they hear the word “pacifier.” All I have been able to gather this far is that the pacifier is supposed to mess with a kid’s teeth. Permanent teeth normally appear much later in a person’s life, but the pacifier-phobia persists.

– If you don’t strive to occupy all of your kid’s time with activities, you are a horrible mother. Sending the kid to play outside or leaving her alone in the room to play with her toys instead of ferreting her around from one play date to another is a sign of a horrible motherhood.

Of course, there are crowds of people who believe that a woman is perfectly capable of choosing the method of delivering a child that suits her best, deciding whether to breastfeed and for how long, and having a career while being a mother. These same people think that nothing tragic will happen if a kid is socialized through day care and is even allowed to play on his or her own every once in a while. They even believe that mothers and their small children can benefit from spending some time apart from each other every once in a while. However, the fanatics of sacrificial mommyhood are so loud that they are capable of screaming down any reasonable person who doesn’t see motherhood as something that needs to condemn you to endless suffering and sacrifice.

45 thoughts on “Anti-Cesarean Movement as Part of the Sacrificial Motherhood Philosophy

  1. Completely agree with all of this – except perhaps the bit about epidurals. Having an epidural actually makes it more likely that the woman will be injured during childbirth: without any feeling in your lower body you have to lie on your back, rather than getting into a position which makes childbirth easier, and it means you can’t necessarily tell when your body is telling you to push. Pushing at the wrong time = ‘shredded vagina’, potentially. That is literally the only reason why I would not want to have an epidural if I ever had kids – to protect my downstairs for future enjoyment. None of this ‘you’ve only done it properly if you’ve been in excrutiating pain blah blah blah’ nonsense – which always strikes me as being another way of saying ‘women who have sex and get pregnant need to be physically punished’. (Of course, a couple of hours into labour and I will probably be aggressively demanding all the drugs they have, consequences be damned).


    1. I have had 3 deliveries, and in none of these was I permitted to be in any position but on the back, with monitors strapped on me. The myth in North America that you will have any control over your birth experience in a hospital is unfounded — ’cause in my experience in two different hospitals in two states, you have absolutely no say (maybe you do with a midwife at home).
      Please don’t diss epidural — it helped me avoid a C-section with my first delivery, because I was finally able to relax and have the labor progress. It is not uncommon that the labor is stalled because of too much pain. And you don’t have to not feel anything, epidural can be dosed so you feel quite a bit or a little and can feel contractions and push. As for shredding, out of 3 deliveries I had epidural with 2 and no meds with one. The tearing was by far the worst with the unmedicated one (my second btw).

      From your comment it seems you hadn’t given birth, so don’t dismiss epidural a priori.


      1. In my modest opinion, anything that makes a woman feel good and comfortable about delivery is a good thing. Everybody is different, so there can’t be one single recipe of “good” childbirth that will suit every woman.
        Sent via BlackBerry by AT&T


  2. Oh, and pacifiers: my mum was fervently anti-dummy (as we call them in the UK), would go on for hours about how cruel they were (I think she thought their function was literally to gag a baby and stop it making any sound) and wouldn’t let one anywhere near me. As a result, she has a daughter who, at 22, still occasionally catches herself unthinkingly sucking her thumb in public.


    1. Oh, goodness, I’ve heard this one before. If a woman wants to have some time to herself and sets her baby down with a pacified and a few toys, she is a Lazy Mother, and therefore a Bad Mother, and people feel entitled to ask her why she bothered having a baby at all.

      Oddly, this piece of wisdom comes via a friend’s second-gen. US-Indian cousin. I’ve never heard it before hereabouts, so perhaps there *is* a cultural element here.


      1. There is also a school of thought that has women tie the kids to themselves for the duration of the day. I’m not talking of women working in the fields here. These are American housewives. The trauma to a child who is tied to the mother for hours each day is, of course, of no interest to anybody.


  3. I don’t know – I’ve been reading you for about a year, but have only just started commenting. Probably because I’ve got my masters deadline in two weeks and am welcoming any opportunity to distract myself from my thesis…


  4. The occupying kids’ time with activities thing actually got my mother criticized -a lot- when I was a kid. My classmates, even in Kindergarten, had days filled with tennis lessons, taekwando lessons, piano lessons, hula lessons, and golf lessons, but I had no lessons whatsoever and was given a free reign to do what I wanted. My mom said that every other mother was criticizing her for not providing me with “structure” and teaching me the value of “scheduling”. But I had time to think for myself and pursue and develop my own interests, so I turned out just fine, a lot better than my peers, if you ask me.


  5. I wish we lived in the world you seem to occupy. Everything I’ve experienced is almost the exact opposite of what you claim:

    Everyone pushing for C-sections & drugs during birth. Midwifery and home births considered some sort of ‘black magic’ or worse.
    Breastfeeding women being thrown out of restaurants or told they should do it in the bathroom.
    Parents encouraged to dump their kids in junior-junior-pre-kindgergarten to get them
    “ready” for school.


    1. You probably don’t spend enough time with people under 30s. They seem to be the most gung-ho over this stuff. It makes it hard for me to find friends in my age group I can relate to who don’t mommyjack every conversation under the sun.


      1. I’ve recently worked with 3 women under 30 who have all just had children. The thought of natural childbirth or breastfeeding was abhorrent to them. They would say, “I know breast is best, but I JUST CAN’T DO IT.” It’s the lack of even trying that I find most distressing. It’s one thing if you don’t want to – admit it. No big deal. But if you know what’s best for your kid, admit that it’s best, but don’t even try. . . what does that make you?


          1. I just don’t understand people who want kids (or jobs, or friends, or anything else) yet don’t want to put any effort into it. Life is effort. We’ve managed to raise a generation of people who believe things ‘just happen’, or someone else will take care of it.


            1. I’m 21 years old, and I don’t believe stuff “just happens”.
              It just breaks my heart to see friends who became new mothers reduced to tears and hating themselves because they couldn’t breastfeed (blocked ducts, certain medications, sensory issues, a baby who wouldn’t latch properly, etc) and abhor a culture which says it’s okay to cause and reinforce their feelings of inferiority for not breastfeeding, regardless of the reason.


              1. I would also add, that, regardless of the benefits of breastfeeding (Which I find to be bloody negligible if you’re a healthy woman living in a prosperous first world country who has good access to clean water and abundant, nutritious food) I believe that what’s good for the mother, above all else, is good for the baby, not the other way around.
                A woman who is being constantly bugged with irritating strangers/friends telling her “Breast is best, you know” or “Don’t you know that’s bad for the baby?” is probably not going to be as comfortable at parenting as someone who is not being constantly bugged.


              2. Look up the impact on breast cancer. For every year of breastfeeding, the risk of breast cancer is reduced by 2-5%. So if you breastfeed 2 kids for 3 yrs each, you’re risk of developing breast cancer is reduced by 12-30%. Hardly negligible.

                Also, breastfeeding is free. Formula is expensive. The highest rates of formula feeding are among the poorest people in North America. Again, the impact on a family can be far from negligible.

                Then there is the environmental impact of formula- the manufacturing, transportation and disposal of formula.

                We can also consider the obesity problem – breastfeed children tend to be a much healthier weight. Supposition is that children learn when they are full, as they come off the breast. They learn to listen to their body. Rather than having a bottle shoved down their throat, regardless of whether or not they are hungry.

                But I guess these are problems we can let someone else solve later. And then we can blame people for not telling us what we ought to do.


              3. I’m really shocked at how normal, intelligent people lose all sense of what is acceptable when it comes to other folks’ breasts. I have mentioned in this thread that my mother didn’t breastfeed. Because she didn’t have any milk. It wasn’t a “moral failing” on her part. The milk simply never came.

                And then Patrick somehow thinks it’s appropriate to tell me that my mother is now more likely to have breast cancer. Apparently, he thinks I should be punished with a high level of stress and worrying about my mother for her not being able to breastfeed me 35 years ago. As if everybody who has a mother of a certain age didn’t hold their breath already every time she goes for a mammogram. As if one didn’t wake up in cold sweat after nightmares of an aging parent getting sick. But no, let’s punish those people who were not breastfed for this huge mistake.

                Why this unhealthy obsession with other people’s breasts??


              4. You’re reading far too much into the comments. There is no guilt or stress. Simple facts, nothing more.


              5. These are not facts. These are silly old-wives tales. Which I don’t want or need to see promoted on my website.

                It’s also kind of weird to have people tell ME whether I experience stress. I can determine it on my own, thank you very much.


              6. Research into breastfeeding and the relationship to cancer and obesity is ongoing. Like any other scientific research, the results are not conclusive, but they are encouraging. Not an old-wives tale. Current and ongoing research.

                Formula is expensive – especially compared to the cost to produce breast milk. If you dispute this, or you think I’m making it up, please, by all means, prove it.

                And do you think formula grows on trees? It is a manufactured, highly processed product, sold in retail outlets around the country. The environmental impact of manufacturing and transportation is a legitimate criticism of formula.


              7. Please see my most recent post on how pseudo-scientific studies can be used to promote any fashionable idiocy of the moment.

                Also please see my comments in this very thread when I explain how one can get a supply of formula to feed an elephant for free.

                I understand that you somehow believe that thinking about the environmental impact of formula will help women who have no milk magically get it, but you are wrong. You can’t lactate through the force of willpower.


              8. RE diseases: I am a huge believer in genetics in those things. At least, that’s what I’ve seen among my relatives both with cancer and blood pressure. Also 2% of decrease isn’t much, if the risk is low, and in cases of family history of this cancer (there is a gene responsible for hightened risk) I am sure breastfeeding won’t help a bit.

                *So if you breastfeed 2 kids for 3 yrs each… Also, breastfeeding is free. Formula is expensive.*

                Are all women around you housewives, Patrick? In Israel you can take maximum 6 months after birth, only the first 3 are paid, and I am sure in USA too many women go to work, and many times have to do it because of money whether they want or not. Kind of like men, you know. So saying it’s free isn’t true for most families I see. Even if paying for day care for a baby costs a lot, if a woman will try to “save” money by not working, she’ll lose a job and after a kid grows a bit have huge difficulty in finding a new one.

                Are all


              9. There’s no point trying to present facts to people who don’t want to believe them. Clarissa and others here clearly have a predetermined position, and will dismiss anything which might conflict with that notion as “old wives tales’ and pseudo science. I weep for the people they claim to educate.


              10. On the top of this blog’s homepage it doesn’t say “An academic’s attempt to educate.” It says “an academic’s opinions.” I’m expressing my opinions here. Feel free to weep for the fact that same people have their own points of view and present them on their own blogs.


        1. I think what’s missing in a lot of conversations about ‘what’s best’ is perspective and relativity. To listen to some people, you’d think it was a choice between breast-feeding your baby and them basically dying or having life-long health problems if you don’t. It’s not, and you have to weigh up choices based on outside factors. Yes, breast is best. But is it SO important that it outweighs the negative consequences of having a mother who is in pain / constantly tired from having to get up in the night to feed the baby herself / just doesn’t want to do it? I’d say almost certainly not.


          1. I agree completely! I just can’t believe that a newborn will benefit from the milk coming from a mother who is distressed, miserable and feels constantly guilty and fearful of not being good enough.

            If I decide to have a kid, I’ll certainly breastfeed. But if it doesn’t work out, I’ll be damned if I allow anybody to make me feel guilty about it.


  6. Actually, if you breastfeed much past the 6-9 month mark, people think you are crazy. Kids tend to turn out just fine whether they are breastfed or not. I think encouraging breastfeeding is great — those who can at least tolerate going that route save a huge amount of money, something often in short supply when you’re a new parent.

    Are there really people who think women should not eat tomatoes during pregnancy? That’s just crazy.

    I’m not quite sure why there’s so much one-upmanship in parenting. It’s really not a new thing, though. The same stuff — though different issues — went on when I had my kids back in the 80s, and when my mom had hers back in the 50s/60s.

    I think a lot of it comes from people who think parenting is something you can “win” and that other people “lose”.


  7. I find it quite curious that the women that are commenting seem to be in agreement on the issues and it’s actually a male commenter who deems it suitable to comment on breastfeeding. I pity women who are unfortunate enough to have partners who find it acceptable to comment what women should do with their breasts.


    1. If my partner started insisting that he knows how I should give birth and when or whether I should breastfeed, that would be a definite deal-breaker for our relationship. My position is: “Want to give birth vaginally? Want to breastfeed? More power to you. Go ahead, and I will be on your side. Don’t have a vagina? Well, oopsy-daisy.”


  8. Thank you for this post, Clarissa. I hope to god these are opinions of a loud minority, because I despise people who champion prescriptive behaviour for deeply relative/subjective experiences, and are willing to turn to vigilantism to enforce them. This, frankly, is terrifying.

    Two things:
    1. I’ve noticed the horror people have in the US of leaving children alone, ‘unsupervised’ they call it. This would sound ridiculous in my part of the world. But then again my part of the world is far more densely populated, there is a level of familiarity amongst neighbours I have not noticed in the US, and even families tend to be multi-generational and larger. So though children are not explicitly shepherded, they are surrounded by people who will come running at the first loud noise or wail. New parents can afford to be less antsy.

    2. I do know a little about the breast-feeding movement, and again, it sounds like a culture swinging between two extremes. Women almost exclusively breastfeed here, and it’s not a thing. They are not told to feel empowered of connected with their femininity because of it, neither would they be thrown out of restaurants for it… quite possibly because they would not think to breastfeed in a restaurant. What I am saying is, breastfeeding is not associated with either peer pressure or shame. So women who do breastfeed don’t feel the need to make a statement or assert their right to do so. Women who don’t, don’t have to insist on their innocence. This, I think, makes for a more peaceful environment all around.


    1. “So women who do breastfeed don’t feel the need to make a statement or assert their right to do so. Women who don’t, don’t have to insist on their innocence. This, I think, makes for a more peaceful environment all around.”

      -That’s the only healthy, normal approach, in my opinion. Do it, don’t do it, it’s all up to you. Breastfeeding is a physiological function. Not a moral one. The milk either comes or not. There are websites where women boast about how much milk they managed to squeeze from each breast in one sitting, like they somehow cause it to happen. I just wonder how this differs from comparing whose urine stream is thicker.


  9. Breastfeeding is a physiological function(Clarissa)

    Exactly! And there is some evidence that points to the physiological benefits for both the mother and child.


  10. el :

    Are all women around you housewives, Patrick?

    Are all

    Who else would put up with the humiliation of listening to this kind of lectures from a man? A woman who can feed herself never would. Women who sell themselves for money need to remember that they will pay for their keep through being treated with this kind of total condescension by guys who will want to manage their breasts and vaginas for them.

    Housewifery always comes at a huge price.


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