Parenting and Rejection of Modernity

One of the questions I continually finding myself asking since separating myself from Natural Family Living (an umbrella term that includes Attachment Parenting) is “why?” Why natural parenting? Why is it that we are now so concerned in making sure that our children are raised naturally? What defines “natural” when it comes to parenting? Anthropologists consider all parenting in every culture around the world to be natural because parenting is what parents do; how they do it depends on their culture. Today, a large segment of American culture has decided to reject what they consider ‘mainstream parenting.’ This designation covers things as varied from formula, bottle-feeding, 2 working parents, cribs, cry-it-out, sleep training, vaccines to strollers, parent-led weaning, baby purees, and diapers. By rejecting these ‘modern’ accoutrements, NFL parents aim to resemble more closely primitive tribes, who, according to them, breastfeed, are always held or worn, co-sleep, use child-led weaning, practice “elimination communication, and are always with mom. NFL advocates claim that babies raised this way cry less, are less anxious, calmer, learn more and have better cognitive development.

Brushing past the fact that there isn’t actually any evidence this is true, I’ll concentrate on pointing out that NFL proponents have created a very idealized view of primitive life. They want to see these people as living closer to nature, and do. They see that they nurse for 3 or more years and think that that is so wonderful and so natural. It doesn’t occur to them that they nurse that long because they lack any suitable foods for weaning, so they nurse as long as possible to shore up the chances of their baby’s survival. Should Mom get pregnant before 3 years are up, they don’t hesitate to wean immediately. They co-sleep, but mainly because they live in a one room hut. Having a room for ‘just parents’ is a luxury they can only imagine. They don’t use diapers because they don’t have any. They don’t practicie elimination communication so much as let their kids pee where ever simply because they have no alternatives. Their floors are dirt, while ours are carpet. They wear their babies, but it might not be mom who does it. It might be older sister, or Mom’s younger sister and this is mainly because Mom needs to go back to work. In all primitive societies, Moms are extremely important economic providers.

NFL proponents notice the breasfeeding, but ignore the fact that the nurslings are basically ignored. Due to high child mortality rates, in many primitive cultures babies aren’t even considered human until they turn 6 months old. Before then, they’re seen as exciting between the spiritual plain and real life. Unlike modern parents who aim to connect with their children on an emotional basis–or, in the words of Bowlby and Ainsworth, to attach themselves to them–most primitive tribes strive to avoid it, at least until their children are older and the odds of their survival are higher.

So why is this way of life so appealing? The German philosopher and art historian argued that we look for in architecture what we lack in ourselves. I theorize that the same is true of our parenting. By rejecting what they deem to be ‘modern’ parenting practices in favor of ‘natural’ ones, parents today are seeking to balance the endless modernity and technological trappings of modern life with an approach they perceive as being more natural. So they reject diapers in favor of rushing their newborn to the potty when they sense he needs to ‘eliminate’…and take picture of it with their iPhone and post it on Facebook.

And there we have the problem. The natural life NFL practitioners advocate is completely fake. It’s sanitized. We want what’s natural without having to give up any of the modern conveniences of our lives. When I EC’d my oldest, I got peed on a lot and so did our carpet. I ended up washing a lot of laundry in my washing machine and using a lot of chemical-ridden sprays on my carpet–options not available to my ancestors 100 years ago or more primitive contemporaries. I wanted to not use diapers, but not if it meant I had to give up my washing machine. Ironically, using diapers would have resulted in using it less.

Instead of searching out more genuine ways to add nature and more natural things to our lives, we’re cherry picking what we deem to be more natural things from what we’ve “heard” primitive people do. Primitive babies are held more and cry less! we enthuse. We ignore the fact that anthropologists report that nearly every primitive village has a few babies keeping everyone up at night with their incessant screaming; only those who come into the society with a need to believe that in primitive societies, babies don’t cry leave reporting that none do.

Nietzsche said that a mature adult is one who always looks truth in the face. Fake consolations always have to be paid for by a general and profound worsening of the original complaint. Natural Family Living is a fake consolation. It’s pretending to be natural, to be what more ‘natural’ tribes practice while raising their kids and promises to produce calmer, smarter, and more empathetic children and ignore the complete lack of evidence that any of this is true. We want it so badly we approach it with almost religious fervor.

Fortunately, we can always seek out more authentic ways to balance our modern lives with our desire for a more natural one. We could go camping–leave everything modern at home, just tents, sleeping bags and fire staters, maybe a transponder for emergencies. Emerge from the brush after a week of heating your own water over a fire, no air conditioning or heating, and very little protection from rain and bugs will give you a new sense of appreciation for the amenities of our modern lives.

How wonderful it is that we can put the baby down in its own room where it won’t be woken up. How convenient it is that we can use a baby monitor to know when our baby wakes up so we can continue doing what we want while he sleeps. How great that modern sanitation and vaccines reduce our infant mortality rate to such a degree that immediately attaching ourselves to our babies has become the norm, instead of the exception.

Modernity is a blessing best enjoyed when parsed by regular excursions into nature.