Back in the early noughties I would often spend hours arguing about the subtler aspects of left-wing
theory with strangers on the internet. I would leave essays unfinished and my
PhD supervisor waiting in frustration while I discovered and corrected grave
ideological errors like economism, opportunism, and reformism in the e mails of
my interlocutors. I would in turn be accused of, and angrily deny, such sins as
ultra-leftism and hyper-sectarianism.
These days I still
engage in quixotic debates on obscure corners of the internet in the early
hours of the morning, but my opponents are more likely to be members of rival
postnatal groups rather than rival Marxist groups, and we’re likely to be
arguing about disposable nappies or measles immunisation rather than about the problems
of the left.
My latest late night polemic
was unleashed after somebody e mailed me links to several articles by William
Sears, the prophet of attachment parenting. Sears is a fundamentalist Christian,
but his claim that children need virtually continual attention from their
mothers for the first eighteen or so years of their lives has won him an
alarmingly large following amongst liberal young parents in Western
Sears’ disciples are
easy to spot: they tend to hobble about with their toddlers in slings, because
their guru has denounced prams as an attack on the mother-child bond, and they
usually have black rings under their eyes, because Sears warns against imposing
regular bedtimes on kids.
In the articles I was
sent, Sears insisted, again and again, that creches, separate beds for kids,
sleep schedules, and weaning are ‘unnatural’, and must therefore be abandoned. In ‘traditional’
societies, Sears claimed, everyone is an attachment parent; it is only in the
decadent West that mums and pas have fallen away from the true faith.
followers seem to consider attachment parenting a return to the godly American
ways of old, whilst his hippy and hipster devotees seem to interpret his appeal
to the ‘natural’ in New Age terms, and believe that by co-sleeping and slinging
they are getting closer to Gaia.
Here, anyway, is the
sermon against Sears that I sent out far too late one night last week:
It is remarkable how
often contemporary discussions about subjects like childbirth and parenthood
feature that strange adjective ‘natural’. Advocates of various models of
child-rearing all scramble to appeal to biological necessity,
and all claim that their models were the norm in pre-modern, 'traditional'
This craze for the ‘natural’ would confuse pioneering
feminists like Margaret Mead, Simone de Beauvoir, or New Zealand's Elsie Locke
- for these advocates of then-controversial ideas like public breastfeeding,
work creches, and free contraception, it was vital to prove that no such thing
as a single legitimate way of creating families and raising kids existed.
Mead's classic studies of family life in Samoa and
New Guinea were intended to show the many, many different ways humans could
organise activities like marriage, sex, childcare, breastfeeding, sleep, and
habitation. Mead showed that societies which lived only a few days' walk from
each other in New Guinea, like the laidback, egalitarian Arapesh and the
violently competitive Mundugunor, had utterly different attitudes to the family
and childrearing. It was a nonsense, she concluded, to imagine that our biology
had given us a single natural way of organising families and raising kids.
Mead's revelations helped liberate generations of
Western women from the idea that the patriarchal version of the nuclear family,
with its authoritarian working Dad and its stay-at-home mother, was the only
environment in which kids can be properly raised. Thinkers like Mead recognised
that appeals to the authority of Mother or Father Nature were inimical to human
I am pleased to see that some contemporary
feminists are returning to the approach of Margaret Mead, and attacking the
notion that nature prescribes a single, unvarying mode of parenthood. The
French intellectual Elizabeth Badinter has launched a ferocious attack on the
bogus appeals to naturalism made by advocates of attachment parenting in her new book The Conflict.
If I understand her rightly, then Badinter is not arguing
against attachment parenting, or any other form of parenting - she is simply
denying that there is one 'natural' form of child-rearing prescribed for us by
Badinter's book can be seen as part of a wider argument
against the notion that there is a single natural way for humans to behave. As
David Moberg noted last year in a long and fascinating article for Dissent magazine, the social sciences have become the site of
trench warfare between advocates of sociobiology, who insist that millions of
years of evolution have committed human beings to behaving in fundamentally
similar ways, no matter what landscape, climate, and culture they inhabit, and
their opponents, like the great anthropologist Marshall Sahlins.
interview with Moberg, Sahlins charged the sociobiologists with making the
culture of American capitalism, with its emphasis on individualism and
competition, into the essence of every human society or the past and present.
Sahlins insists that there is not one but a ‘thousand kinds’ of human society. He's right.
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]