January 23, 2020

In 1493, the Scottish king James IV sent two infants to the tiny island of Inchkeith, near Edinburgh, in the care of a mute woman. His hope was that without the influence of ordinary human speech, the innate, God-given language of mankind would emerge spontaneously in the children as they grew.

The notion that humans are born with an inbuilt collection of social and moral presets, that represent the optimum “natural” way of being human, is deeply influential in our culture. But is it really possible to establish, objectively and scientifically, the best way to ensure a child is raised according to “nature”?

In Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693) the philosopher John Locke argued that rather than (as medieval wisdom had it) being born sinful, infants were in fact tabula rasa — a blank slate. He believed it was the duty of parents to ensure children developed in ways that habituated them to their environment, for example by regularly bathing their feet in cold water so they would not find wet boots unbearable as adults.

Some seven decades later, in 1762, Jean-Jacques Rousseau went considerably further. Children, he said, are not tabula rasa but bearers of divine virtue that is only corrupted by contact with culture. In Emile, or On Education he argued that “God makes all things good; man meddles with them and they become evil”. The purpose of child-rearing and education is thus to do as little damage to natural human goodness as possible.

Are humans blank pages upon which parents should try and write the best possible version of a social being? Or does the introduction of culture corrupt a higher, purer, innate nature? This debate still rages today, across spheres as varied as education and criminal justice, but the most intimate battleground for the ongoing contest between Locke and Rousseau is the so-called “mummy wars”.

On the side of Locke, for example, you see sleep experts such as Richard Ferber or routine advocates such as Gina Ford, who advocate parental authority, structure and boundary-setting to train a child’s habits along lines that will ensure development as flourishing members of their community. On the side of Rousseau, you see William Sears and Sarah Ockwell-Smith, advocates of “gentle” or “attachment” parenting, that “allows the natural, biological attachment-promoting behaviors of the infant and the intuitive, biological, caregiving qualities of the mother to come together”.

This has arisen in tandem with a whole ecosystem of scientific research oriented toward establishing in some definitive way which parenting methods produce the best “outcomes”. As Ellie Lee argues in the 2014 anthology Parenting Culture Studies, since the twentieth century there has been a turn away from the validation of “a mother’s instincts, virtue and affection” toward parenting as a “scientific enterprise”.

It should be noted at this point that the polite euphemism “parenting”, in practice, almost always means “mothering”. I have written previously in these pages about the asymmetric physiological burden of child-rearing; and the main asymmetry, once a child has been gestated and delivered safely, is of course breastfeeding.

Science is unequivocal about the benefits of breastfeeding. But fathers cannot breastfeed, a non-negotiable biological given that throws down the gauntlet to modern ideals of equal parenting. This poses difficult questions for modern families. Is it best to breastfeed even if it conflicts with mothers’ desire — or need — to work? Is it more feminist and “natural” to embrace the unique biological role of a woman’s body in breastfeeding, or to bottle-feed in the interests of equal parenting?

Even public policy gives mixed messages. Should mothers stay close to their babies or hand them over and go back to work? The NHS promotes breastfeeding via poster campaigns even as breastfeeding services remain under-funded. Meanwhile, family policy across all the main parties focuses on subsidising childcare, and the rising cost of living makes stay at home mothering unaffordable for many on lower incomes.

Positioned as it is on the fault-lines between choice and necessity, biology and culture, breastfeeding also creates an ideal battleground for the conflict between Locke and Rousseau over the best way to raise a child. Should we impose a structure on when babies feed, or encourage breastfeeding on demand?

In this light it was refreshing to read  a study, published in January, that stepped outside the usual parameters of the “mummy wars” — that is, the question of absolute benefit to the baby of a given parenting practice — to look at the social meaning of breastfeeding.

The study explored the different relationships of mothers to breastfeeding in developing and developed economies, as well as across time, to conclude that as well as being a means of feeding a baby, breastfeeding also has sociocultural meaning among mothers themselves, functioning as a site for competition and status-seeking.

In poorer societies where formula milk is expensive and clean water hard to come by, the study showed that breastfeeding is perceived a low-status means of feeding your child. In contrast, in developed societies with ready access to clean water but where staying at home with a baby is unaffordable for many, breastfeeding uptake is far higher among middle and upper class women as it serves to signal wealth.

Breastfeeding, then, is laden with complex meanings that vary across cultural and economic contexts. And here we can see what the “mummy wars” repeatedly miss out, in their hyperfocus on the authority of science: the dimension of social meaning.

Viewed through the social lens, it becomes clear that supposedly scientific debates about optimum mothering are heavily class-inflected. Consider the two principal UK parenting forums: Mumsnet and Netmums. Spend more than a few minutes browsing the discussions there and it is clear (as articulated in this thread) that the culture of Mumsnet skews middle- to upper-middle-class in its aesthetic and register. Netmums, on the other hand, skews more lower-middle or working-class.

Explore further, and it becomes apparent that Netmums is for Locke, while Mumsnet is more Rousseau. Even mentioning Gina Ford on Mumsnet will get you called “brave”. Indeed, so passionate is the consensus against routine and structure in babycare on among Mumsnetters, that in 2007 Ford herself threatened legal action against the website if its forum members did not stop insulting her. On the more working-class Netmums, by contrast, Gina Ford gets a relatively warm write-up.

Thus a suspicion begins to emerge that notionally scientific parenting questions are in truth vehicles for class and cultural debates. In addition, the middle and upper classes skew toward a liberal, “instinct”-oriented “natural” Rousseauesque philosophy of motherhood, while lower and middle-class mothers are more drawn to a structured, authority-based model. Are there broader political parallels to be drawn?

It is tempting to extrapolate from the class-inflected contest between Rousseau and Locke across Mumsnet and Netmums, and the “open” vs “closed” (or alternatively “Anywhere” and “Somewhere”) tussles evident throughout contemporary politics. To put it another way, Mumsnetters are raising Anywheres, while Netmums are raising Somewheres.

Does any of this matter? Well, a young mother from a poor background who feels guilted and judged by the middle-class mummies she meets at Sure Start for putting her baby into a routine from birth, so granny can care for her while she works shifts, might well think so.

“There is no such thing as an infant,” wrote paediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott in 1960, “only a nursing couple”. That is to say, very young children are so absolutely dependent on a caregiver that it makes no sense to speak about a baby in the abstract. It follows from this that it makes no sense to conceive of a baby’s wellbeing as distinct from the wellbeing of its mother. And in that light, whatever the science says, sometimes breast may not be best.

Just as newborns cannot meaningfully be abstracted from their caregivers, nor can humans (perhaps especially babies) meaningfully be abstracted from their social and cultural relations. It is not known what happened to the Inchkeith babies, but a 13th century version of the same experiment, by the ghoulish Empereror Frederick II, resulted not in the emergence of natural language after all. Rather, the poor infants whom Frederick commanded to be raised with food but no other interaction simply died, presumably of lack of love.

Rather than being a corrupting influence on the intrinsic goodness of infant humans, culture and relationship are as essential to the nourishment of babies as milk and regular sleep. With this in mind, we should stop using science as an ideological stick with which to beat mothers into compliance with Locke, Rousseau or whoever. Maybe instead we could accept that childrearing is an intricate dialogue between biological necessity and cultural meaning.

Rather than treating feeding or nap-time as a proxy for ideological arm-wrestling over the nature of human beings, we can leave families to suit their parenting to their circumstances and – perhaps – even trust that in most cases mother really does know best.