In Push Back, Amy Tuteur seems to take pride in the fact that she is hated by natural childbirth advocates. This mutual enmity drives this manifesto against the natural parenting movement.
Tuteur’s main message is that women should not be made to feel guilt or shame for their birth or feeding choices, which I am totally on board with. Tuteur clearly states that there should be no dichotomy in birth, that one birth is not better than another, that women who breastfeed are not better than women who formula feed. This message is important, and when it comes out, it shines.
Many times, I felt as if there were mixed messages in the book. Because Tuteur is so against the natural parenting movement, she has a hard time seeing the shades of gray herself. She tries to acknowledge them, which I give her credit for, but at times she just contradicts herself. She states that birth is just like digestion or breathing: a bodily function. She states that women should not be empowered by birth or feel that birth is an achievement. Then she says that she rarely thinks about her own children’s births and that they were just days to her. Yet later in the book, she tells women to love their bodies and their births the way they are. She wants women to make their own choices, but then pushes epidurals and pain relief, saying that there is no reason a woman should refuse them. She talks about natural parenting advocates acting like they are superior to others, but clearly sees herself and other doctors as the superior choice.
This frame has its advantages. There is a clear passion against the irrational and a deep commitment to the best care for women and babies. Because the feeling is so strong, it is clear that the message is important. It is when Tuteur becomes dismissive that she lets us down. She talks about messages from the natural parenting community being “spoon-fed” to women. She puts down birth plans and birth stories. Does she truly believe that every woman who thinks about about her birth experience and how she wants it to be is incapable of critical thinking? She concludes that the natural parenting industry has created a mythos around the childbirth experience – which I agree with. This causes women to feel unnecessary guilt and shame. But birth is an experience nonetheless, no matter how it turns out. True, it cannot be controlled, but women should do the research and get an idea of what they might want in labor. This allows them to maintain their agency and a sense of control, even when they are experiencing something that cannot be controlled.
Women should critically evaluate their doctors and not be spoon-fed what doctors give them, either. Doctors are people just like the rest of us; just because they are educated does not mean they are perfect. It is so important to form a relationship with your care provider and trust that they are the right one for you. Tuteur’s home birth and water birth statistics are frightening, which is the exact reason I chose a certified nurse-midwife and a hospital for my deliveries. That was my choice, not anyone else’s, and I was pleased with my decision. I wrote a birth plan, too; my first birth did not go as expected, and my second one did. Was I traumatized? In some ways, yes. In my specific situation, the epidural was not the right choice. I got a terrible spinal headache, which was worse than the pain of labor and which I wanted to avoid for my second birth. But my children are alive and happy, and I had two experiences that I feel were achievements. I was empowered because I chose excellent care and received it. Granted, I am lucky that I had the privilege to do this; Tuteur makes the point that these choices are the domain of white women in developed countries, and I agree with that. But let’s talk about what should be considered an achievement, one more time. Is beating cancer an achievement? Then, so too should be giving birth. I don’t enjoy being told how to feel. I’m not a doctor, but I’m self-aware.
I could extrapolate this further by saying that having a child is an achievement. Whether it’s medicated, unmedicated, by C-section, or by adoption. A small organism is relying on you for its well-being. I’m not claiming I’m superior by stating this. Running a marathon is an achievement. Potty-training your dog is an achievement. Those are two things I never really want to do, but I respect those who have. I want to hear birth and child-getting stories that are different from mine because I value other people’s perspectives. If you want a good book of birth stories, I suggest Labor Day. These stories are authentic, real, and necessary.
Let’s also remember that not every individual is driven by an agenda. My doula and I don’t always agree, but I knew she had my back no matter what my decisions were, because she supported my decisions. Birth support is so important, and women need it. If you are skeptical about the organizations that provide credentials for birth support, find someone you do trust. For example, one friend had her mother, a nurse, with her at all her births. Do not dismiss natural parenting ideas out of hand – instead, take them as they are, be critical, and use what you need. Yes, some people do have the agenda of shaming. But don’t shame me because I used a doula either. Another example: I don’t babywear because I feel my child needs to be close to me at all times. I babywear because I want to be close to my child and because it is more convenient than a stroller. My choices, not an agenda’s.
Breastfeeding is covered in detail as well, and again, the evidence is great; the conclusions, not always. My favorite evidence-based parenting writer is Emily Oster, who writes in this article about the studies surrounding breastfeeding. I have always felt that breastfeeding may only be marginally better, but if I can provide milk to my child, it’s cheaper, takes the pounds off, and yes, it’s an achievement. I’m nourishing my child using my own body. What could be cooler about that? Yes, I felt bad that I could never breastfeed exclusively – yes, I had to rely on the pump. That was because I am missing out on baby snuggles and hormones. That’s another reason I babywear, actually – so I can get more baby snuggles. Really, all of this is about baby snuggles.
Tuteur talks about the “normalizing breastfeeding” movement being about women showing their superiority because they breastfeed. Maybe this is true, in some cases. But I don’t think the women who have been kicked out of restaurants and museums, talked down to, and told “no one wants to see that” would agree. We need to normalize breastfeeding because it is normal! Just like formula feeding is. I would argue that we need to normalize formula feeding, too. It’s the other side of the same coin. The mom buying formula doesn’t need to be shamed either. Why do people even care? Because women’s bodies and parenting choices are the territory of society. This is a feminist problem, and one that Tuteur talks about, but I think we need to talk about it in more detail and with more perspectives.
People should read the book and draw their own conclusions about the evidence presented. I believe this is an important book – obviously, I wouldn’t have spent so much time thinking about it otherwise. This review sounds negative, but I agreed with quite a bit of the content, and I’ll still give it a five-star review. This book made me think and challenged my beliefs. It caused me to push back, both against the book itself and against the industry detailed in the book. This perspective is desperately needed in a world where people judge each other for the slightest differences in parenting styles, in a world where people said that a woman should be shot because she lost track of her small child for one second.
The only way to combat shame is to be authentic and real and tell our stories. In Rising Strong, Brene Brown details an example. Ask yourself – how would you view people differently if you said to yourself: “they are doing the best they can.” Catch yourself judging people? Say that to yourself. You will feel instantly humble. It is important to give ourselves the same compassion and self-respect.