By Brendan Mackie
Pierre Bourdieu, writing about sports, has described “two antagonistic philosophies of the legitimate use of the body.” One is “more ascetic,” and “counter-natural”: the body should be improved through diligence and hard work—it should (with considerable effort and expertise) be straightened, strengthened, thinned, and hardened. Think weight-lifting, HIIT, cross-fit, calorie counting, and marathon running. The second philosophy of the legitimate use of the body is “more hedonistic” and “natural.” To return the body to its natural capacity we must “unlearn the superfluous disciplines and restraints” that the ascetic philosophy of the body encourages. Here we have yoga, detoxes, tinctures, barefoot shoes, organic foods, and the vast cosmology of ‘alternative’ bodily practices.
When I became a parent, I noticed that this second, “natural” philosophy of the legitimate use of the body dominated the discussion of infant care. Just look at one of the most popular (and helpful!) baby books on the market: The Happiest Baby on the Block by Harvey Karp M.D. The book gives advice on how to soothe crying infants: Dr. Karp’s Five Ss (Swaddling, side-lying, shushing, swinging, and sucking). If your infant is fussy, colicky, crying for no reason, or otherwise inconsolable—something which can happen frequently and without explanation—the Five Ss act like a hidden “FACTORY RESET” button. When my baby fussed, I followed Dr. Karp’s advice, bundled her up like a burrito, swung her in my arms, and loudly shushed in her ear. And she shut up, just as Karp promised. As Karp proclaims on his Twitter page: “Finally, kids DO come with instructions!” And those instructions are written by Dr. Karp.
The Happiest Baby makes much of Dr. Karp’s expert credentials: he is a pediatrician. It was through his extensive care of infants that he developed, tested, and improved and popularized the techniques that would become the Five Ss. But tellingly, The Happiest Baby on the Block does not rest on the authority of Dr. Karp as a hard-working expert who has professionally attended to the health of thousands of babies, but rather the authority of the natural, which Dr. Karp only acts to uncover. The title of the introduction to Happiest Baby says it all: “How I Rediscovered the Ancient Secrets for Calming Crying Babies.” In service of this natural authority, Karp provides a great deal of evidence that the Five Ss are part of the essential human package. Particularly at stake is the controversial question of infant swaddling: the practice of tightly wrapping your infant like a burrito. Supporters argue that the babies like it. Detractors find something disturbing in basically imprisoning your kid in a blanket for most of the day. It goes in and out of fashion over the centuries. But Karp wants to show that swaddling is part of baseline human behavior, done by every human being in ‘natural’ conditions. In hunter-gatherer societies like the !Kung, Karp says, babies are swaddled all day, where they are also swung, shushed, and given things to suck on.
Dr. Karp is not at all alone in using the authority of the natural to justify baby care advice. Almost every baby book on my bookshelf argues in some way that to be a good parent is to forget the discipline of society and rediscover how people really parent. Take food. Feeding solids to a baby is a little nerve-wracking. The default in America is to spoon-feed your baby purees—think those little jars of Gerber baby food, mushy and homogenous. This is, of course, not natural. According to Super Nutrition for Babies, babies are “designed” to be healthy right down to their “very cells.” But because of their parents’ lazy reliance on those jars of Gerber, fortified rice cereal, and other processed foods “a generation of babies being shortchanged of this healthy birthright.” Instead you should feed your cave-baby natural food: liver, sweet potato, veggies, all minimally processed. Even pooping has a natural solution. There’s the elimination communication movement, or “Natural Infant Hygiene” which is a “gentle, natural, non-coercive process” to dealing with your infant’s poo poo and pee pee. Instead of confining your baby in unnatural, disposable, (convenient!) diapers, the loving, attentive (and patient!) parent lets their baby crawl around without a diaper, trusting her to communicate her elimination needs herself. Every parenting problem has at least one purportedly intuitive, natural solution: sleeping, playing, breastfeeding, discipline—the list goes on.
What’s telling is that all of these natural methods take more time, energy, attention and care than the disposable default. We practice baby led weaning, a ‘natural’ method of introducing foods to infants that means we let our baby feed herself strips of minimally processed foods. It means I have to clean the following after every feeding: my baby, my baby’s clothes, the high chair, the mat under the high chair, the floor around the mat, the dining room table, and me—all of which, after the end of a successful lunch, are covered with natural sweet potato, chicken liver, or green beans. I do this two or three times every day. I am only able to indulge this practice because I’m functionally unemployed right now, supposedly at work finishing my dissertation, and I have enough free time to devote to feeding our baby naturally.
It is perhaps telling that the trend for natural baby care is subscribed most by the aristocrats of our society—the celebrities, the influencers, the C-Suites—who can afford not only the time to parent their kids like little cave babies, but also can afford to buy the vast amount of natural-parenting paraphernalia. There are nannies, sleep consultants, eating consultants, and a whole industry of solutions to help the isolated, time-poor, struggling parent to attempt to parent naturally like the !Kung.
Even as the discourse of baby care hearkens back to the natural, it is a very neoliberal, individualistic natural, which presupposes a great deal of ready cash, extra resources, and spare time. But this ignores the increasingly fraught conditions under which modern parenting is actually done. Today, both parents are expected to work outside the home for long periods of time. Yet household incomes have stagnated, making it increasingly hard for families to pay for childcare. (It would cost $2,450 a month to send my baby to the UC Berkeley childcare service—which is a couple hundred dollars more than my monthly stipend.) It’s perhaps because of these reasons that Millennials like me are having far fewer children than we want. The current configuration of work and parenting, as Elizabeth Warren has shown in the Two Income Trap, has made families more vulnerable to financial shocks. When both parents are working at full capacity just to break even, if one of them gets sick, or loses their job, or wants a career change, it can mean penury.
There’s a radical critique in how hunter-gatherers parent that the modern natural parenting books ignore. It’s impossible to raise a baby with just two parents even in the best of times. According to the Evolutionary Psychologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, hunter-gatherer babies are shared between many different allo-parents, that is, pseudo-parents: not just moms and often dads, but uncles, aunts, grandparents, friends, brothers and sisters, neighbors. This is one of the reasons why a group like the !Kung can hold their babies all day—not because they can afford a full-time nanny—but because they can rely on a whole bunch of different people to help out with the kid.
But the brunt of the critique of the natural parenting movement is our individual consumer choices—processed Gerber, diapers, the wrong basinet. And the solutions are individual consumer choices: Dr. Karp now sells high-end baby gear to help your baby sleep like an !Kung baby, particularly the Snoo Smart Sleeper for $1295.00. Here as in so many other places, we Millennials have been told to solve our collective problems through feats of individual discipline. None of these books as far as I can tell confront the fact that our current configuration of childcare and work means that there are literally not enough hours in the day to be a fully-functioning adult and a fully-functioning parent. None of the parenting books advocate for what to me is the only natural solution to the unnatural material conditions of modern parenting: the formation of co-parenting communes and the dramatic reduction of the number of hours parents work outside the home. No, to be a good parent (or at least a natural parent) we are supposed to parent as if we have the free time and the community of the !Kung, while also working the shitty jobs of a Millennial American to pay off our student loan debt.
The constant appeal to the natural is all the more irritating because the problems of parenting are all so very unnatural for a first-time parent. When your child is crying for three hours straight—is this normal? Should you take her to the hospital? Swaddle her? Give her Tylenol? When you baby shits her diaper, do you change it right away? What if she is asleep? Do you wait until she wakes up? When your baby wakes up at one every morning screaming, do you breastfeed her? Let her cry? Hold her hand?
People like Karp are experts because they promise that they can teach us the non-obvious solutions to this constant barrage of urgent baby care questions. The appeal to the natural is a kind of legerdemain, where this non-obvious advice is presented as obvious, easy, intuitive, right in front of our very noses. Where the sheer tedious effort of attentive parenting is recast as something easy, freeing, and—well, natural. You too, they promise, can be free of the burden of these tedious questions. You too, like our deep ancestors, can eventually parent without having to read a baby book at all .
It is notable that so many baby books have the word Happy in their titles. It’s the whole promise of the natural that happiness should be easy. Depression, anhedonia, boredom, less-than-optimal relationships, infrequent sex, pudge, all the problems of being an adult—all, this model of parenting suggests, are unnatural.
But on this topic, the ancients disagreed. The root of word happy isnot a feeling of euphoria, but a condition of being lucky. It has the same root as the word haphazard and happenstance. Unlike us, the ancients recognized that these oceanic moments where the world and the individual are in sync are rare, magical, special, and the product not of individual effort and discipline, but of grace. For the rest of it—for the poop, the tears, the bedtimes—we need culture, society, the shackles of discipline, that counter-natural orientation to the body that urges us to harden, strengthen, and straighten. For raising cave babies in 2020 is anything but natural, and it requires a great deal of unnatural discipline: firm bedtimes, soft food, spoons, diapers, wipes, and regularity. Only with this hard-won structure, can we parent successfully. But this form of parenting cannot promise happiness. And only by recognizing that it is not our individual responsibility to be happy, perfect, natural, and whole can we get to the real work of reforming the culture at large to make it marginally better for everyone, not just for those who can afford the conveniences of Dr. Karp’s delightful $1295.00 bassinet.
Brendan Mackie is a PhD candidate at University of California, Berkeley, writing his dissertation on clubs and societies in 18th century Britain. You can find his podcast at historian.live. Subscribe to his mailing list to get updates whenever he writes a thing!
Featured Image: Rembradnt, Ganymed in den Fängen des Adlers. ~1635. Courtesy of the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden.