This is what extended breastfeeding really looks like
When I first saw the infamous cover of Time magazine showing the little boy with his mom’s breast is in his mouth, I immediately recognized it as shock journalism. But there was something else unsettling about it. I just couldn’t put my finger on it right away. Yes, the mother’s breast is showing. Yes, the whole propped up boy looking directly at us made me think that Time was trying to misrepresent attachment parenting as something that turns moms into slaves who are at the whim of their children’s every want and desire.
Yet, that wasn’t what really was getting under my skin. I’ve witnessed the heated debates over the photo, the backlash and anger. I’ve heard people calling the photo child porn and accusing the mom of child abuse. I don’t agree with these harsh statements, but I don’t agree with the photo either (and if I’d been the one to fly to New York City for the shoot, I most definitely would not have agreed to posing in that manner).
I received an email from an attachment parent who said she saw the photo as not being sensational and as being natural. After I read her email, I took a look at the photo again. I could not agree with her. I practice extended breastfeeding. I am very supportive of it and attachment parenting, but there was nothing natural about that posed photo. And the only thing “attached” in it was the boy’s mouth to his mom’s breast. As much as I didn’t want to admit it as a mom who is nursing an older child, there was something twisted and sexual about it.
Later I was nursing my sweet 3-year-old, and I felt warm and cuddly. She gently brushed my cheek with her little, dimpled hand and said, “I ‘wuv’ you, Mommy.” And – ah-ha! – it struck me that what bothered me wasn’t what the photo showed but what it didn’t.
I have seen my share of photos of older children nursing in other countries where there’s a lot more of the mother’s breast exposed (like the whole thing – nipple and all – because both breasts are clear to the eye since she’s topless); yet, these photos evoke beauty, peace, and maternity. But this photo does nothing of the sort.
The Time photo shows defiance. It shows a flash of breast. What it doesn’t show is any inkling of serenity or maternity or love.
An anonymous comment over at Faith & Family LIVE! said it best:
“This pic accentuates this woman’s boobs (even if they are not size ‘D’ or anything like that, they’re still highlighted by the pose and clothing); the woman is wearing tight clothes and standing in a defiant pose that does not suggest softness, cuddling, or warmth. My point is that I think this pic was *carefully* designed to pose attachment parenting moms in an unattached way. And attachment parenting without the attachment is… well… what is it? Let’s see, it could be weird… it could be gross… it could be any number of things because the barometer of love between mother and child which guides the mom in her choices and style is broken without attachment. So, would or could it then dip in to some gross sexualized situation? Why not! Basically, this pic turns attachment parenting on its head and debases it. This pic is the antithesis of attachment parenting. Like porn is the antithesis of what sex is meant to be. And I think that’s why this pic feels a little porn-like, even though we all know its just a nursing mom.”
My friend, Michelle, added,
“Breastfeeding is one of those things that I had very little experience seeing until I myself was a nursing mom. Then I saw it everywhere. Never, never, have I seen a great looking mom wearing tight clothes, hands on hips, pulling her top down so her preschooler could get a drink. There is nothing soft, loving or motherly here. It is a pose of defiance that dares the world to tell her she can live her life any way she durn well pleases. Perhaps there are extended breastfeeding mother like this, but they would be in the minority. For most, breastfeeding is a quiet, comforting time for both mother and child…or a time where the mother says, “Again? I just fed your sister…I need to do the dishes…” followed by a sigh (I’ve seen that one most often!). I generally wean by age 2, because I wanted to, not because my children wanted to. And by the time they were 15-18 months old, I discouraged nursing in public just because of this sort of thing. I have friends who NEVER nurse in public, always bringing bottles of pumped milk around, even to my house where I told her she was crazy to pump to nurse an infant, especially at my pro-breastfeeding home. But she just wasn’t comfortable nursing in front of others because of stigmas fueled by this sort of news coverage.”
I hate it that women feel shame because of media stunts like this. I’ve already received several messages from moms who breastfeed older children who are embarrassed and sad due to this hoopla. Want to know the truth? Something that mainstream media rarely, if ever, portrays? This is what extended breastfeeding really looks like:
There is love. There is warmth. There is quiet. We often live in a “not now” world when it comes to our children because everything else demands our attention now.
“Mommy, can you play with me?”
“Not now, sweetie. I’ve got to make dinner.”
“Mommy, let’s paint!”
“Now now, honey, I’m checking my email.”
Breastfeeding limits the amount of “not nows” my child and I have to share (although I certainly do turn down some of my older child’s requests to nurse. A baby’s needs and wants are one in the same. As our children grow older, the line is more blurred). Nursing forces my hummingbird self to slow down and to take time to cuddle with my child. The attachment is way beyond the physical. It hinges on peace and love. The only thing attached in the Time photo was the boy’s mouth to his mother’s breast. No wonder it made people uncomfortable. What is mothering – and breastfeeding beyond what’s considered the “norm” is about mothering and nurturing a child – without love?
If you have a problem with my version of extended breastfeeding, then I’m sorry, but the problem is more you. You are not comfortable with the idea that breasts are instruments to feed children and not just sex toys. You are not comfortable that a child who is beginning to speak for herself and seek independence still needs to be close to her mama sometimes. Or that it might even be good for mama to slow down and to focus on her little one who lives in a world that tries to make her big before she’s ready.
I understand your discomfort. It’s not entirely your fault. There are lots of mixed messages out there and when media portray breastfeeding as Time did, we all get a little uncomfortable.
Aside from shocking people and igniting new mommy wars, what this distorted cover image and its loaded words ultimately did was disenfranchise moms. Thanks to Time, there is one group of moms (those who nurse and especially those who nurse children older than what’s considered “acceptable”) feeling like freaks. They also probably either feel like they have to hide the fact that they are still nursing or are prepared to turn militant about defending their choices. Some may even feel they need to defend that misguided photo (like I was at first, maybe they aren’t even sure why the photo makes them uneasy) because breastfeeding is natural and loving – but not when it’s portrayed the way Time portrayed it. On the other side is different group of moms who don’t nurse and/or practice attachment parenting, and they’re angry at the implication that they are not mom enough because of those big letters on the cover: “Are you mom enough?”
Nobody wins. Shame on Time magazine for making any mom feel unworthy. And right before Mother’s Day, too.
Motherhood is undervalued in our society. We give it plenty of lip service, but we’re constantly trying to define it, box it into a set of principles or rules, objectify it, undermine it, and judge it. At its heart, mothering is about love. And that is what Time magazine purposefully, I believe, completely dismissed when they put that cold and completely detached photo on its cover.
The primary purpose of this blog is not to promote breastfeeding or to even defend it. I write to encourage mothers no matter how they choose to feed their child or what season of their mothering life they are in. I also am not trying to be sensational by showing a photo of me nursing my 3-year-old, but I believe we’ve got to put ourselves out there some if want to fight the stereotypes and help to normalize breastfeeding. I’ll get off my soapbox now. Happy Mother’s Day to you all!!!
UPDATE: I feel compelled to add after reading some of the comments and receiving some emails that I was careful to not personally arrack the mom in the photo or to project blame upon her. I’m aware of how it could have possibly been my child and me manipulated into a pose that would sell magazines or even just unaware of all the snapshots being taken. In this post and in all of my discussions about the Time cover, I have referred to the photo and the magazine and its editors as being culpable rather than pointing my finger at the mom. I never said she didn’t love her child or that she was not emotionally attached to him or that she was flippant or arrogant and feeling “mom enough” – only that Time magazine chose a photo that didn’t exactly conjure up maternal love and portrayed the act of breastfeeding and attachment parenting in a distorted way.
UPDATE (again because it’s my website, and I can update whenever I want): I frequently see passionate parents guilty of making a common logical fallacy when I or some other mom shares her own parenting style or even just a glimpse into her parenting life, and frankly, it drives me nuts. For instance, I’ll say something like I do “A” because it is a way to show love to my child, and someone somewhere angrily wags her finger at me (or that’s what I imagine her doing) and responds by accusing me of saying that because she doesn’t also do “A,” she doesn’t love her child as much as I do. Or because nursing helps to curb me from saying “not now” too often and living more in the moment that nursing longer than expected is the only way to do that. Rubbish.
I’ve heard overwhelmingly positive feedback about this post. There was one guy on Twitter who said the photo was maybe even creepier than the Time one. Whatever. I’m not going to even waste energy defending my words or photo to someone who makes an assessment like that.
But there was one mom, who was charitable in sharing her opposition, but was clearly upset with this post, feeling like I was asking not to be judged but judging moms who didn’t nurse as long I happen to be nursing one of my kids. (For the record: I did not nurse my first two nearly as long either. Also, I actually had to immediately wean the child who is now still nursing when I was put on bed rest after going in to premature labor. She did not nurse for 10 weeks but when the baby was born, she asked about a little mama’s milk, and here we are.) First off, I never asked not to be judged. In fact, I know that even a loving portrayal of breastfeeding an older child would have been rejected by some if it had ended up on the cover of a glossy. And I know there are probably people who saw my photo and squirmed a bit, and remember there’s the Twitter guy who found it really creepy. In these cases, I stand by my statement that that’s the person’s problem. Not that it’s completely anyone’s fault. We have some pretty strict cultural scripts to rewrite before everyone can become more comfortable with breasts’ sole purpose being to feed children – even older ones. Yet, what I never said is that if you choose not to breastfeed your child for a long time (or even at all), then the problem is with you.
But one mom saw it differently. She chose not to breastfeed her children as long, and she felt like I was being divisive and felt that I was saying she and her husband had a problem because they felt like gently weaning earlier was right for their family. She felt that I was saying that anyone who does not nurse her child as long as I do has a problem. Rubbish, again, I say. I never said that. It was falsely deduced. So often people connect imaginary dots and end up feeling attacked.
As I shared in the combox after this comment, I’m a little disheartened because I so did not want any mom to feel like she had to defend her choices. I hate the mommy wars and always try to be charitable when discussing my mothering lifestyle and choices without making other moms feel like they’re not “mom enough.” I never imagined this post would go so viral, and I realize that there are a ton of people who are new to my website and don’t realize that I’ve written ad nauseum about how how I don’t like labels and that good mothering does not come in one-size-fits-all.
I also read something really great by Lauren @ Hobo Mama about how extended breastfeeding or tandem nursing probably seemed a little weird to most of the women who ended up practicing it now. She writes,
If you think extended breastfeeding, or tandem nursing, is weird, you’re not alone. Most of us did at one point or another, too. Most of us started out merely wanting to breastfeed until our baby wanted to stop, or until we as the nursing parents needed or wanted to, or until it wasn’t working for our family. We wanted weaning to be a gentle and gradual process. You don’t start out breastfeeding a four-year-old — you start out with a newborn, who just keeps growing. By the time a four-year-old is breastfeeding, the frequency is way down, and you both know it’s phasing out. Trust me, it’s not “all about the mother” — it’s about the relationship. And there’s no way you can force a child to breastfeed, so it’s definitely the kid’s choice.
That’s an excellent point. I don’t have “end dates” in mind when I start nursing an infant. I don’t think most moms do. I might have even thought it would be weird to be nursing two kids at once or to be nursing one for longer than toddlerhood. But here I am. And it doesn’t feel weird at all.
I’m adding these tidbits here and there because this post is continuing to attract a lot of attention, and I really appreciate the charitable and engaging conversation that’s going on. And I want anyone who finds her way here to know that I feel called to encourage all parents – whether their kids were breastfed for four years or not at all.