Breast milk provides nourishment, immunity, and a sense of connection to the child. The World Health Organization recommends six months of exclusive breastfeeding for optimal nourishment and health. The group suggests supplemental nursing in combination with food until two years of age or beyond. Theories abound about weaning an extended nurser, those who nurse into toddlerhood, ranging from Dr. Bill Sears reminding people there is no clock on the child to the state of Colorado briefly removing a five-year-old nurser from the parents’ home.
Enter Time Magazine and its provocative cover of a four-year-old standing on a chair to nurse. A headline confronts the reader with “Are You Mom Enough?” while referring to the concept of attachment parenting. This cover brings one to a story about Dr. Sears, the man who popularized attachment parenting, and whose writing and demeanor are the exact opposite of the in-your-face attitude the cover presents.
My wife and I practice a modified version of attachment parenting in that we have made our baby an active part of our lives, we seek to work with the cues she provides us, and we adjust our lives and living arrangements accordingly. Baby nurses at night while feeding on pumped breast milk during the day. We hope to keep supplementing with breast milk for some time as she adjusts to other foods. I sleep on the couch, while Mom and baby share a room, sometimes a bed. We don’t practice “crying it out.” Some people think we’re crazy and don’t hesitate to tell us. We haven’t cracked open Dr. Sears’ book in months and are relying on intuition and what works for us.
We dared use the term “attachment parenting” and now we have this photo to represent us. Commence controversy!
Since the story is tucked behind a paywall, the picture has become attachment parenting for the greater community. Derision without proof about parents who cannot let go or children with stunted growth have emanated in online forums. For many, though, the viewer’s own dysfunctional relationship to the human female breast has become apparent.
Since the child is suckling later than we see most children in our society, these responses to the cover have popped up online: “sick,” “child molestation,” “pedophiles,” “laziness,” and “sexualizing children.” Timing is everything. Prior to the magazine’s release, I wrote about the spate of controversies erupting around the country that stem from public breastfeeding. Moms have been thrown out of courtrooms, humiliated on buses, and threatened with arrest. In these instances, the children have been much younger than the boy on the cover, but still the breast has been deemed offensive.
The breast is not inherently sexual, only becoming such via cultural stories passed from one generation to the next. We have fetishized the breast so that it is as taboo as the actual sexual organs, though the breast itself is only tangentially sexual, like the knee, neck, or foot. We’re lashing out at a body part with invective when we should be looking at our inability to separate reality from the fictions we create. In other words, the photograph does not sexualize the child, the viewer who ascribes that label does.
The photo is innocent.
Our minds are not.
Time’s cover photo has sparked inflammatory debate, but could have done so much more. The magazine had a chance to raise important points about breastfeeding, on industry’s influence over parenting decisions, and to highlight an alternative to the prevailing practices in this country. It should have been labeled “For Mature Audiences Only.” Not due to the exposed breast, but to enhance discussion that keeps it away from our basest, most guttural responses.
Until we can deal with the human body maturely, we will be bogged down in controversies that could have been quelled in elementary school.