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Did Time sexualize breastfeeding with its 'Are you mom enough' cover?

Time cover-model Jamie Lynne Grumet intended to portray extended breastfeeding as normal. But many thought the controversial picture of Ms. Grumet and her son sexualized the relationship.

By Patrik Jonssonwriter / May 12, 2012

Time magazine cover photograph of Jamie Lynne Grumet breastfeeding her son for a story on "attachment parenting."

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What would Sigmund Freud say about Time magazine’s provocative breastfeeding cover picture showing a 20-something mom, hand on hip, as her large son suckles?

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The famous psychiatrist posited in 1905 that weaning a child either too early or too late could lead to destructive oral fixations in adulthood. He also wrote about the Oedipus complex, where a son’s attraction to his own mother could lead him to want to kill his father.

While Freud’s ideas have been challenged and even debunked over the years, his theories about human development certainly underpin a widespread backlash to the picture, which illustrated a story about “attachment parenting” where parents sleep with their children, coddle them before they cry, and, sometimes, extend breastfeeding into kindergarten.

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To be sure, even some breastfeeding advocates took issue with the picture, especially Grumet’s challenging, hands-on-hip pose and the boy’s quizzical peek at the camera as he’s attached to his mom.

But those who know Grumet say she’s a great parent whose children – she also has an adopted son from Ethiopia – are well-adjusted and not clingy.

“Jamie has a heart the size of Texas…. But I think Time did Jamie a disservice by photographing her in an unnatural position in a calculatedly provocative pose in order to sell magazines,” writes Shannon Bradley-Colleary, who knows Grumet through a Los Angeles moms’ group, on Huffington Post.

But in a country that in some ways remains Puritan, and where women recently have held breastfeeding rallies in retail stores to protest policies against public breastfeeding, the picture crossed a broader decency divide for some Americans.

"How do I erase this from my computer?" wrote JoshuaW from Charlotte, North Carolina, in a comment on Yahoo. "If the feds raid my place, I'm looking at five to ten."

“I think people are mainly reacting to the age of the child, and to see sort of a little boy attached to his mother’s breast is unsettling to people,” says Joani Geltman, a child development expert in Cambridge, Mass. (Grumet’s son in the photo is nearly 4 years old.) “To some people I think it seems almost pornographic.”

Grumet acknowledged in an interview with Time that she has experienced backlash in her private life over her decision to breastfeed her large sons, saying people have threatened “to call social services on me or that it’s child molestation.”

But such incidents, she said, inspired her even more to speak out on the topic. "People have to realize this is biologically normal," she said. “The more people see it, the more it'll become normal in our culture. That's what I'm hoping. I want people to see it."

Others likened the provocative photo to child endangerment, where a child is being exploited to aggrandize his mother. Time “may have unwittingly captured and been party to a grotesque form of psychological abuse,” writes Dr. Keith Ablow, a psychiatrist, on Fox News.

Reflecting perhaps a more moderate assessment of the cover, retailers showed no signs of pulling the magazines from their shelves as it appeared on Friday. And Time’s editor, Richard Stengel, offered no apologies in an interview with the Indianapolis Star.

"Part of our job as journalists is to provoke discussion and provoke thought," Mr. Stengel told the Star. "It's becoming a story in and of itself. People are talking about it, and I think that's valuable, too." 

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