Time breast-feeding cover: On parenting, can we all get along?

Parenting trends – including 'attachment parenting' – come and go, but fervent debate about tactics is rooted in widespread parental insecurity and the so-called middle class 'mommy wars.'  

Time magazine's current breastfeeding cover. The US ranks last among the 36 industrialized nations in support of breastfeeding. But the extended breastfeeding cover image – as in an elderly toddler suckling his model-mother's breast – is Time's angle into the American trend of attachment parenting.

America got together this week on the national playground to talk mommies, breastfeeding, and good parenting. Time and their cover model-mom, Jamie Lynne Grumet, made sure of that, as the pretty, hand-on-her-hip mom looked out from supermarket magazine aisles, her near-4-year-old son standing on a chair, attached to her breast with his mouth, while Time asked, “Are you mom enough?”

The peculiar intimacy portrayed, the size of the child, and questions about whose needs are really being met in the Grumet family set off a fervent debate in a country that ranks 36th among industrialized nations when it comes to breast-feeding, and where “normal” parenting is hard to define because of America’s cultural diversity.

Is this good? Some say the picture helps to normalize breast-feeding and the idea of “attachment parenting,” which means extended breast-feeding, co-sleeping, and refraining from using the word “no,” ideas espoused by best-selling parenting book author William Sears, whom Time suggests “remade motherhood.” (The philosophical underpinnings of attachment parenting actually date back to the 1950s.)

Is it bad? Some say the picture itself, more than the idea of what some would call over-attentive parenting, is an example of parenting gone badly wrong. “This is self-centeredness at its worst, sold as good parenting,” writes Keith Ablow, a psychiatrist, on Fox News.

In an era of helicopter parents and delayed nest-jumping, these are all debatable points. But the core of debate over the provocative picture is fueled by the extent to which American moms and dads are ready and willing to debate their own basic parental insecurities: Am I doing this right? How do I know?

“Part of the issue here is, she can do whatever she wants, there’s no abuse going on,” says Joani Geltman, a child development expert in Cambridge, Mass. “It’s a way for people to look at their own values and their own belief systems, which I think is what a good magazine article does. It gets you to look at your own life and your own family, and your own children and ask, Why wouldn’t I do this? What’s my belief system that I wouldn’t do this?”

To be sure, what Ms. Geltman calls the photo’s “icky” quality suggests that America as a whole may not be totally comfortable with so-called “child-led weaning” espoused by Sears. According to an unscientific online poll by MSNBC, 73 percent of respondents said they would rather not see those kinds of images.

One mom who took part in the Time photo shoot said the confrontational nature of the photograph and the headline may actually serve to inflame middle-class “mommy wars.”

Proselytizing child-led weaning, co-sleeping, and gentle admonitioning for bad behavior is not the intent, writes Dionna Ford, one of the Time moms, in a blog on the Huffington Post. “Why does my [4-year-old] son still nurse?” she writes “He nurses because I am his warm, safe place. This is what works for us. You may do things differently. Neither of us is more extreme or better than the other.”

Some child development experts, however, take a dimmer view of the practice, which may have fueled some of the backlash.

“In a way, while looking at the Time magazine cover, we are all Grumet’s son and may know something of his possible plight: finding her a compelling and dramatic presence, seduced by her combination of sex appeal and motherhood – unable, in fact, to detach from her,” writes Dr. Ablow. “Talk about a prescription for psychological disaster.”

Even if the consequences aren’t that dire, other development experts say there’s still open debate about whether children really benefit from constant physical and emotional attachment as they move through toddlerhood.

“At the age of 3 is when kids are celebrating their separateness from their parents, so I think it gets in the way of a developmental milestone,” says child-development expert Geltman. “I think the jury is still out on this philosophy of keeping your child attached to you, literally. But is keeping them attached providing something for the child? Nobody can answer that except the parents and their physician.”

Even some breast-feeding advocates admit they were taken aback by the cover, saying it fails to show the nurturing side of the practice. Ms. Grumet acknowledged that criticism in an interview, saying, “This isn’t the way we breastfeed at home. It’s more of a … cradling situation.”

Grumet says she self-weaned from her mom at age 6, and that she still occasionally breastfeeds her 5-year-old adopted son, a practice that she says has eased his anxieties.

Even on the playground, parenting is always hard to discuss because it is, in the end, deeply personal, drawn from tatters of experience, family tradition, book advice, and societal expectations. So when a boy who’ll be going to kindergarten soon is depicted still drawing nourishment directly from mom, the lingering question for some Americans is how the pressure to do right by your kids – helped along in no small way by a provocative magazine cover – pushes parents to seek a higher elevation in parenting than perhaps it requires.

“Attachment parenting demands not just certain actions you take with your baby but also certain emotional states to accompany those actions,” writes Hanna Rosin at Slate. “So, it’s not just enough to breast-feed but one has to experience ‘breast-feeding induced maternal nirvana.’ And it’s not enough to snuggle – you have to snuggle enough to achieve a spiritual high.”

Anything less, adds columnist Logan Levkoff of the Huffington Post, is now being painted by some as failure, adding to the already heady anxieties of bringing a new person into the world.

“There’s no one way to parent,” she writes. “But we’re told in many insidious and just plain overt ways that we’ll never be good enough. It doesn’t make sense, and the result is that we have lost the ability to trust our own instinct.” 

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