Breast Practices

I’ve been drawn into one of those sensational controversies of the moment caused by a magazine cover. To whit, this one:

I admit my buttons got pushed, but maybe not in the way Time was expecting.

I should say first that I agree with a Tweeter I saw earlier today who said in effect this cover is less about opening dialogue about “attachment parenting” as the article it illustrates discusses than about exploiting the American public’s confusion and horror over breastfeeding and its mothers’ insecurities about doing the right thing by their children. (Gee, the tweet, now lost to me forever, seemed so much more succinct!) If you don’t believe that, you’re probably not a mother staring at that great big nasty question in BLOOD-RED BLOCK LETTERS. (Happy mothers day, American mothers!  Love, Time xoxo)

I confess, I am always drawn into senseless debates about parenting styles. That may have something to do with my being a parent myself, though I think I’ve always found the subject irresistible. It’s another one of those train-wreck topics, like the future of the Catholic church, that I’m drawn to like a moth to a flame. What’s that about, you (and I) may wonder? Actually, I’m pretty sure it has to do with something these topics share: the attractively (to me) dangerous territory of moral discourse in America. It’s just fraught with all kinds of mines waiting to go off wherever you set foot, but especially when children’s minds and morals are at stake. One day the explosion will be over what to teach children in public schools about the origins of human beings, the next day over the “right” of parents to spank their kids in the privacy of their own homes. But some subjects are more fraught that others. Spanking, actually, is a good example, because it’s so difficult to separate the personal from the principles involved, and spanking is all about how one deals with anger, a subject emotion-laden enough for many of us to begin with.

So here’s where my button gets pushed around an image like this one. I know, from years of watching the Donahue show and debating in internet forums, that breast-feeding, in particular, is capital-F Fraught for so many people. Time knows this too, of course, or they wouldn’t have presented Jamie Lynne Grumet’s bared breast with boy attached under the imprimatur of the magazine’s logo. Time and I both know most people are going to be shocked, disgusted, embarrassed, ashamed, angered–anything but soothed by this image. We even know basically why.

Forty years ago, the very idea of a breastfeeding infant–forget about a toddler!–depicted on a national news magazine would have been shocking. Decades of being exposed, so to speak, to the practice by “progressive” young moms bringing their infants’ needs out in public have inured (somewhat) a lot of us in certain circles. Most young parents are encouraged by their pediatricians to breastfeed as long as possible, in or out of the public eye. There is even a bit of cult around breastfeeding to the point where women who have difficulty producing enough milk are made to feel inadequate or harassed into making more of an effort.  (That whole other side of the parenting cult coin is a subject for another day, maybe.)

But the fact remains that public breastfeeding still has the power to shock or at least discomfit a lot of Americans. It’s not news to say this is because of the sexualized nature of the naked breast in our culture. And while more and more of us have learned to compartmentalize working breast from playing breast, if you will, and, therefore, won’t batt an eye  in the face of a feeding infant, a whole bunch in this “enlightened” cadre will draw the line at even the idea of a feeding toddler, especially if he’s a boy. If you need proof of that, read the comments on these stories, particularly on this Q & A of Grumet, and this scathing criticism of Grumet’s mothering by a Fox News psychiatric “expert.”

It should be said, again, that Time‘s cover misleads about the ideas behind “attachment parenting.” It is not all about the breast.  But what strikes me among the commenters is the vast amount of dead certainty that this cover is wrong, sick, selfish, cruel, etc., etc. Breastfeeding ends at one year old. Period. End of discussion.

Some of that knee-jerk reaction is no doubt from prudes who think anything smacking of sex and sensuality is better left in the privacy of the boudoir. But a good portion of it is from people who are enlightened enough about sex and child-rearing to know the difference between breastfeeding and breast teasing but who violently hit a wall at the idea of a suckling toddler. This is a fascinating phenomenon because it exposes (so to speak) a fissure between conventional ground and new territory.  This image does not compute. The lines between the feeding and teasing are not so clear. This confusion is not the fault of the mother and child, perhaps not even of the photographer and editor. It’s built into the way we conventionally read such images. This is not what a mother looks like, according to that convention. This is not what a mother does.

Others have slightly more sophisticated objections. One commentor on Huffington Post wrote (misspellings in original):

Isn’t it great that the child psychology community has figured out in the last 50 years that there are better ways to raise kids than what millions of years of mammilian evolution has rendered? Makes sense, right? These kids are going to grow up to be entitlement wussies that will be constantly bullied, but hey, that is what progressives that adhere to “attachment parenting” want, veal-calves that are totally reliant on the government, feminized men, and a culture of capitulation. Great firrst step indeed.

I was impressed that a social conservative acknowledged millions of years of mammalian evolution(!). But I think he’s wrong about evolution “figuring out” what’s right. For one thing, American custom should not be mistaken for the end-point of human evolution on this issue. After all, it isn’t the only end-point in the present age. Many cultures extend breastfeeding into the toddler years and even beyond. So it seems to me that evolution is a red herring, if we’re looking for answers about the wisdom of this practice. The fact is, we don’t know which practice is “right,” or if this is “wrong ” why exactly it would be wrong since other cultures differ. We only know that our American custom does not at present extend breastfeeding years comfortably. But that won’t stop plenty of people stating baldly that not only is Grumet wrong about suckling her three-year-old, but the whole idea of attachment parenting is wrong for everybody for all time.

As Kurt Vonnegut or Linda Ellerbee might say–And so it goes.

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One thought on “Breast Practices

  1. I know a woman, born in the ’60s, upper-middle class, Los Angeles, who breast fed until her son was eight. The only unusual thing was that she was a charismatic Catholic. Unusual, but each family is unique and has the right to rear their child as they wish, excepting of course, violence.
    A parallel to long-term breast feeding was B F Skinner’s rearing his daughter in what was called a “Skinner Box.” This is certain to raise the hackles on some so I refer to http://www.snopes.com/science/skinner.asp . From where more information can be gotten.
    Swaddling as in Papoose also has images of unnaturally restrained babies.
    I would contrast these behaviors to many orphanages around the world where children are denied human cuddling and speech during the most critical years of their life.

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