Friday, May 11, 2012

What makes Time's breastfeeding cover so controversial?

Yesterday, I wrote a front-page piece for about this Time Magazine cover, which shows 26-year-old attachment-parenting advocate Jamie Lynne Grumet nursing her nearly 4-year-old son.

Does this cover cross the line? (Photo:

You can read that piece here: Reactions to Time Magazine's breastfeeding cover: Did Time go too far? Today's follow up, about Grumet's appearance on NBC's "Today" show, is here: Jamie Lynne Grumet defends her Time magazine breastfeeding cover.

One day and nearly 17,000 comments later, I thought I'd write about what I really think about the controversy.

Personally, I think that when it comes to attachment parenting vs. conventional parenting, the best thing to do is whatever is right for your family. I have five kids -- three by marriage, and two more from scratch -- and what worked for my family wouldn't necessarily work for someone else's.

As for the photo, aside from the fact that it's only tangentially related to the article it's supposed to represent (the story is about attachment parenting guru Dr. William Sears, not extended breastfeeding per se) I think it does attachment parenting a disservice. It was meant to provoke (of course), but it also portrayed attachment parents as "other" when, really, many of the principles of the parenting style are quite popular -- co-sleeping, baby wearing, and breastfeeding aren't all-or-nothing practices, you can do them without being extreme about it.

Time took photos of four different moms breastfeeding their older kids. They posted those photos online and, frankly, any of them would have been less outrageous that this one, even the alternate shot of Jamie Lynne Grumet, the woman they put on the cover, because those other shots showed affection and intimacy, whereas the one on the cover really didn't.

I think a lot of the outrage has to do, not with the idea of extended breastfeeding, but the composition of the shot itself. You have a very attractive young woman who, in other contexts, could easily be the hot bikini babe, and you have a boy (wearing cammo, natch) with his mouth on her breast. He's standing on a chair, so he seems taller and older than he really is. She's looking, not at him, but at the camera, as if she's watching you watch her. It sets up an immediate Oedipal/sexual image (and by breaking down that fourth wall, makes the reader feel like he or she has been caught staring), and that instantly makes people uncomfortable. The mom looks defiant and combative, rather than nurturing, which makes the idea of a child latched on to her breast seem less maternal and more, I don't know, a matter of personal gratification rather than nurturing. If this had been an older mom -- perhaps not as fit, perhaps not as attractive -- cradling her almost 4-year-old daughter, there wouldn't be anywhere near this amount of outrage. And perhaps that's the point.

That said, I also think that the outrage over the child is misplaced. People are concerned about how it will affect his future, but a.) by the time the kid is in college, no one is going to have a 15-year-old copy of Time lying around to tease him with and b.) it's doubtful that they'd make the connection between what he looked like at age 3 and what he looks like as a young adult. (Also: As my husband, a former rock music critic, points out, the child on the cover of Nirvana's "Nevermind" album turned out just fine in spite of the fact that most of the Western world has seen him naked.)

But to be honest, I thought the headline -- Are You Mom Enough? -- was far more offensive than the photo. It is what really fans the flames of the Mommy Wars, touching on insecurities and a level of competitiveness that really has no place in parenting.

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