A Postmortem on “That Cover” — Time’s recent infamously iconic cover image plus headline “Are You Mom Enough?” (look again if you must) is tantamount to shouting fire in a crowded Chuck E. Cheese. One can almost picture the gleeful anticipation in the editorial offices: Wait for it… Mommy cat fight…! Honestly, what possible good could have come from that taunt? Yes, breastfeeding is great for babies, toddlers, even preschoolers…but you know what is equally important to healthy attachment (and backed by attachment neurobiology research)? A parent’s calm confidence. Our culture already does so much to undermine parental confidence, so why, Time, why?
The one redeeming thing that came out of it was lots of lively conversation and interesting perspectives. Jessica Kosa’s guest post on The Other Baby Book’s blog spotlighted what she inventively terms “the squick factor, a reaction much in evidence this week. Nursing a baby is one thing, but nursing a walking, talking person? Who might remember it?” Add to that an issue I mention in my book and in a past breastfeeding post — that seeing a child (or even a baby) nurse can:
pluck chords within our unconscious having to do with modesty and propriety. Rather than the amount of bare breast revealed (usually not much), it is the startling intimacy of breastfeeding that can stir discomfort when a mother nurses in public. Mother and baby respond to each other physically and emotionally while in direct skin-to-skin contact, which in the minds of many is unconsciously associated with sexual activity — something that should happen in total privacy.
But even that intimacy wasn’t on display here (ironically, since this was ostensibly an article about attachment parenting). Nope — besides being a ridiculously uncommon breastfeeding posture, according to the above unconscious calculus, it’s visual code for “a quickie.” (Maybe not so unconscious, as portrayed in this cartoon satire by Forbes’ Liza Donnelly.) Ratchet up the shock factor and throw in the “I don’t want to look away” factor. Ah, us humans and our fallible limbic / mammalian brains all tangled up with our supposedly civilized sophistication. I’ll tell you what, Time’s managing editor isn’t landing on my Dream Dinner Party guest list anytime soon. Rick Stengel’s criteria for a cover? “To me,” he said on Forbes.com, “the whole point of a magazine cover is to get your attention.” (How about a penis parade next week, Rick? That’ll get my attention.)
Once your attention was gotten, Stengel’s point was to portray cover girl Jamie Lynn Grumet as an “outlier” (a statistical term for someone who deviates from the norm). “People do take this too far. That’s part of the discussion,” he says. “And the people who take it too far make people who have a reasonable response to this have mixed feelings. That’s what our story is about — the complicated feelings it provokes.” Provoking complicated feelings is great for sales. Honestly, I’m not usually one to get all indignant, but who the HELL is a magazine editor to deem what “too far” is when it comes to parenting choices??! Does he have in his possession some research showing the risks of extended breastfeeding? (That would be a neat trick, since there isn’t any.)
Motherhood & Feminism
And of course there cannot be complicated feelings about motherhood without someone invoking the old anti-feminist trope. In These Times blogger Sady Doyle wasn’t a bit surprised to see what she called “business as usual” — a group of women accused of killing feminism with their personal decisions. Doyle sagely points out,
What might actually kill feminism is our preference for shaming and tearing down individual women rather than advocating overdue policy changes around child-rearing: Pushing for mandatory long-term maternity or paternity leave, or high-quality childcare for all children, or a new ethos of work that doesn’t penalize parents (usually mothers) for trying to maintain a healthy and flexible work-life balance.
Erica Jong (most famous for conceptualizing the zipless fuck in her best-selling 1970s sexual liberation manifesto Fear of Flying) decried attachment parenting in a 2010 Wall Street Journal editorial entitled “The Madness of Modern Motherhood,” saying it’s “a prison for mothers, and it represents as much of a backlash against women’s freedom as the right-to-life movement.”
While my book Parenting for Peace isn’t an attachment parenting book per se, it does synthesize research from the psychological, neuroscientific, and biological literature on what we would need to do to raise a generation of citizens who are hardwired for peace — i.e., with the ability to enjoy being inside themselves and to successfully engage with others and manage life’s day to day stressors. And there does seem to be a psychoneurobiological imperative that points to mothers being very very necessary in the early months and years.
But I’m not out to convince those who, like Jong, would actually say with a straight face, “Our cultural myth is that nurturance matters deeply.” If you feel truly and irretrievably imprisoned by motherhood, then by all means find someone freer to raise your child; according to cutting-edge attachment neurobiological principles — which includes the potent shaping power of your example — you might raise a child who also feels imprisoned, and who might naturally seek to imprison.
And isn’t freedom of choice what the feminist movement was and is all about? How about the choice to embrace parenting philosophies and practices with which a woman (or man, for that matter) feels content and confident?
Forget penises. When Time or any other important news magazine shares a cover story depicting a joyful, confident mother who is actually connecting with her child…that will get my attention.
Cozolino, Louis. The Neuroscience of Human Relationships: Attachment and the Developing Social Brain. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2006.