If you haven’t yet seen Time Magazine’s most recent cover, welcome back to earth from your extended journey to some other galaxy, far, far away.
To bring you up to speed, here’s a copy of the famous (or infamous) cover for you to enjoy:
The Mom pictured on the cover has promised to stop breast feeding her son before he reaches college, perhaps even before he reaches high school.
Yes, I’m lying. She’s actually planning on weaning him sometime around kindergarten. That, of course, is three to four years after most American mothers wean their babies. And by “most American mothers,” I truly mean “most American mothers,” not just “those American mothers who breast feed.” In America, almost 75% of women breast feed their babies for some period of time during baby’s first year, with or without adding solid foods to the diet.
Breast feeding is a good thing. Moms come equipped with a natural processing and delivery system that is always ready to provide baby with a wholesome diet, one that comes complete with all the required nutrients and immunizations, and that is invariably served at the perfect temperature. From Baby’s point of view, everything is just right: taste, feel, smell, and cuddle factor. From Mom’s point of view, there’s no bottle shlepping, no messy formula, and food is instantly available when the baby’s in an uproar. Moms also theoretically loses in pregnancy weight faster when they breast feed (I certainly didn’t). Best of all, Mom gets a chance to sit down and put her feet up.
So what’s the big deal about the cover? I’ve already established (at least to my satisfaction) that most American women breast feed and it’s a good thing.
The big deal, of course, is twofold. First, that kid is no baby. Assuming healthy dental development, a normal digestive system, and reasonable coordination skills, he’s perfectly capable of eating the same food as the rest of us. Second, that Mom isn’t bonding with her son as she stares militantly at the camera. Nope. Instead, she’s telling you off, you narrow-minded, prudish, salacious American you.
My understanding is that the point of the article, which I haven’t read since it’s behind a pay wall, is that Dr. William Sears has managed to convince a lot of American women that they have to hyper-bond with their child, a system that requires co-sleeping and endless breast feeding. I was not a Sears acolyte. I stopped breast feeding my two when they had some serious teeth in their mouths, figuring that they were telling me they were ready for something that didn’t scream when they bit down. Co-sleeping left me awake in an agony of fear that I would roll over and smother the poor things (something that, Sears & Co. forget was a common cause of infant mortality in pre-industrial Western society.)
I’ve been following Facebook discussions in which the usual crowd, after roundly castigating evil right-wing Republicans for their prudishness about the cover, go on to cite approvingly to Third World (i.e., pre-industrial societies) as role models for up-tight Westerners to follow when it comes to extended breast feeding or even ordinary breast feeding. I made no friends when I waded into this debate to point out a few obvious things:
First, as I noted above, Americans breast feed in vast numbers, so it’s no use trying to pretend that conservatives are offended about the article just because they want all babies to drink formula from plastic battles (complete with profits going to greedy corporations, of course).
Second, women in poor countries have limited birth control options. If they want to avoid delivering a baby every ten or twelve months, breast feeding can slow the process. It’s by no means a perfect birth control mechanism, as many women will attest, but there’s no doubt that it does interfere somewhat with a mother’s fertility. Mom’s over-bond with one baby so that they won’t have to have another one. American women have other birth control choices.
Third, women in poor countries may have limited options for feeding their children solid food. Even if there’s food around, poor sanitation often means that those women who wean early watch their children die quickly from food-borne diseases. Where food availability and sanitation are issues, extended breast feeding may be a very reasonable option. Last I looked, we Americans don’t have that problem.
In other words, I think the arguments people are making up to defend the photo’s apparent message (namely, that American women should emulate pre-industrial cultures when it comes to breast feeding) are silly. The photo itself isn’t actually silly, because it’s a photo, not an argument, but you’re right if you think it’s offensive.
That woman on the cover isn’t bonding, she’s advocating. She’s so “in your face” she practically leaps off the cover, clawing at your eyeballs. This picture can best be analogized to a porn picture. In those, the woman, rather than gazing lovingly at her partner, turns her seductive gaze to the camera — and to the viewer beyond. Just as porn isn’t about love, this photo isn’t about bonding with a baby. This is one Mom’s statement about the “evils” of American culture, nicely captured on the front page of a magazine owned and distributed by vast corporate interests. (I so love the irony.)
The uncomfortable feeling we slightly old-fashioned romantics get when we look at that exposed breast is also completely reasonable. Women’s breasts are wonderfully utilitarian objects, in that they’re dual purpose. They feed babies and they entice men. How cool is that?
The smart thing, of course, and the way our culture rolls, is to keep the two purposes separate. Sometimes we’re in Mom mode, in which case we breast feed, ’cause it’s good for us and good for the baby, but we do so discreetly. I can guarantee you that, despite having breast fed two children, no one outside of my nuclear family (and that includes the kids themselves) got an eyeful of me. Feeding mode is not the same as flashing mode. Nor was I at all inconvenienced by maintaining my [physical privacy.
When we’re not in Mom mode, our societal norms applaud, indeed encourage, showing our breasts — provided that we keep the business parts covered. Indeed, keeping the business parts covered is important, because otherwise we suddenly depart from Western sexy and find ourselves sliding into Third World utilitarianism, where the breast is constantly exposed by Mom’s simultaneously practicing primitive birth control and disease protection on their children. Once upon a time, these pictures were exciting for the 13 year old boy, pouring over black and white photos in National Geographic, but that day is long gone. I’m willing to bet that any guys reading this post are not feeling libidinous stirrings as they gaze at the photo below.
When all is said and done, the Time cover is nothing but a publicity gimmick, and I have to admit that I’ve fallen for it — I’m discussing the cover and its meaning. However, I haven’t gone so far as to buy the magazine and I don’t, and will not, subscribe. I advise you to avoid the magazine as well. Sure, a conversation is nice, but lets not get inveigled into increasing one American corporation’s profit simply because it publishes a cover that subtly denigrates America and her normative culture.