A Response to TIME

This guest post is by Jessica Kosa, Ph D, IBCLC.

Last week my daily dose of Facebook came with a huge side of Time magazine. I didn’t bother to enlarge the thumbnail. Media trying to stir the pot, provoke mothers, ok, same stuff different day. I’m with Meredith Fein Lichtenberg here: let’s not give these “mommy bombs” more oxygen by clicking and linking. (No such taboo applies to the spoofs, which are worth a click.)

When I did see the cover, it was the headline that made me roll my eyes. “Are You Mom Enough” -­‐ calibrated to make mothers feel criticized whether they do or don’t have anything in common with the mom on the cover. No surprise -­‐ getting people shouting sells a lot more ads than getting people thinking. I loved Lisa Belkin’s response to that provocation:

Breastfeeding is not a macho test of motherhood, with the winner being the one who nurses the longest. In fact there ARE no macho tests of motherhood. Motherhood is -­‐-­‐ should be -­‐-­‐ a village, where we explore each other’s choices, learn from them, respect them, and then go off and make our own.

The very sensible piece by Diane Weissinger calling for more support to help moms “relax into a very ordinary nursing relationship of whatever length they choose” drew an angry comment that “to say that breastfeeding is the only way to NURTURE your children is such a ridiculously ignorant statement..” Except, she didn’t at all say that breastfeeding is the only way. She said it is an effective way, that mothers should feel entitled to choose. She said it isn’t weird. The anger, IMHO, comes largely from the sense so many women have that the bar is being constantly raised. Whatever you do, there’s an article about how much more others are doing. None of us are “Mom Enough.” It’s crazy, of course. But the common sense reassurance that moms, in general, do what we can, and mostly it turns out OK, is not what sells.

Also not surprising that the photo is staged for maximum visual impact of the mouth-­‐to-­‐ breast contact point. Granted, kiddos do sometimes nurse in odd positions, especially when mom is busy in the kitchen, at the computer, or standing on her head. If I wanted to show what nursing a toddler is like most of the time, I’d show a child cuddling in mama’s lap at bedtime. Or a sick child who feels too miserable to eat, but turns to mom to be comforted at the breast. Or a working mom who just walked in the door, sitting down on the couch to reconnect with her kid with nursing and snuggles. But in those pictures, viewers might not even notice that the child is breastfeeding. They would not look so different from any mother holding and comforting her child. Mothers -­‐ whether breastfeeding or not -­‐ would relate. Imagine that.

“Extreme breastfeeding” is a phrase making the rounds. That’s how I felt when I was pregnant with my first and my doctor said, “We recommend breastfeeding for at least one year.” One YEAR?! I couldn’t imagine. Extreme is exactly how it sounded. But she said in a low key voice, “You don’t have to do it full time. You could do just morning and bedtime if you want.” That sounded more interesting -­‐ I hadn’t realized there were options, flexibility.

Still, there was 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? Squick. I get it, because I felt that way myself initially. But I got over it. I read about research like this showing how normal it is for our species to nurse for several years. I hung around online and in person with experienced mothers. I heard from grown men that their memories of nursing were no different from memories of mom giving them a bath. And my baby didn’t turn into a big kid overnight. He got bigger little by little, and got most of his nutrition elsewhere, but still needed to be mommy’s baby for a moment now and then, so he kept asking to nurse, until, eventually, he didn’t. No, they won’t nurse forever. All young mammals wean.

If a woman knows only what it’s like to nurse a newborn, projecting that out for years feels exhausting at best. When I was struggling with painful latch at the beginning, or the frustration of pumping at work later on, I never would have imagined that I’d eventually go away for a weekend, with no pump, and come home to a little person who was thrilled to get her mommy fix by nursing. I opened the door to toddler nursing because I heard about the health benefits of human milk, but I kept it up because it became a mothering tool. The ability to transform a cranky tantruming child into a sleeping one with a flip of the breast was a pretty cool superpower. Why give that up?

No, it’s not the only right way. No, a mother should never feel like she failed if it isn’t her way. I’d like to see less fear and guilt in parenting all around. A relaxed, confident mother who enjoys her child is a wonderful thing, and I’d like to see more of it. I’d like to see a society where a mother who nurses a 4 year old is not labeled a weirdo, and mothers don’t feel perpetually criticized for not being everything to everyone. So here’s a modest proposal: No more shaming of women over mothering.

Give it no oxygen.

Jessica is mom enough (most days) to three kids, and a lactation consultant who above all loves to see mothers gain confidence and connect with their babies.  She has not found the perfect parenting system that guarantees perfect kids, and is quite certain no one else has either.  She and her family love hiking and camping, usually spend too much time on the computer, and are looking forward to a long weekend that is only partially scheduled.
Jessica is a board-certified lactation consultant in private practice in the Boston area.  You can visit her site at Motherfeeding.com, find her on Facebook, and follow her on Twitter @motherfeeding.

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