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May 30, 2012

If you’re online much, you probably haven’t missed this controversy:

The May 22 2012 Times cover went viral launching hundreds of  TV and radio interviews, hundreds of thousands of blog posts, millions of online comments, and a gazillion titters, tweets and international tit fits.

It’s meant to be provocative, obviously.  The idea is, of course, to sell lots of magazines by being bait “for pearl-clutchers and co-sleepers alike.”   And it worked.

In the interests of full disclosure, I did trundle straight to a bookstore, with my double-chariot, as soon as this hit the fan, only to be politely explained to by the clerk that I was asking to buy a magazine from the future. “Come back in three weeks”, she said, “when the magazine is actually on store shelves.”

I did.

I slid it onto the counter feeling kind of blushy, like I was scoring a copy of “Juggs.” And the frumpish Chapter’s clerk did clutch at the place pearls would be if she was wearing any and did remark, “Ohmigoodness. I certainly hope that is, like, totally photoshopped because I just can’t believe any mother would like, do that to a child that old.”

And I said, “Well, it says here he’s only three, so… I doubt they’d have to photoshop that.”

And she said, “Really? Seriously? Okay. Ohmigod. Did you hear about the parents called helicopters? Because I heard there’s some parents called helicopters who even follow their children to university and give them books and stuff through the doors. Do you think that’s okay?”

Then I said that I didn’t even know that helicopters could have children, and it got kind of awkward while I was entering in my PIN.

In all the controversy, one thing is clear: everybody has an opinion on breastfeeding a preschooler who is standing on a chair, looking quizzically into the lens of a NY Times photographer’s camera, while his mother (who is a model in real life) sports skinny jeans and strikes a “you got a problem with this?” pose.

The lactivists like to point out that the World Health Organization promotes breastfeeding well past infancy and that breastfeeding a 3-year old is very normal in almost every other part of the world.

A lot of people point out that boobies make them feel funny, and that the thought of a 3-year old sucking on one makes them squeamy.

A lot of people accuse the woman on the cover of child abuse, sexual abuse, and/or simply ruining her child’s life because she can’t let go/has an insane desire for attention/ is not considering the real needs of her child who has obviously been tricked into thinking he still “needs” his mother in a mammalian sort of way.

He’s bound to become a serial killer, with that kind of parenting, the critics say.

Well your children are bound to be crack addicts if you don’t breastfeed them, say the defenders.

It’s all so dire.

Here’s what I say: Nursing a 3-year old is controversial only now, only here, at this strange point in time and space when it is suddenly “news” that has “gone viral” on the cover of the freakin’ NY Times. At no other time or in no other culture could a young mammal having a mammary snack be considered news at all, much less of the shocking variety. What would be considered shocking, people, anywhere or anytime else are the skinny jeans.

The extent to which breastfeeding has become de-normalized in our culture is extreme. Like, cover of the Times extreme.

Here are some billboards my three-year old boy saw this week while we were out and about in the city:

Just sayin’.

Now what really, really, really bothers me about this whole Times Cover fiasco is the straight up fact that everybody is a $%&*!# expert these days with a specialization in how to be a good mother and a PhD in what makes a mother bad. Except mothers, obviously. They are horridly uniformed. In fact, they aren’t even trying. Gawd. Watch an episode of Nanny 911, why don’t you, Moms. All you have to do is keep your child in constant terror of something called a “timeout mat” and they’ll grow up to be perfectly well-balanced, functional human beings. It’s not even hard.

I’ll tell you this:

In the first few hours after giving birth to my first child, a nurse at the hospital told me that my newborn was “all wound up” and asked if I, by any chance, had “ever relaxed at all” while I was pregnant, thus implying that I had failed at the mom game before even making it out of the hospital door.

I have been scowled at by an ultrasound technician because my fetus wasn’t at all behaving during my prenatal check-up.

I have been bawled at by a homeless man for not covering my baby’s face with a blanket while going for a stroller walk in the cold. (I wasn’t telling him how to do his job.)

The other day I took my 6-year old for a long walk in the sunshine and then to the bookstore. I thought we could use some special one-on-one time. Near the end of our stroll through Terwilliger Park I was throwing a stick for the dog while she was poking at some mud with a long branch. “This is nice,” I thought.

We were about 20 feet apart. A big puppy ran up to her and pushed her down into the mud. She cried and ran to me. I consoled her. Later, I thought, I’ll use this as a “teaching moment” and explain to her why she shouldn’t run away from dogs she’s afraid of.

The owner of the dog thought he’d use it as a “teaching moment” too. Not an opportunity to teach his dog not to jump up on people, mind you, but an opportunity to lecture me on what a shit mom I am.

“Yeah, AWESOME,” he shouted at me. “If you’re going to bring your kid to an off-leash park, keep them near you, maybe. Or better yet, don’t bring your kid here at all.” Then he muttered something nasty while walking away that I, and the 6-year old I was hugging, couldn’t quite make out.

I cleaned her up in the car with some wet wipes and then we went to the bookstore. As I was paying for the colouring book she picked out, she ducked under one of those tables laden with crappy impulse purchases and giggled while watching me look around for her in mock-horror. I told her to come out from there and then that, “You’ve got to stay where I can see you in the big stores.”

This prompted a loud guffaw from the woman behind me who asked me, loudly, if I’d ever watched Bubble-Wrapped Children on TV.

“Nope,” I conceeded.

“You should,” she declared, and went on to tell me the gist of it and how I was ruining my child completely by keeping her within arms reach of me at all times.

“You just need to be needed,” she told me.

Like I said, it’s all so dire and everybody is an expert ‘cept little old mom. She has to be told. She knows not what she does. Or why.

Doesn’t she even care how horribly she’s ruining her kids?

Now, there are some things I like about the Times article which is actually about Dr. Sears and attachment parenting and what the author calls “post-traumatic Sears disorder.” Kate Pickert suggests there’s just something about modern motherhood where the ladies can go all whack-a-doo following attachment parenting to the letter. I’ve noticed that myself and do NOT appreciate pseudo-scientific claims that I’ve caused “permanent developmental damage” to my babies by swaddling them or placing them in a stroller while going for a run or by leaving two behind with a sitter so I can spend time with just the one or any manner of other attachment parenting flavoured direness.

But there are some things I really don’t like about Pickert’s article, namely, her assumptions that breastfeeding is harder than not breastfeeding, that natural childbirth is about “proving something” and not about respecting the bodies, the experiences and the decisions of women, that the needs and wants of babies and children are always antithetical to those of their mothers, and that mothers must be duped somehow into wanting to stay home with their small children. I don’t buy any of that.

But what really, really, really bothers me is that “What’s wrong with mothers these days” is a snappy news item at all.


When did judging mothers and predicting the myriad ways in which they are ruining their children become a national sport? When did the mousy-bloused clerk at Chapter’s become an authority on the correct age to wean a child and also on helicopter reproduction? When did it become okay to heckle a mother in front of her child? When did re-educating mothers on television become passably good entertainment for the average Joe and Betty? When did “parenting” even become a verb anyway?




6 Comments leave one →
  1. Lynne Sheldon permalink
    May 30, 2012 11:02 pm

    LOVE the Sears dis. May he and the Mrs. swap pubic lice eternally. Another awesome one, Lady Flurfel!

  2. May 30, 2012 11:30 pm

    My suspicion is that mothers (and fathers, for that matter) aren’t significantly different today than they were when you were a kid or I was a kid . . . although assumptions about ‘good parenting’ changed significantly between those two points.

    I’m certainly not in the least sure (how’s that for an ambiguous turn of phrase?) why someone would feel compelled to comment on someone else’s parenting unless (e.g.) it’s clear a parent is patently ignoring its child’s distress (which I have witnessed 😦 ).

    (The article appeared in /Time/ magazine; not in the /New York Times/.)

    • May 31, 2012 8:09 am

      I think now that parenting is a verb there’s a lot more anxiety thrown into the mix. I think a lot of us came home from the hospital on our mother’s lap while our fathers enjoyed a cigarette on the drive home. Now, parents could literally be arrested for that. In fact, you have to have your carseat inspected before you are allowed to leave the hospital. I think carseats are great, but the fact that they are legally required along with the fact that there is a competing discourse from the Sear’s crowds about how not keeping your newborn next to your skin for the first year of his or her life will cause them to turn out “sub-optimally” is really, really crazy making.

      I’m sure there have been know-it-alls throughout all of human history though. But now they are yelping at moms from so many different media. Yikes.

  3. Marianne Sheldon permalink
    May 31, 2012 2:46 am

    Marlene, I love, love, love this thoughtful response. Thanks for writing it.

  4. June 3, 2012 5:59 am

    Fabulous post. Still laughing at the image of that frumpish clerk clutching invisible pearls! I’ve seen a lot about this Times cover in the media but am finding the breastfeeding ‘controversy’ a little tedious (as you say…we’re mammals for godsake). It’s true that mothers are judged relentlessly. I feel compelled to justify my children’s diet to the check-out operator as those less-than-nutritious items pass by on the supermarket conveyor belt. It also used to fluster me with my first child when total strangers would volunteer advice such as ‘He’s tired’, ‘He’s hungry’, ‘He must have a tummy upset’ etc.

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