A Counter-challenge to Time Magazine’s “Are You Mom Enough” cover

17 May

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There is no dearth of response to the current Time magazine cover featuring a woman looking at the camera, her child standing on a chair next to her, attached by mouth to her breast.  The child is 3 years old; he is dressed strangely in camo and is looking into the camera along with her.  On one side, folks are flipped out that a woman would be featured so brazenly and publicly with her breast out to feed her child; people do love to insist that human or social issues should remain in the private realm, (mythically) separate from the public one.  On another side, folks are flipped out that the child isn’t an infant, in which case they might have almost forgiven the brazen photo.  Folks in the U.S. do love to pretend that our cultural patterns are the ones that ought be universally held, and it is our cultural pattern to ignore that international averages for breastfeeding go many years beyond the baby stage and that such practices are quite normal, healthy, and non-“primitive.”  We do love to turn motherhood, as we learned several years ago from Judith Warner through her book Perfect Madness, to turn motherhood into a religion, with all the goods and evils, purity and fallenness, and requirements for guilt and redemption thus implied.  And on still another side, folks are flipped out the anyone is even getting flipped out over a mother-child breastfeeding photo of any sort, frustrated at how uptight everyone is about something that is so natural and beautiful and normal (even though for many women it’s none of that), and appropriately calling us on our cultural acceptance of baring women’s breasts for the gaze of men, but not for the nourishment of children (though I’d venture to say that there was no “breastfeeding” going on in that photo shoot).

When I first saw the cover last week I was, interestingly enough, at the MIRCI international Forum and Conference on mothering, in Toronto.  My first reaction was an eye roll and an unspoken “oh brother.”  I knew the cover would elicit the very reactions it did, indeed, the very reactions Time strategized to evoke.   Never forget that Time covers are designed to broker a purchase that enables buyers to see what’s under the covers, as it were.  And I knew that the hoopla would effectively divert our attentions away from the real matters related to breastfeeding and media images of motherhood, as media hoopla so skillfully and regularly does. I knew it would effectively pit mothers against each other, thus keeping our vision and our critiques directed inward, at ourselves, and sideward, at each other, where the problems are not, instead of outward, at culture and larger social structures, where the problems are.  We’ve seen it so many times—in the nineties during the media-concocted ‘mommy wars;” in response to recently released books by Badinter and Druckerman and Le Billon about how awesome French mothers are and, by association, U.S. mothers aren’t (see the recent piece on by Deborah Siegel and Heather Hewett here for insightful treatment of these and their impact).  And even still, the idea that mothers are at odds with each other, embroiled in conflict over who is the “better” mom (a kind of conflict no one is claiming fathers even give a damn about much less are embroiled in) holds a certain allure in the public eye.  And this allure remains, despite the fact that research rebuts the idea that at-home mothers are concerned about what at-work mothers are doing, and vice versa (see for example the forthcoming book from Cornell University Press, written by Jocelyn Crowley at Rutgers; the book is not yet titled).

And all of the false representation of mothers “warring” with each other makes the teaser headline on the cover all the more irritating.  The title is by definition provoking and argumentative; not an unbiased news story in the least.  When the image is paired with the title, the viewer is compelled to automatically put them together.  And Time, of course, knows this.  So they  issue the challenge:  Are you mom enough to whip out a breast and look at people in the eye with hand on hip and an air of either defiance or nonchalance?  (I can’t tell which Time is wanting to connote here, defiance or nonchalance, but in either case, the gaze of others still is conveyed as mattering a great deal to the mother in the image). Can you look this (white and) good when you’re breastfeeding?  Can you handle being all woman and all body to your “little man”? And publicly?  If not, you’re not “mom enough” (whatever that can possibly mean). Now, doesn’t that make those of you who answered yes feel superior?  Or those who answered no feel inadequate or defensive or at least all abuzz?  And aren’t the two of you now more focused on other mothers than on how your culture refuses to really support the motherwork you are doing and the vast continuum of how it can be done?  Good!  Perfect!  Just the outcome we at Time, and all the innumerable sensationalizing media outlets who will pick up the cover image but not the actual article were hoping for (the article, by the way, is about William and Martha Sears, the essential namesakes for attachment parenting, and not about breastfeeding or what the hell “mom enough” means).  And just the outcome that public policy and government agencies count on so they can continue, undetected,  saddling mothers with all things family when they should be actively responding to maternal life as a human and social and public interest that should be, in the best interest of the nation and all its citizens, supported.

I’d like to issue a counter-challenge to Time’s, and the challenge is this:  RESIST.  Resist the temptation to direct your scrutiny and critiques inward or sideward.  Render Time’s challenge, dare I say, impotent.  Refuse to let this magazine cover, and the endless hype that will continue to follow, distract you from fixing your gaze outward, and from the real issue of changing social structure so that motherhood and family life are adequately supported for all moms, no matter their social status, income, ethnicity, family form, employment status, or parenting style.


Posted by on May 17, 2012 in Families, Feminism, Motherhood, Parenting


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12 responses to “A Counter-challenge to Time Magazine’s “Are You Mom Enough” cover

  1. Pat Cronin

    May 17, 2012 at 12:56 pm

    Outstanding post. Thank you.

  2. Heather Hewett

    May 17, 2012 at 1:14 pm

    Awesome. So well articulated!

    • Dr. Mama

      May 17, 2012 at 4:51 pm

      Thanks Heather. And thanks for rockin’ the house at CNN with that fantastic piece!

  3. Susan

    May 17, 2012 at 1:56 pm

    Love you Amber! Hey remember at school all those girls in tanks and shorts on the cold days and how they had their priorities straight LOL. Well Time has found them. Love your response and yes, I agree, focus outward even though that’s not what the cover and title convey. xo Susan

  4. lakeshaanderson

    May 17, 2012 at 2:49 pm

    As you might have seen posted recently on my fb status, I was awarded a small research grant to study breastfeeding issues. This issue, thus, comes at a very interesting time (no pun intended). I’m sure it will come up in more than one of my interviews. As a mother who loathed breastfeeding and found it be anything other than natural, I was first a bit shocked by the cover headline. Am I mom enough? Yes, I think I am, but I did not breastfeed for even a full six months with either child. I’m pretty sure my two wonderful children believe I am “mom enough” as well, though, and that’s the opinion that matters. I’ve stayed quiet about my thoughts and opinions on this story and watched and read as friends, with and without children, breastfeeding mothers and not, have discussed, supported, and ripped each other to shreds. Sure, I’ve had my opinions and my thoughts and my research, but I have to resist. Resisting truly is the best response in this situation. Good post.

    • Dr. Mama

      May 17, 2012 at 4:48 pm

      Thanks Lakesha for your thoughtful reply. Can’t wait to hear about your breastfeeding research!

  5. Kelly

    May 18, 2012 at 12:38 pm

    Well done, Amber!!

    I’m mom-ing and spending my days writing about surviving mothering and cancer….Does all that qualify me as mom enough yet?

    I guess what I’m really wondering is who will notify me [and how] when I achieve ME status. When I’m mom enough–Or ME, my new certification goal–will someone show up at my door with a big “ME check” I can cash in for mom points, especially on those days I’m not mom enough? Is there a graduation ceremony? Do I get a framed certificate?

    Still waiting….


    Kelly A. Dorgan, Ph.D., ME [pending]

    • Dr. Mama

      May 18, 2012 at 3:32 pm

      This is great Kelly.  I’m so jealous of your ME concept–that you thought of it and I didn’t, I mean.  Guess I’m too me and not ME.  


  6. Lila Gail Walters

    May 20, 2012 at 9:37 pm

    My Dad related to me that when they were in the field hoeing corn, his liottle brother, 3 yrs old came to his mom wanting to have lunch and she spread a quilt down in the shade and the child had lunch, nursing and I thought how restful, convenient and wished I had nursed my children longer. This is beautiful to me.

    • Dr. Mama

      May 20, 2012 at 9:40 pm

      So sweet, Lila Gail. Thank you for sharing this with us!


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