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 CNN.com 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.