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

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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 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.

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

 

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Sometimes It Can Start with an Email

Sometimes It Can Start with an Email

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Much of the time, life is complicated. Much of the time, initiating change feels impossible. The wait for change, interminable. The status quo, intractable. I think of Susan B. Anthony who agitated for over 35 years for the U.S. vote, and died 14 years before the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified. I had a picture of her above my desk in my home office for years as a reminder of what fortitude and persistence look like…I wonder where that photo got off to. There still is so much work to do, as groups like MomsRising and Mothers Acting Up and Welfare Warriors well know. Intractable indeed.

But sometimes. Sometimes, change happens before its advocates wear out. Sometimes the marginalized don’t have to fund the solution. Sometimes, those with power and finances hear the rest of us. Sometimes change can unfold beginning with a simple email.

Last September, a student at my university, Maria, read an article in our school newspaper about a book signing I was doing on campus for Motherhood and Feminism. She thought I might be an ally and decided to send me an email. That email was the beginning of a chain of similar ones that resulted in concrete, positive change on our campus. Her subject line, “A place to print but no place to pump 😦 ” pulled me in. Maria was a student, a mother of two, and was breastfeeding. Her concern was that she had no place to pump breast milk. Oh sure, she could pump in a restroom that had electrical outlets right up front with the sink and mirrors, you know, right by the door so that anyone who came in could get a gander, with any angle they might miss at first happily reflected in the mirrors above the sink, next to which she would be standing. She would have to get past the discomfort of pumping her baby’s food in a room where people are using the toilet, of course. We do have a breastfeeding room on campus and, though it is located where the child care center is, it also is on the far end of campus, not close to many classrooms and an impractical stop between classes for most students. So Maria emailed me in the hopes that I might be someone who, she said, “could help fight for me.” I sent an email to the (awesome) woman on campus who is our Vice President for Health Affairs and University Chief Operating Officer, asking what provisions we had on campus for breastfeeding moms, and whether the issue of privacy near an electrical outlet and sink had been addressed. She decided to make it matter to the university, and over the course of the last year, many folks on our campus were involved in addressing this need.

What you see in the image I’ve posted (courtesy of Larry Smith and ETSU photo lab) is our all new Lactation Suite, the clearly marked door to which is located in a prominent place in our university center. It has a comfortable chair and footstool, a blanket and pillow, a sink and icemaker, a television, moving table, and outlets. It is nicely appointed. Not, as one of my friends said, some storage closet with a bucket turned upside down for sitting. I went to see it the other day for the first time and it was difficult to keep from crying. I was struck not only by the facts that it actually happened at all and that it started with one student sending an email, but also by the fact that it seemed to have been done with such care and affection. Two women who work in the university center, Lisa and Laura, took appointing it as their personal mission and made it a comfortable, relaxing place, where a woman could care for her child in a way that is dignified and respected. I am so proud, so grateful, and so inspired. Sometimes change can begin with a simple email.

 
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Posted by on November 3, 2011 in Families, Feminism, Motherhood, Parenting

 

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The Maternal Body and the Holiday Tree

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I am very tired as I write.  I sit with a cup of mango tea staring at my holiday tree, pulled into a nearly trance-like state by my exhaustion.  I am looking for inspiration about my blog post and I’m not finding it hanging from the branches on my tree.  Money isn’t the only thing that doesn’t grow on trees; ideas don’t either, as it turns out.  My feet still hurt from standing at the side of the bed last night for 2 or 3 hours wrapping presents to put under the tree.  I’m an excellent wrapper, if I do say so myself; my family has marveled at my skill.  I don’t do much in the way of ribbons and bows, any more than I do much in the way of side dishes; but on wrapping and entrees, I’ve cultivated quite the talent.  Pulling, tightening, and—most of all—creasing.  These are the tricks to impressively wrapped presents; it’s the stuff underneath all the accoutrements (if you have any, which I don’t) that distinguishes levels of wrapping expertise.  Plus standing.  Lots of standing.  (Either that or lots of bending, say if you’re wrapping on the floor, but I can’t take hours of bending even more than I can’t take hours of standing at a tall bedside.)  So I’m thinking about all this as I stare at my tree and the presents it shelters.  And I’m thinking about the tension in my shoulders, a residual effect of driving over the mountain yesterday trying to get home to my kids after being delayed in my return by a snow storm.  The roads were technically not bad, but I was being hyper mindful of the seemingly melted snow—I once drove into a snow-covered cornfield in Indiana after a blizzard and I learned then that patches of road that are technically not that bad can in fact be that bad—so the roads yesterday might well have been covered with ice and snow for all the difference it made in my anxiety level then (though lowered slightly by a good two hours of Beatles CDs) and the tension in my shoulders now.  And all of this is making me think about how motherhood is so very embodied.  So much of carework and tenderness and sternness and affection is rooted in the body.  Motherhood does have its way with a woman’s body.

I asked my son last week if he had any tests; he said he did have one on the book he was reading.  I wanted to be sure he was on top of his game (I think that should actually be phrased ‘at the top of his game’ but whatever) so I asked him to talk with me as we drove home about his book.  And he did.  An hour later he was still talking, scene by scene, character detail by character detail.  By now we were home and I was chopping and measuring in the kitchen as he continued to narrate and then began acting out scenes. I was quite proud that he had connected so deeply with his schoolwork and so tapped at the end of my day that I wasn’t sure I was going to make it till we got to the last chapter. I thought I was being so clever in challenging him to prove that he was ready for his test; it didn’t occur to me that he might have ample evidence—like 90 minutes worth—of said proof.  The challenge to the physical limits of my body that evening—hearing, attending, manual preparation of our food, standing at the kitchen counter—offer up another example the bodily demands of mothering.  I sit here on the couch with my laptop looking at my tree, trying not to look past it out the window at the darkness on my front porch.  I’m trying not to notice the darkness on my front porch because it will remind me of how it should be lit but isn’t—only half of my lighted holiday garland seems to be working and it’s the half that can be seen from the room where I currently am not.  And I could fix it, I suppose, but I don’t think my body could take it, requiring as it does my removing the whole garland from the banister around my porch, hoping my Florida girl bones will survive the 15 minutes it would take to do so given that the temperature this morning was 5 degrees (please know that I am not even sure what the phrase “5 degrees” really even means, but I suspect that it has something to do with moving quickly and simultaneously being able to maneuver the garland up and over and around various poles and spindles in all the garb I’ll have to wear out there), lugging it inside, unwrapping the lights…blah blah blah, too horrible to think about right this exact second.

So I’m highly motivated to keep my attentions focused on my now even more lovely tree. And as I watch it I think about that ornament I made with my daughter when she was five.  And then I think about wheeling her in her wagon to preschool, and the French toast sticks I handed her in a paper cup with syrup for one of our trips to school and how guilty I felt then for all the hurriedness and non-nutritional value—guilt which remained with me until she wrote in junior high school about our trek that day as one of her favorite memories.  I’ve wasted more vital energy on guilt like that and surely wish I could have known earlier how to let myself off the hook.  But in any case, I was trying to get us outside a little bit and trying to get myself some exercise of some sort which I had such a hard time doing when I had young children in tow.  So hard to attend to my body’s needs.  Then and now.

And as I look at this tree, my eyelids drooping ever more as I move my eyeballs from the tree to the laptop screen and back again, I think about that “Baby’s First Christmas” ornament that I got in honor of my son those years ago, and several months before that the emergency C-section  two weeks early, and the trouble we had breastfeeding.  And the trouble I had lactating—in front of my class in my first weeks of school as a new professor—the milk let down when I called the house just before class and he started crying in the background and my body responded with milk.  Much like the time when my daughter was an infant and I went to the grocery store without her; a baby was crying several aisles over and my body responded with milk. We don’t have to feed ALL the crying babies, I thought, just our own! And now I’m at the end of post and the end of my day and the end of my ability to think anymore or keep my eyes open.  I need to go tell my son goodnight and that the electric guitar riffs will need to subside for tonight because this mama must sleep.   The maternal body, lived in and on and through, challenged and pulled from, filled up when I drink in my children’s smell, soothed when I touch and am touched by them, then challenged and pulled from again, lived in and on and through.  Maybe I’ll fix the garland tomorrow.

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Posted by on December 16, 2010 in Families, Feminism, Motherhood, Parenting

 

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