Living

What is it about breastfeeding that gets people riled up?

The recent Time magazine cover depicting an attractive 26-year-old mother breastfeeding her three-year-old son with the headline ‘Are you Mom Enough?’ hanging over the image has re-ignited the perennial (some might say, interminable) argument surrounding the subject of breastfeeding and the new school of ‘attachment parenting,’ a term that mom/cover model Jamie-Lynn Grumet seems to take literally.

Mother breastfeeding baby

Masterfile

The recent Time magazine cover depicting an attractive young mother breastfeeding her three-year-old son with the headline ‘Are you mom Enough?’ hanging over both has reignited the perennial (some might say, interminable) argument surrounding the subject of breastfeeding and the new school of ‘attachment parenting,’ a term that mom/cover model Jamie-Lynn Grumet seems to take literally. 

Should you breastfeed your baby? Is it absolutely necessary to healthy development? Those are just two questions that get endlessly replayed in the broader culture, with strong opinions for and against on both sides of the debate. 

Breastfeeding is, and perhaps always will be, such a hot-button topic because of the way in which it’s used to drive home an ideal vision of motherhood. Good mothers breastfeed their babies; negligent or indifferent mothers do not — or so goes the implicit reasoning behind the arguments of many breastfeeding advocates.  

Unfortunately, that ideal doesn’t really bear out in practice, as many all-too-human mothers find breastfeeding painful, impossible, or just plain inconvenient — there’s that little matter of going back to work that gets in the way — and opt for formula. 

But what breastfeeding says about the status of a woman’s maternal instinct isn’t the only layer to the breastfeeding debate. The question of how long to breastfeed also stirs the pot (over and over again…that pot is really well stirred). 

The sight of a three-year-old suckling from his mother’s breast on the cover of Time makes many of us cringe or wrinkle our noses in disapproval. The fact that the mother is a young attractive woman only makes the image more complex in its potential interpretation. Is it an ad for the virtues of breastfeeding posed by a persuasive model? Or a creepy pseudo-sexual lure intended to suggest there’s something very wrong with a mother breastfeeding a boy who can clearly tuck into a healthy meal all on his own? 

I’ll admit to reflexively cringing over the sight. But the cover and the conversation that followed triggered something else in me, however: sensation fatigue. Endlessly debating whether or not a woman should or shouldn’t breastfeed her baby, toddler, or Little League champ isn’t a conversation that engages with the realities of motherhood, but rather a reaction to calculated provocation. And that seems far more destructive to our continued development than suckling after age 3.