Time magazine’s latest cover has sparked debate about Attachment Parenting and extended breastfeeding. I was extremely curious about what the article had to say, as I’ve practiced both Attachment Parenting and extended breastfeeding, but the truth is, I find myself conflicted about both.
As far as the Time magazine article goes, unless I missed something, it was actually pretty anticlimactic in light of all the brouhaha surrounding it. It’s really nothing more than a piece about Dr. William Sears, considered to be the Father of the Attachment Parenting Movement, and the origins of the Attachment Parenting philosophy. Despite the magazine’s cover – which, clearly, is purposefully controversial as a means of selling magazines – only a very brief mention is made in the article itself about extended breastfeeding.
I will say that at first glance, when the image of this cover began circulating on Facebook a day or two ago, I was disturbed by it. I only later learned that the kid on the cover is 3 years old (apparently close to 4); my first impression was that he must be 6 or 7. It seems apparent that the magazine’s photographers and editors were going for shock and controversy, and I would even venture to guess that they wanted the kid to look older than a typical toddler. The image on the cover is not typical of moms who actually practice extended breastfeeding; the average mom who engages in extended breastfeeding isn’t necessarily hot (though, who wouldn’t want to look like this cover mom?) and doesn’t have her youngster stand on a chair to nurse. To that end, I think Time has done a pretty sad disservice to breastfeeding moms everywhere; although breastfeeding has grown in popularity and reached a level of acceptance greater than at any other time since formula hit the market decades ago, breastfeeding is still widely equated with immodesty and perversion, and nursing moms still find themselves fighting with storekeepers and the public to feed their offspring publicly and in peace, the same way bottle-feeding mothers are allowed to feed their children. With this cover image, Time has emphasized the very misconceptions and prejudices society still has about breastfeeding.
Anyway, so yeah, the picture made me squirm a little. Even though I myself practiced extended breastfeeding (which is generally considered to be anything beyond the baby’s first birthday):
I nursed Kevin for 18 months
I nursed Joey for 21 months
I nursed Annabelle and Daisy for 18 months
I nursed Lilah for 15 months
I nursed Finn for 33 months
None of my kids has ever ingested a drop of formula – and yes, that’s something I am (maybe perversely) proud of, because there were times when it would have been an easy alternative, and I guess I feel good about my determination to stick with it, even when it wasn’t easy, because in the long run it was worth it to me.
I am pretty passionate about breastfeeding; Michael has been known to (half) jokingly refer to my stance on breastfeeding as “militant,” although he is extremely supportive and has become quite the breastfeeding advocate himself. I’m sure by some people’s standards, my feelings about breastfeeding would seem that extreme, and by other people’s standards, they wouldn’t seem extreme at all. I think breastfeeding is a beautiful thing; I think we, as women and mothers, were physiologically designed to nurse our young, just like any other mammal, and our offspring were physiologically designed to be nourished by our breast milk. There are properties in breast milk that cannot be simulated or reproduced artificially, and the health benefits have been proven by study after study. I think there is something intensely and uniquely intimate in the act of nursing one’s child, and there are both physical and emotional benefits to both mother and child that cannot be denied. Plus, it’s convenient and free! I wish every mother would at least try to breastfeed, and I confess that I’ve spent most of my breastfeeding career thinking that pretty much anyone can breastfeed with the right attitude and the right support. I’ve been humbled, however, by having my eyes opened to mothers who truly couldn’t breastfeed, usually due to medical issues. But even absent medical issues or other extenuating circumstances, there are just moms who don’t want to breastfeed, for a variety of reasons. Are they bad moms? No.
So how do I really feel about extended breastfeeding? Well, the current cover of Time magazine has forced me to examine that. And the truth is, I have mixed feelings about it. I think nursing for the first year is a no-brainer. I think nursing for two years is wonderful. Beyond that? I don’t know. I nursed Finn for close to three years, but I confess that there were probably reasons I nursed him for that long that just didn’t apply to my other kids: he and I struggled so fiercely just to get breastfeeding off the ground to begin with, that I think I valued our nursing relationship that much more; he was supposed to be our last baby (ha!), and therefore the last baby I would ever nurse, so I suppose it was just a little harder to give up because of that; and, yes, I will admit that the fact that Finn is developmentally delayed and therefore seems quite a bit younger than he actually is makes it easy to see him as more of a baby than he actually is. I nursed him until he was close to 3 years old, and it didn’t seem like any big deal. But when I imagine possibly having nursed any of my other kids until close when they turned 3, it seems a little . . . weird.
So where should the line be drawn? Obviously there are no hard and fast answers to that question. And I don’t think anyone has the right to impose their beliefs on anyone else; every family is different, and what works for some isn’t going to work for others.
Still, I think that, just like in the animal kingdom (we are animals, after all), nursing is not meant to go on and on. Every mammal mother reaches the point of nudging her offspring towards weaning, usually around the time the youngsters are physiologically eating and tolerating the same diet their parents are eating. Of course, unlike our animal counterparts, we human mothers also nurse for emotional reasons, and there is certainly value to that. I just wonder at what point the need becomes more of the mother’s and not so much the child’s. As a child grows and matures, there are certainly other ways besides nursing to fill that emotional need for the mother and the child.
I know, I sound judgmental, don’t I? I’m trying really, really hard not to be. I told you I was conflicted.
Moving on to Attachment Parenting, this is also something I’ve practiced. The three basic tenets of Attachment Parenting are: breastfeeding (exclusively and on demand), co-sleeping, and baby-wearing. Check, check, check. The philosophy behind Attachment Parenting, in very general terms, is that a baby whose needs are responded to on demand feels secure and learns that s/he is valued and that the world is a safe place. And who doesn’t want that for their children? But, as with any ideology, be it religious, political, philosophical, or parenting, extremists of the practice are spawned. How long should a baby breastfeed? How long should children sleep with their parents? How long and how often should a baby be carried in a sling? Again, no easy answers, and what works varies from family to family.
My take, personally, is that Attachment Parenting is a wonderful thing for babies. You know, when they’re small and helpless and utterly needy. But, as with breastfeeding, there comes a time when babies are no longer babies, and their needs change. Their burgeoning independence should be fostered. Boundaries and limitations should be enforced, and yes, sometimes a firm hand is called for (and I’m sorry, but I just don’t believe that an occasional sharp swat on the backside is going to result in long-term harm to a child’s psyche; I’m not talking about beating the crap out of one’s kids). Expectations of certain behavior on the child’s part should be demanded. Opportunities for frustration and failure should be afforded to children so that they learn humility and perseverance. Opportunities to work out differences with their peers without parental involvement should be afforded children. Skinned knees and bruised egos should be allowed. Consequences of poor choices should be experienced. I believe all of these things deeply.
And there will be those who will come and tell me that Attachment Parenting doesn’t rule out these things, or that I’m flat out wrong in my own parenting views. To the first, I’ll just say that I’m talking about extremism in Attachment Parenting, where even at age 5 or 10, the parents are running themselves ragged trying to meet all of their child’s needs and wants (real and perceived), where the child rules the roost, and not the parents. To the second, it may be true; who am I but one more parent who is only trying to do the best she can? And often failing.
There is one thing I’m absolutely certain of: every single parenting method/philosophy out there produces its share of screwed up adults. Also, parenting by prescription is foolish. Short of abuse and/or neglect, there is no right or wrong way to parent, there’s just not. What any reasonable parent wants is to raise healthy, happy, compassionate, self-sufficient adults, right? So take what works for you to meet those goals, and leave the rest. That’s all any of us can do.