On Being Mom Enough

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.

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7 Comments on “On Being Mom Enough”

  1. TUC
    May 12, 2012 at 12:00 am #

    I am trying to imagine my 8 year old son getting upset about losing a soccer game and me whipping out some nursie-nursie for him like I did when he was a year old. And if 8 is too old, then why isn’t 5 or 4, or almost 4? Although nursing does provide comfort and a bonding relationship, when it moves beyond it’s primary purpose of feeding and becomes more about habit and stress-relief, it is time to cut the cord.

  2. momslifeme
    May 12, 2012 at 3:18 am #

    I agree, the picture is very disturbing and frustrating to say the least. I’ve breastfed all 3 of my children, my youngest still an infant, my two oldest I nursed until approximately 14 months…I’m a huge fan of Dr. Sears and attachment parenting, but I also understand that it requires a lot of involvement from mom and dad and is a sacrifice I wouldn’t require from anyone else and I don’t condemn those who don’t go that route. We all do what we think is best. Well said.

  3. mumofone
    May 12, 2012 at 5:16 am #

    I think you have summed the situation up quite well. I too found this image disturbing – because it does not convey the relationship I had with my child (who I breastfed for 38 months). What I am proud about is that I let my child wean when he wanted. And even though it took 38 months he was able to let go of the thing that soothed him through years of reflux and colitis when he wanted. I think we did BF so long because he was so allergic to things and took time to establish on a normal diet. Along with the fact that BF was a source of comfort for his endless tummy pains – and he needed time to learn new sources of comfort.
    I think for similar reasons we started co-sleeping aged 5 months and he still co-sleeps age almost 4. His illness as a child also led to an element of separation-anxiety and I think he has needed extra time to also grow up from that too. He sleeps on a bed pushed up against my side of the bed and only occasionally rolls over until he’s sleeping next to me. That works for us. To quote Dr Sears “Everybody sleeps where everybody sleeps”.
    I did read Dr Sears Baby Book – and yes I did breastfeed on demand, baby wear and co-sleep – but I think like all philosophies I took what worked for me. I didn’t rigidly follow his advice like it was a religion. I totally agree with you that if you take any philosophy to an extreme there are inherent dangers. And I think a philosophy that works for one age does not always work when a child is older. Its about learning new things and us as parents working out different ways to manage the different stages of development our children go through (reference Eriksons’ stages of development).
    I’m sorry too that the Time cover seems to offer a polarised version of what is natural. I do not know if it was their intention to work for or against BF – but sadly at first glance I think this sort of picture would tend to alienate people who might want to BF – and that would be sad – BF is a rewarding, wonderful experience that I am not sure I will ever have again – and while I am glad my child has moved on from that phase – a part of me misses the special closeness we had – there is nothing like it.

  4. momshieb
    May 12, 2012 at 2:29 pm #

    As an older, empty nester Mom, I found this post to be both thought provoking and a little frustrating (for you, not because of you!) Almost 30 years ago, all of these issues were being hotly debated when I had my kids. There was pressure to breast feed, to not breast feed, to use a pacifier, to never use a pacifier, to co-sleep, to not……..
    I decided to go with what felt good to me (partly because everybody telling me what to do made me furious, partly just because). I breastfed until my kids were eating well and seemed ready to let it go (different ages for all three, but all over the age of one year). I sometimes slept with the kids when we fell asleep together, or they were sick, or scared or it was stormy…whatever! And after several years of infertility treatments, you better believe I held those kids, wore them, strapped them on and then held hands when they learned to walk!
    It all turned out fine; they are grown, happy, healthy and they still love me, their Dad and each other.
    I wish that everyone would recognize that there is no ONE way to raise kids. Every kid is different, every family is different; how about if we all give each other a “pass” and just try to be supportive?
    Good for you for raising your kids the way you want to, and good for you for trying not to judge. I wish you years of joy with your family; sounds like you have it pretty well figured out!
    (And that picture is both disturbing and deliberately misleading. Shame on Time!)

  5. Amy
    May 12, 2012 at 3:32 pm #

    Well said! I think what disturbs me about the pic is that to me it just makes the whole aspect of it controversial. Like we really need to see a picture of a boy, yes he looks like a boy not a babe, suckling on a mother who is dressed like she is going out to happy hour. It’s not realistic. Put her in stretchy yoga pants, a comfy shirt, hair in a bun, reading a book to her nursling….then they might get it close. The picture devalues the beautiful intimate act of nursing.

  6. Anna
    May 14, 2012 at 11:17 am #

    Very sensible comments, Lisa. I took have done check, check, check. And like you enjoyed extended nursing. But the wider stance of Dr Sears (that attachment parenting is uniquely correct) has oppressed me a bit. I admit that I am envious of mothers who get to have their bed to themselves and who don’t nurse at night and whose babies have a schedule. If I could turn back the clock I would simply not read parenting books, all of them made me anxious…

  7. Holly F.
    May 22, 2012 at 8:10 pm #

    I have done a different parenting style with each of my three kids. With each child, I have moved more toward the attachment style but it wasn’t really a choice. It just seemed like the added years and experiences of being a mom moved my instinct to that style. I stopped overthinking each move I made and simply let things happen. What happened was that I wanted to breastfeed longer, have my child in my bed more, and have a sling so that I could clean the house without the baby crying, which bothered me more than the crying my other two had done.

    If we go from a purely biological view, a child loses the ability (which begins as a reflex) to “suckle”, as opposed to “suck”, around 8 years old. The ability to suckle is what makes breastfeeding work. Sucking will get milk from the breast but will NOT encourage the ongoing breastfeeding relationship of supply and demand. Following that, the absolute latest the child *could* breastfeed is 8, at which the suckle ability is gone. I think most of us would feel like an 8 year old breastfeeding is inappropriate, but how much of our culture dictates that opinion? When we were still a young race and humans only lived to their 30s or 40s and food was all about hunting and gathering, the 8 year olds may have breastfed. Perhaps they needed the immunity benefits longer. Perhaps breastfeeding meant they required less hunted and gathered food than a weaned teenager. Less demand for meat and berries meant more meat and berries for the adults that actually did the hunting and gathering. *Shrugs.* Who knows?

    Regarding the magazine, the picture is shit. The article asking “Are You Mom Enough” is shit and only serves to deepen the mommy wars that shouldn’t even exist. As MOMSHIEB said, there is no one way to be a mom.

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