On Practicing Honesty in the Age of Provocative Magazine Covers

Breastfeeding is a subject that is both near and dear to my heart and also something I wanted to write a blog post about.  It just wasn’t… topical.  And then a major magazine ran some article on parenting and put a woman breastfeeding an older toddler right on the cover of their magazine!  I didn’t have anything to say about this.  Sure, I didn’t really like it, but I couldn’t put a finger on what it was about the photo that bothered me.  I’m an American born in the mid-70’s, so breastfeeding IS weird to me, even though I’ve done it.   I thought the magazine cover simply brought out my own ambivalent feelings about it and figured it was just bad on me, you know?  I looked at the pic and while it definitely made me uncomfortable, I wasn’t willing to side with folks saying it was sexual.  I just couldn’t quite see it.  And then I came across this blog: http://singlemomontherun.com/2012/05/10/breastfeeding-and-attachment-parenting-time-magazine/ and the blog author laid it out for me.  “…It is a photo of a woman and a a man-child sucking on her breast in what is not a typical breastfeeding scenario. (l say man-child because they have deliberately accentuated his height and bulk and dressed him like a young boy. Look at the fatigues – do you think that is accidental? Absolutely not.)  Once you see it, you can’t unsee it.

Thus inspired, I wrote a lengthy comment essentially saying that the reason this picture was chosen for the cover was that  a substantial percentage of American women (if not an outright majority) have never breastfed a baby, and so there is the suspicion out there that breastfeeding is sexually gratifying to the mother and the cover plays on our society’s fears of Bad Mothering .  Since I am a former breastfeeding Mommy, of course I didn’t count myself in with this ignorant part of the population, and I think I gave the impression that there was something really deeply wrong with non-breastfeeding mothers who have misgivings about something they can never experience for themselves.  And I felt bad for implying that I was never one of “those women” or that their position is not fairly easy to understand.

There is a lot of hot air going around about breastfeeding anyway.  I have opined in other places that mothers are condemned for breastfeeding AND for formula feeding.  There is literally no way we can win, and not only that, but the mixed messages that society and health care providers send us are pretty goshdarn confusing, even to an educated adult like myself.  This whole “Mommy Wars” thing leads people and the media to stake out positions and then defend them as they think best, which typically means eliding certain facts about whatever feeding method they are endorsing.  I’m pretty sure the lack of honesty is there on both sides, but as a breastfeeding partisan, I am certain that I have experienced this dishonesty coming from my own side.  If I know that breastfeeding advocates in the media at least (I am counting books here as well) aren’t up front about everything that can make breastfeeding difficult or even outright undesirable, then how can someone who fell on the other side of the divide trust us to be honest about the really uncomfortable questions they have about breastfeeding?

Sometimes I hear breastfeeding advocates, in discussing the always popular Nursing In Public issue, say that it’s a shame that breasts are considered sexual in our society, because we’d all be comfortable with breastfeeding if we just decided that boobies were only for babies and not for men (partners).   Our breasts are meant to be multitaskers.  It’s a wonderful thing really.  They help attract mates to you, then when the time is right, you both get to enjoy them, and then if that enjoyment leads you to motherhood, they can feed your child and save you lots of sweet, sweet money.  It’s a beautiful thing that you don’t have to choose between one use and the other.  They can even be used for both purposes in the same day if you like…  It’s difficult to understand and I’m quite sure I can’t actually explain how that works.  But because I have relevant experience, I know that it does.

However, I well remember when I was on the other side of that dividing line.   After all, my son was born only three years ago, and right up to that point, I wasn’t really sure that there could be nothing sexual about it.  I “knew” that if there were something sexual about breastfeeding, that no one would be willing to talk about it.  The cost of honesty would be way too high.  And it doesn’t help that partners and babies uhhh… interface with the breast in similar ways.  I believe La Leche League has some materials that could be helpful in explaining this misconception away.  It is beyond my expertise (also comfort level).  I remember the first time they brought Liam in to nurse after he was born, I was thinking I wasn’t ready.  I wasn’t ready to expose myself and then try to find an adequate way to hold my child while at the exact same time trying to find a way to cram my (huge) nipple into his (tiny) mouth, and figure out whether or not the latch was right and try again, and again and again if necessary until we got it right.  After all, I’d just met the guy what, an hour before?

And then, we got it right.  And we tried again later.  And there was a learning curve.  And I was really unprepared.  And it was what it was.  It wasn’t sexual.  I was feeding my son and without even realizing it, bonding with him.  I saved my family hundreds if not thousands of dollars.  I’m so glad I stuck with it.  He and I loved it.  And we totally weirded my mother out.  And I never got over feeling uncomfortable with nursing in public, whether it was me doing it or someone else.  When I was a little girl, folks just fed babies from bottles and that was how it was done.  And it serves no purpose to condemn people for not understanding something that is difficult to understand, and is an experience they can never share in.

I’m just going to put my most honest foot forward from now on, on the Internet and in real life.  If we speak with complete honesty about our experiences, others will be more inclined to trust us.  I wish I could speak specifically to the experience of nursing toddlers.  There are a lot of misconceptions about extended breastfeeding that come from it’s not being routinely practiced here (or well hidden perhaps).  That suspicion feeds the Time-cover-controvery thing, and it’s not something I can talk about from experience.  If you have nursed a toddler, please tell us about it in the comments section.  If you were nursed as a toddler, I think we would all really love to hear from you.  Or if you just want to talk about your experiences with breastfeeding both good and bad.  Also, if you are a Formula Feeding mommy and need to vent about how you’ve been treated by breastfeeding advocates, talk about that as well.  Honesty.  It’s not the only option, but it is the best one!

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