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Whole Milk

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If you haven’t seen this week’s cover of TIME, then you probably haven’t walked past a newsstand, because it’s one of their more provocative covers in recent history. It depicts 26-year-old mother Jamie Lynn Grumet breastfeeding her nearly four-year-old son Aram. Grumet still breastfeeds her five-year-old son, and was herself breastfed until she was six. When I was six, I got into my first real fistfight. I cannot imagine going home after that and nursing.

Grumet appears on TIME’s cover – and additional photos appear within the book showing other mothers breastfeeding beyond-infant children – to illustrate a story about the extremes of attachment parenting. This is a set of precepts put forth by pediatrician William Sears. It advocates a number of practices to enhance closeness between young children and their parents, with some of the more talked-about practices including breastfeeding, co-sleeping and baby-carrying.

All three practices are the kinds of things that easily become the social equivalent of that sound a needle makes when it drags across a record. (It occurs to me that that reference is probably lost on somebody as young as Jamie Lynn Grumet. Alas.) I know this because my wife and I, at varying times, practiced all three of these things, and were criticized for all of them. I carried our daughter in a sling for months when she was first born because I was working from home and she absolutely, positively refused to be put down. So I wore her, she slept happily and I worked standing up at a kitchen counter. It wasn’t 24/7, it wasn’t ideal, and it wreaked havoc on my knees and back, but it worked out. Some friends looked at me like I was an idiot for it, until I hit them with the golden rule of first-time parenting: if it’s a dumb idea that works, it’s not such a dumb idea.

Co-sleeping was an even more controversial practice, since there are some who feel that it endangers the baby. You could roll over on the little one and smother them, so the theory goes. I’d have to be pretty drunk to do that, quite honestly, and if I was that blotto it’s a sure bet my wife wouldn’t even let me into bed. The bottom line with co-sleeping was that for us, anyway, it worked out nicely. My wife slept better, our kids slept better and everybody felt better at the start of the day. It only lasted as long as my wife was nursing, which takes us to the third and most controversial practice, and the one at the heart of the TIME story: breastfeeding.

My wife breastfed both of our children for a little more than a year each. The bottom line on this one was pretty easy for us: there is no shortage of science that shows that breastmilk is the best thing for babies. Formula might be the best alternative, but there is nothing in this world that beats the nutritional value of breastmilk for little ones. And there is also plenty of evidence that breastfeeding is good for mothers, too. This really shouldn’t come as such a surprise, I suppose…if it was bad for us, we probably wouldn’t have evolved to do it. When you consider how huge the healthcare costs of a newborn’s medical problems can be, I’d think that any practice that might hedge things there would be seen as a positive.

Of course, we no longer live in the Stone Age, and modern sensibilities, at least in this country, often recoil at the very notion of breastfeeding. (Case in point: those of you who disapprove of this blog’s photograph.) My wife and I were aware of this, and although we didn’t see the big deal about breastfeeding, we did see that it skeeved some people out, so best to be polite about it. If nursing had to be done in public, then do it discreetly. It’s not hard, really. A light shawl or other such cover always did the trick, and not once were we ever scolded while my wife nursed; I don’t think we even got a sideways look for it. The criticism we got for breastfeeding was always at some other time, when folks found out that my wife was breastfeeding at all. Strangely, the static always came from folks who seemed to think that breastfeeding was gross or unnatural. (So is a C-Section. What’s your point?)

The strongest criticism seemed to come people who had not even had kids, so I could never quite figure out what their problem was. I had one colleague chide me that breastfeeding must have been a handy way to keep my wife stuck at home. When I tried to explain that breastfeeding was my wife’s idea, it was deflected away. What can you do? Some folks just aren’t down with breastfeeding. And that’s fine. What’s not fine, however, is when a practice that really has nothing to do somehow becomes your business. TIME seems to encourage that, I think.

The point of the TIME article isn’t so much to drive awareness of child-rearing practices that lead to healthier kids, but to sensationalize the reactions the rest of us have to child-rearing practices carried out to the extreme. For as much as I think breastfeeding is a good thing, I still had to crack wise about it at the beginning of this blog. And more than a few articles about the TIME story coin phrases such as “whipped out a tit” to describe breastfeeding with more than a little scorn. Honestly, I just don’t know where it comes from. A friend once suggested to me that it’s a holdover from women’s liberation: that things like breastfeeding made it tough for women to both have kids and maintain a career. If that’s so, then I can see the resentment, although a lot of workplaces have made it a lot easier for nursing moms to pump milk on site during the day. It’s even something protected by PPACA.

I cannot imagine the collective eyebrow-raising over this will last beyond a week, when TIME runs a cover of something else to pique the interest of an easily distracted public. I do wish that TIME could have refrained from what appears to be a cynical exercise in audience shock in order to sell copies and elicit reader comments. Because this kind of thing typically ends by adding – however slightly –to a baseline skepticism toward parenting practices that may strike some as weird, but have not been proven to actually hurt anybody. And while I am not about to bet that breastfeeding your kid when he is five is going to do much for him except set him up for some cruel mockery at school, you really can’t argue against the

And as much as we’d like to think that there is a simple, universal way to raise kids – it would sure take pressure off of us if there were, right? – the truth is that raising a child is perhaps the single most subjective undertaking you’ll ever see. What works between parent and child in one example works differently in another. All that should matter is that we each try to find that way to best raise our little ones so they can be as healthy and as happy as can be. What others think of it shouldn’t matter. If only that were so.


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