Every day since Ryan W. Bradley became a father, he has worked at embracing the messiness of life.
My younger son is nearly four. He sleeps in bed with me and my wife, he nurses twice a day—when he naps and when he goes to bed. I’m not particularly stoked about either of these things and I guarantee neither is my wife. But we aren’t ashamed, either. Welcome to parenthood, one of the few things in life that will make you do something you don’t want to and still feel good about it.
Like many, I wasn’t trying to become a parent when I got my wife pregnant. Before I did, my views on the raising of children were shaped largely as an antithesis to the way I had been raised. But there is no way to truly understand child raising until the duty is upon you. When it comes to parenting, though, those without children, who have never been on the other side of raising and caring for a new life often find cause to comment on and criticize those whose lives revolve around their children.
Lives can be broken down, categorized, in many ways, but most parents will tell you there is Before Kids and After Kids. These eras are vastly different. From daily routines to views on every aspect of life, every bit of who you once were is effected by becoming a parent. Like everything in life, parenting is a messy endeavor.
There is no sterility, no clean-cut guide to being a parent, or to raising a healthy, well-adjusted child. Yet, the United States, a country steeped in the continual sterilization of all that it means to be human, has long been waging a war on the messiness of parenting.
Recently Time Magazine called this practice of homogeny into public debate by running a cover article on what is called “attachment” parenting and “extended” breastfeeding. Of course, Time’s cover photo was staged and chosen from a pool of many other pictures to stir controversy and sell issues. Time is not simply a magazine of expository journalism out to seek truth in the world. Don’t ever make the mistake of believing that a magazine like Time is, at the bottom line, any different than The National Enquirer. They are businesses trying to sell a product.
So, Time ran a cover featuring a large three-year old dressed in fatigues standing on a chair nursing from his mother’s breast while she gives an expression of sly defiance. Her arm, naturally positioned on her hip, she embodies the headline: “ARE YOU MOM ENOUGH?”
Remember, it’s about selling a product. It’s about causing controversy so people get riled up and talk about the magazine. In this day and age there is no stirring the pot, only viral marketing. But beyond this sensationalism is a real issue: how we view the raising of our children, not as individuals, but as a society.
Our culture sexualizes women to the extreme. To the point where scenes in movies depict men getting hot and bothered over a woman breastfeeding. And I’m no innocent in this. As a writer I often write about sex, about transgression, about perversion. There is even a story in my collection, Prize Winners, about a mother breastfeeding a baby in front of her husband attempting to show him that real life is not like pornography. In effect trying to convince him that reality is sexier than fiction.
I know that a woman’s breasts are, biologically speaking, a tool. A way to nourish offspring. This does not de-sexualize breasts for me, but in the years since my son’s birth I have come to separate the two. I can appreciate my wife’s body as having an important duality: vessel and life support for our child, and as part of another biological force, physical attraction.
And perhaps this is the crux of the issue, that our society has gone so far in sexualizing the relationship to a woman’s body that when we see a child breastfeeding we have been conditioned to see it not as nurturing, but as unsettling. Jason Good, comedian and contributor to Parents Magazine writes on his blog,
“The fact that I sexualize the one piece of female anatomy from which I once fed, makes me feel grotesquely simple. I think that feeling is at the heart of why people are uncomfortable with the recent image on the cover of Time Magazine.”
But discomfort is only the beginning. When a major magazine runs a feature on breastfeeding, what does the internet do? What it is unfortunately best at: allowing people who know they cannot be held accountable for their comments to make remarks like “breasts are for motorboating.” The same men who make these comments on the internet wouldn’t dare say them to their wives or girlfriends, but the internet is a frat house where people can crack their jokes without fear of getting slapped or dumped.
If only it stopped there.
The basic tenet of attachment parenting is that you let the child guide you as a parent. You meet them at their comfort level. Rather than pushing a child to sleep in their own bed, or go to the bathroom, or stop nursing on your timeline, you let them come to it naturally.
I don’t have statistics to back this up, but I believe that attachment parenting, like becoming a parent itself, is rarely planned on. It happens because people have kids and then they adjust to their roles as parents. They observe their child’s behavior and how that child interacts with the world around them. They become sensitive to that.
As my son approached three we introduced him to the concept of going to the bathroom on the toilet rather than in a diaper. We didn’t force it upon him, we let him move at his own speed. As a result we didn’t get frazzled trying to force a child into not having accidents, and he in turn got a less stressful transition.
We were all rewarded when a month before his third birthday the concept clicked with him and he started alerting us when he needed to go to the bathroom. Within weeks he was wearing underwear exclusively, even through the night. And since that time he has had only a couple accidents. He is proud on a daily basis of his growth and maturity in this area. And my wife and I are equally proud.
This isn’t to say it wasn’t work. There was taking him to the bathroom countless times, sitting with him in there for longer than anyone wants to sit in a bathroom, and the constant struggle to come up with ways to make going “potty” exciting. Welcome to parenthood.
Sure, potty training isn’t nursing, but the concept is the same. No parent, father or mother, goes into the nursing of a child wanting it to last for years. Trust me, any mother who is breastfeeding beyond a year isn’t exactly shouting it from the rooftops, they are doing it because they believe it is what’s best for their child and that their child will move on naturally when they are ready. My wife nurses our son for the same reason I go to work every day, because she wants to provide him with the best life possible.
But this reasoning will never silence critics. Critics who offer opinions without learning more about the topic. In the days after the Time article hit the internet every criticism of attachment parenting that has been perpetuated to the point of nausea was trotted out. From the idea that a child who breastfeeds beyond a year or two will have unhealthy attachments to their mothers, to extended breastfeeders needing therapy later in life.
Maybe this is the best time to mention that I was breastfed for a year. At the longest. And I’m currently in therapy. It has nothing to do with my infancy, of course, but to say it did would be just as ludicrous as saying my son will one day need therapy because he breastfed for more than a year. The very idea is insulting. My children may very well need therapy one day, but it will have nothing to do with breastfeeding.
Dr. Kathy Dettwyler, an anthropologist and breastfeeding expert says the predicted age for natural weaning of children is between two and a half and seven. She also cites numerous studies of extended breastfeeding and bottle-fed babies. In every case, the babies who breastfed had higher IQs and lower risk for a number of diseases. And the longer the child breastfed, the greater these benefits became.
Critics say extended breastfeeding will cause children to have co-dependency issues. Dr. William Sears, one of the leading pediatricians in the country and one of attachment parenting’s greatest advocates says otherwise. He describes breastfeeding as a “long-term investment” in a child. And cites studies that have found extended breastfeeders to grow up and be “more independent and self confident.”
The United States has never been particularly great at cultural relativity which might explain why the fact that our country breastfeeds for a shorter amount of time than any other and still sees this practice as normal. In most countries children are breastfed for three to five years. Even the World Health Organization recommends breastfeeding for two years and beyond.
There is a plethora of scientific evidence that supports the practice of breastfeeding. Lower rates of everything from ear infections to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Even lower rates of breast and ovarian cancer for mothers who breastfeed. If people think the United States has left behind that puritanical streak that founded our country the aversion to breastfeeding may be good proof of the opposite.
But people who find this topic uncomfortable shouldn’t fret. Dettwyler studied over a thousand children who had breastfed for more than three years and found they were “perfectly fine and they didn’t need therapy and they didn’t think they were having sex with their mothers.”
In the end the defense of attachment parenting is not about trying to convince others to subscribe to the practice. Every child is different, every parent is different, there is no one perfect way to do anything. Instead it is about pushing our society to become less closed-off, more open to the human experience. To buck the sterility we have been conditioned to believe we can create in the world. To embrace the messiness of life.
Every day since I became a father I have worked at embracing this messiness. I’m not always great at doing so, there are times where I just want my kid to sleep in his bed, when I just want to have five minutes alone with my wife, even if just to remember who she is as a woman beyond the incredible job she is doing in raising our sons. Every day is a reminder that I cannot control every aspect of life, that I cannot create the mythical sterility.
But when I stop for a moment, run my hand through my sons hair and watch the way his eyes dance with wonder for life, all the non-sterile moments seem more important than ever. Sure, my wife and I may prefer that he pick up the pace a bit when it comes to weaning or sleeping in his own room, but more than anything we want him to be comfortable with these transitions. In a way we are giving him a stake in his own development. And when he makes those transitions they will be all the more meaningful for us as parents and all the more empowering for him.
Read more about Lifestyle and Work/Life Balance on The Good Life.
—Photo credit: Shekynah/Flickr