Weekend open thread: Mother's Day edition

What’s on your mind this weekend? In the spirit of past Mother’s Day diaries at this site, I’ve posted some mother-related links after the jump. I also added my thoughts on the latest TIME magazine cover, a sexualized depiction of a three-year-old breastfeeding next to a provocative “Are You Mom Enough?” tag line.

First, I recommend this reminder about “the radical history of Mother’s Day. The holiday now commonly marked by flowers, long-distand phone calls, and special meals began as an appeal for mothers to help end wars everywhere.

Save the Children released its latest report on the state of the world’s mothers this week. The full list of country rankings begins on page 52 of this pdf file. The U.S. moved up six spots from last year but still ranks only 25th out of 43 “more developed countries” studied. From the “frequently asked questions” page:

Why doesn’t the United States do better in the rankings?

This year the United States moved up six spots, from 31st to 25th place. Improvements across education indicators are largely responsible for the movement. Despite these gains, however, the U.S. still performs below average overall and quite poorly on a number of measures:

• One of the key indicators of maternal well-being is lifetime risk of maternal mortality. In the United States, mothers face a 1 in 2,100 risk of maternal death – the highest of any industrialized nation. In fact, only three developed countries – Albania, Moldova and the Russian Federation – perform worse than the United States on this indicator. A woman in the U.S. is more than 7 times as likely as a woman in Ireland or Italy to die from a pregnancy-related cause and her risk of maternal death is 15 times that of a woman in Greece.

• Similarly, the United States does not do as well as most other developed countries with regard to under-5 mortality. The U.S. under-5 mortality rate is 8 per 1,000 births. This is on par with rates in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Slovakia and Qatar. Forty countries performed better than the U.S. on this indicator. This means that a child in the U.S. is four times as likely as a child in Iceland to die before his or her 5th birthday.

• The United States has the least generous maternity leave policy of any wealthy nation. It is the only developed country – and one of only a handful of countries in the world – that does not guarantee working mothers paid leave.

• The United States is also lagging behind with regard to preschool enrollment and the political status of women. Performance in both areas places it among the bottom 10 in the developed world.

Nicholas Kristoff’s latest column for the New York Times is about a new hospital in Niger dedicated to fistula repair surgeries. A fistula is a rare complication from childbirth that can wreck a woman’s life if not repaired.

Frank Bruni reflected on “muddling through Mother’s Day” after your own mother has died. The essay resonated with me, as my own mother passed away when I was a child. I didn’t even like the holiday after my own babies were born, not until they were old enough to take pride in making gifts and cards to mark the occasion.

The Iowa legislative session that just ended was a mixed bag on issues of particular interest to mothers. The earned income tax credit expansion again passed the Iowa Senate with bipartisan support but died in the Iowa House. That bill would have helped thousands of working mothers and their families. Unfortunately, Governor Terry Branstad wasn’t willing to support the tax break for working families unless it was attached to a bill cutting commercial property taxes. Last-minute efforts to compromise on property tax reform failed.

A bill designed to increase reporting of sexual abuse and prevent retaliation against those who report sexual abuse of children was passed by both chambers and signed into law. However, a bill that would have increased the statute of limitations for victims of child sexual abuse to file civil lawsuits died in the House after winning bipartisan support in the Senate.

There was also bad news for Iowa mothers of children on the autism spectrum. A bill to require health insurance providers to cover treatment for autism spectrum disorders cleared the Senate by 43 votes to 7, but the Iowa House Commerce Commitee took no action.  Children with autism can benefit greatly from early intervention, reducing later costs of treating school-age children and adults. However, therapies and other methods used to treat autism can be prohibitively expensive for families, if not covered by insurance.

Daily Kos user desertguy posted a lovely nature photo diary to celebrate the holiday. Along with several stunning pictures of animals with their offspring, he remembers how his mother helped him buy his first camera.

Finally, I wavered on whether to comment on TIME magazine’s cover, clearly designed to inflame opinions about extended breastfeeding. I was tempted not to write about it at all, or in the words of Lisa Belkin, not to “take the bait” offered up by TIME.

I am not Mom enough to think that the debate over how to feed our youngest children — an important and nuanced conversation about nutrition, and workplace policy, and government responsibility, and gender relationships — can be boiled down to a simplistic, unrepresentative, staged photograph.

The breastfeeding conversation is not titillating. The TIME cover is.

Breastfeeding is not a macho test of motherhood, with the winner being the one who nurses the longest. In fact there ARE no macho tests of motherhood. Motherhood is — should be — a village, where we explore each other’s choices, learn from them, respect them, and then go off and make our own.

Women who breastfeed their children for three years are outliers, but they are not spectacles, and we shouldn’t hold them up as either Madonnas or freaks. Women who do not breastfeed are not monsters, and we should not condemn them, or really have any opinion about their decision at all.

I have nursed three-year-olds, and I know lots of other women who measure their time of nursing in years rather than months. (Incidentally, many of these women initially planned to breastfeed for only six months to a year.) TIME’s photographer positioned the mother and child in a ludicrous way. Children still breastfeeding at age three are typically nursing briefly at bedtime or first thing in the morning, perhaps also at naptime, or more often if they are sick or injured. TIME placed the mother in a sexualized stance with her child standing on a chair. Anyone unfamiliar with extended breastfeeding would be bound to react negatively to that photo.

The words on the magazine cover offended me more than the photo, because they depict extended breastfeeding as “extreme” and imply that women who have nursed a toddler or preschooler consider other women not to be “mom enough.” That is far from the truth, but I guess adding fuel to the “mommy wars” is good for the media industry.

The anthropologist Katherine Dettwyler has researched breastfeeding around the world; this site contains many links to her published work. For instance, this short essay cites evidence indicating that the “minimum predicted age for a natural age of weaning in humans is 2.5 years, with a maximum of 7.0 years.” Elizabeth Weise of USA Today quoted Dettwyler in this story depicting nursing a three-year-old as “normal.”

Though some online are calling it “perverted” and “dangerous” to nurse a 3-year-old, “It’s normal for our species. It’s not perverted; it’s not sex; it’s not women doing it for some perverse need. It’s normal like a nine-month pregnancy is normal,” says Katherine Dettwyler, a professor of anthropology at the University of Delaware in Newark, Del.

Dettwyler has published numerous studies on breast-feeding and found that most children around the world are breast-fed for three to five years or longer. […]

When Dettwyler studied 1,280 U.S. children whose mothers nursed them for more than three years, she found they were “perfectly fine and they didn’t need therapy and they didn’t think they were having sex with their mothers.”

The children were nursed between three and nine years, with half being weaned between ages 3 and 4. The mothers tended to be middle- and upper-class women, the majority of whom were highly educated and worked outside of the home. […]

It’s also possible that we evolved to nurse children until they’re around 5 or 6, says Dettwyler. Breast milk is one of the only sources of long chain polyunsaturated fatty acids that build brain tissue, she says. It isn’t until age 5 or 6 that “95% of brain growth has been reached, and that’s also about the time that the child’s immune system is ramped up to full production,” she says.

My final concern about TIME’s cover is the way it conflates extended breastfeeding with attachment parenting. Attachment parenting is a way of relating to children, which emphasizes forming a secure attachment between the child and the primary caregivers. The approach calls for responding to each child’s needs consistently and sensitively, without violence. Parents do not need to breastfeed for any length of time in order to form a strong and secure attachment with children. Looking at that photo, parents or people planning to become parents might easily conclude that attachment parenting is for freaks.  

Attachment Parenting International had much more to say about the TIME magazine cover story here.

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