(And it doesn’t have anything to do with looking like this.)
Now that the sensational controversy has died down, I want to comment on the 2012 Time magazine cover image that was so powerfully disturbing to fueling the fire of the Mommy wars.
Compare And Despair
This cover is just ridiculous and does everybody a discredit with its devaluing of relationships, bodies, and the lived experience of being a woman, parent, young child, and person. And yet, images go right to that affective part of the brain. I’ll admit, my first, just below the surface stream of consciousness, critical thoughts upon seeing this image were:
“This woman is young and thin and has no idea how difficult motherhood is (jealousy, fatigue),”
“She must be able to breastfeed a 3-year-old because she doesn’t have a job (anger, sadness),”
“Wow, now we are sexualizing toddlers?! (anger, fierceness)” and
“I’m a bad/not enough Mom (shame, hurt).”
I felt separate from this woman, this Mom I knew nothing about.
I remember, when doing doctoral research on body image, reading about the concept of objectification theory:
Objectification theory posits that girls and women are typically acculturated to internalize an observer’s perspective as a primary view of their physical selves. This…can increase women’s opportunities for shame and anxiety, reduce opportunities for peak motivational states,…[and] also illuminates why changes in these mental health risks appear to occur in step with life-course changes in the female body. (Frederickson and Roberts, 1997)
I find this last sentence particularly relevant to why images like this can be so damaging. It is basically saying that vulnerability to objectification, shame, and anxiety risks coincide for many women during the times when their bodies change. For example: adolescence, menopause, pregnancy, and postpartum. Becoming a Mom is ripe with changes including not only body shape and size, but also questioning and identity shifting. How do I do this Mom-thing? Am I doing it right? This is why so many new Moms are desperate for the right parenting book, sleep training book, breastfeeding guidance, and parenting philosophy (for example Attachment parenting, which this Time magazine article was about). This is why the first years of motherhood are often described as “Mommy boot camp.”
SHAME: Should Have Already Mastered Everything
Within this Mommy boot camp are many uncomfortable feelings. One of them can be shame. In writing about the connections between shame and body image, Judith Rodin talks about “the shame trap.” She describes this as “a felt gap between the actual self and the ideal self.” She observes that there are gaps in the psychological research on people’s feelings about their bodies, and she believes shame to be a determining factor in this gap because who wants to research shame? Shame is uncomfortable, icky, disturbing, unsettling and “may therefore tend to be repressed from awareness.” (Rodin, Judith, Body Traps, 1993).
Shame is about questioning one’s self: Am I (breast)feeding my child; supporting their sleep; brain, body, and feelings in the right way? Should I be practicing attachment parenting or Ferber; co-sleeping or sleep training? Can I juggle working outside the home with building a strong attachment with my child? New motherhood and parenting are ripe with these questions. And bookshelves are filled with psychologists and doctors’ philosophies attempting to answer these questions.
Time magazine, and the editors that choose what images to put on their covers, are not stupid. They are very aware of subliminal, subversive, and highly controversial images. They are aware that this just-below-the-surface-repressed shame is the source of feelings of “not enough.” They are also probably aware that there are many images of virgin mothers cradling babies and there are many images of pornographic women with exposed breasts. But there aren’t many images that try to combine this virgin whore dichotomy all-in-one! So we have controversy mixed with shame, taboo, and perhaps some eroticism. Add the title with the words “Are you enough?” and we have a big seller. Who wants to buy a magazine that says “I am enough”? Let’s face it, if you were feeling enough, you probably wouldn’t be buying a magazine!
The Reality of Being Good Enough
So anyway, back to the image. I decided to look up this Mom who was imaged on the cover of Time and see who she actually was vs. my projections. I went to this woman’s blog. I read about her experience as a Mom: the difficult first pregnancy she had, how she then chose to adopt a baby from Ethiopia, how she started a nonprofit foundation to assist women with pre and postnatal care as well as financial independence due to the AIDs and orphan crisis in Africa. And I thought,
“Wow. I would like to meet this woman. This woman is deep, amazing, caring and doing wonderful work in the world.”
Who cares what the size of her body is and how long she is breastfeeding? I no longer felt jealousy, anger, shame, and hurt. I felt connected with this woman! I thought I would like to sit down with this woman and have a cup of tea and have our children meet! I would like to share our different experiences of pregnancy, marriage, faith, and motherhood.
And so I will end with a challenge to the proverb “A picture is worth a thousand words.” Yes, a picture may be worth a thousand words, but if it comes from the media, it needs a whole lot more to flesh out the experience. Because motherhood is about being and becoming enough, regardless of age, size, breastfeeding status, sleeping, or parenting style. Motherhood is about being good enough!
In the words of the English Pediatrician and psychoanalyst, Donald Winnicott
“A mother is neither good nor bad nor the product of illusion, but is a separate and independent entity: The good-enough mother … starts off with an almost complete adaptation to her infant’s needs, and as time proceeds…her failure to adapt to every need of the child helps them adapt to external realities.”
In other words, in motherhood, the whole point is to fail, or to be “Mom enough” by being “good enough.”