Opinion

The Time cover and our mom anxieties

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Emily Esfahani Smith
Managing Editor, Defining Ideas
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      Emily Esfahani Smith

      Emily Esfahani Smith is the managing editor of the Hoover journal Defining Ideas and associate editor of The New Criterion. She writes about pop culture at acculturated.com.

So Time really wanted to sell some magazines. Can you imagine an image more provocative than a three-year-old child with his mouth around the nipple of his young, fit, attractive 26-year-old mother — or at least an image that’s that provocative without also being straight up pornographic?

The picture captures a whole range of hotly controversial topics, from public breastfeeding, to attachment parenting, to incest, to the arrested development of kids these days. But what’s truly revealing about Time‘s cover, and the controversy surrounding it, is not the age of the child. It’s our culture’s growing anxieties about moms and motherhood. Showing off that you’re a mom or that your body is preparing to become one is taboo.

Even in Hollywood, with all of its sex and violence, such things are off-limits for the screen. “Hollywood’s Last Taboo,” we’re told, is depicting scenes of childbirth on the screen: “Sex, violence and language are one thing; showing babies being born is quite another.”

Like the straight-talking pregnancy manual “What to Expect When You’re Expecting,” the movie of the same name deals explicitly with gas, hemorrhoids, vomiting, intense labor pain and epidurals. What the film, starring Cameron Diaz, Jennifer Lopez, Elizabeth Banks and Chris Rock, conspicuously doesn’t show in any detail: babies being born.

“What to Expect” steers clear of the blood and gore of labor, but other recent films that were more explicit shocked their audiences:

Two films that pushed: Last year’s “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1″ (PG-13) depicted Bella giving birth to a half-vampire baby: the scene reportedly induced seizures in some viewers. In 2007, the R-rated “Knocked Up” portrayed a baby crowning for comedic effect. Some studio executives wanted to excise that scene, but director Judd Apatow fought for it, especially after early screenings. “There are three different cuts to that shot,” recalls Clayton Townsend, one of the producers. “I remember vividly the repeated gasps from the audience three times — ‘Oh, oh, OH!’ … Judd [was] a little bit like, ‘Yep, that was what I was going for.’”

OK, so childbirth and breastfeeding are not appetizing to watch, whether it’s happening on the cover of Time or in a Judd Apatow movie. But were these aspects of womanhood always as taboo as they are today, or is it only a recent development in the history of our culture? The history of art (and feminism) suggests that it’s a very recent development. I doubt that this statue of Isis nursing Horus, housed in the Louvre, raised eyebrows or shocked its onlookers when it was created in 664-332 BC. Actually, Isis was the goddess of the dead and of rebirth, and this statue was used in its time for religious and/or funerary purposes. People worshiped it. They certainly didn’t view it with disdain as people do the Time mom today.

Modern society has turned women into control freaks as they try to manage the demands of their two lives: private-familial and public-career. The revulsion to birth and public breastfeeding — to motherhood in the flesh, so to speak — is, in my opinion, coming from a place of alienation and fear. We are alienated from our true nature as women and we fear those things that we can’t control in our lives, like the biological and hormonal changes of pregnancy and menstruation (yet another cultural taboo). Though women in the West have become increasingly liberated in the social and political sense, there is still one large, vast, all-consuming entity that we will never be able to liberate ourselves from: Nature.

From the ancient earth-goddess cults that go as far back as the Paleolithic period to more modern and bland representations of “Mother Nature,” womanliness and nature have always been indissolubly bound. The fertility of the earth and the fertility of women were considered part of the same life-giving process. Think again of Isis, the goddess of rebirth, suckling her son. Fertility was celebrated in art by accentuating the distinctively female parts of the body. The Venus of Willendorf (24,000-22,000 BC) is a perfect example, but there are many, many others: