Time magazine’s recent cover photo of the nearly four-year-old Aram breast-feeding at his 26-year-old mother’s tank-top-covered breast has elicited a viral stream of commentary, from ecstatic paeans to those virulently opposed to the idea of nursing a walking, talking, running, possibly even iPad-using child.
The article was primarily focused on Dr. William Sears, the American pediatrician and father of eight who spearheaded the concept of attachment parenting in the US. Sears has long advocated such measures as breast-feeding well into toddlerhood; co-sleeping, parents and small children sharing a bed; “baby wearing” one’s small child in a carrier close to one’s body, and other strategies he says will help parents better understand and answer their children’s needs from infancy into childhood.
For Israeli readers, the debate over the Time photo as well as Sears’s system is engaging but typically, slightly foreign. It’s not that there aren’t long-term breast-feeding toddlers in Israel, or parents who co-sleep and wear their babes in slings, wraps and carriers; there are, and horut tzmuda or horut mitkarevet (attachment parenting in Hebrew), is a well-known concept here, discussed and debated at length in parenting forums, blogs and Facebook pages. But there’s no single sabra parenting guru and there are still many Israeli parents who primarily feed formula and, later, bottled baby food to their babies, put them to sleep in a separate room — possibly even in a crib with bumpers — and may transport them in NIS 4,000 strollers.
Breast-feeding well into toddlerhood is a big change for Israeli mothers, said Dr. Gina Weissman, who trained as a dentist before transitioning 15 years ago into her work as a lactation consultant, which involves teaching nurses about breast-feeding through the Health Ministry. About eight years ago, she began seeing women prolong their breastfeeding, including women who chose to pump milk and continue nursing when they went back to work.
“That’s an aspect of attachment parenting that has changed society — that it’s becoming the norm to nurse a two-year-old, that it’s like giving your child a hug a few times a day,” she said. “People are also talking about co-sleeping more. They always did it, they just didn’t tell the nurses at the Well Baby clinics about it.”
Weissman’s breast-feeding clinic, Halav M — Mother’s Milk — is located in Emek Hefer in central Israel, and she draws clients from all over the country. Another lactation consultant, Fran Bronstein, works in Jerusalem and runs the Jerusalem Breastfeeding Center, a walk-in clinic in Talpiot for nursing mothers.
“There are many people in Israel who do this kind of long-term breast-feeding. Most people just don’t talk about it so much,” said Bronstein. “It’s not an accepted thing here. I always tell people that they need to do what’s appropriate for their immediate family, husband and children.”
That said, in the nearly dozen years that Bronstein and her partner have run the center, they are seeing more attachment parenting on the part of their clients, and women staying at home for a six-month maternity leave, rather than the usual three.
“Many of the women I see are intellectual about this,” said Bronstein. “They are committed to at least some kind of breast-feeding experience with their baby for a period of time.”
There are also more women “wearing” their babies, she commented, and a concurrent explosion of the baby carrier business.
“That’s really developed,” agreed Weissman. “Everyone is less scared of it, and women realize they can hold their baby and do whatever they need to do, make a sandwich, do the laundry, whatever. I know there are people who in their life would never have done that. It’s for sure different [now]. I was once the only one [wearing my baby].”
What is still complicated for many Israeli mothers — and women worldwide — is how to balance the desire to be attached to one’s children with the need to go back to work and earn a salary again. For many women, the pressure to return to work after the standard three-month maternity leave necessitates a different kind of parenting. It’s harder to be attached to one’s child when they’re not with you, and returning to work can mean dropping them off at 7:30 or 8 a.m. and not seeing them again until 1 p.m., or 4 p.m. for those who take advantage of the extended day option.
Being an at-home mother in Israel, with the ability to spend prolonged time with one’s children, is a big source of conflict, said Natalie Lehavi, a mother of three who gradually transitioned from a career in food engineering and biotechnology with a degree from the Weizmann Institute of Science to her current work as a doula and childbirth educator.
“I made my choices but it’s a big conflict here,” said Lehavi, who has three children under nine and moderated an online forum for pregnancy and birth for more than seven years. “It’s a big challenge for moms and parents generally. The balance between career and parenting is nearly impossible. Very few professions allow mothers to be really present in their kids’ lives, and most places don’t allow a 50% to 70% work schedule — they want 100%. I just didn’t want to be out of the house for 12 hours a day.”
From Lehavi’s experience, Israeli women run the gamut in parenting their small children. There are those who do go back to work after three or four months of maternity leave, while some lengthen to four or five months. In the moshav where she lives in the country’s center, many women stay home with their babies until they are a year old — presumably breast-feeding and wearing them — and then send them to daycare.
“I have some cousins in the US who went back to work after six weeks, and I don’t know how anyone does that,” she said. “I think most moms would stay home for longer if they could get their salary, but they don’t because they need that second salary.”
Marcy Geva, a mother of four, doula and childbirth and childhood educator from Kibbutz Sdot Yam near Caesarea, commented that she sees both sides of the spectrum among the parents in her courses.
“I see mothers thinking about giving up on their careers to be stay-at-home mothers and mothers who are going on with their careers,” she said. “Whatever we do, we have to be true to ourselves.”
What has changed, said Geva, is the pressure to be a perfect mother within the judgmental eye of the public.
“You feel like you’re not a good mother if you don’t make your baby’s food or breast-feed them until college,” she said. “There’s a pressure in Israel to be this perfect kind of mommy figure but it is a loud minority of women who are pushing it along. They are very judgmental about what good parenting is, and I think they are making the quiet majority of women feel inadequate. They are saying that there must be natural childbirth, breast-feeding until three, babywearing and co-sleeping.”
Geva first earning her parenting stripes by working in the now-defunct children’s house at Kibbutz Sdot Yam, where she has been living and raising her own family for the last 25 years. She has found that kibbutz parenting is unique, given that many of the mothers she’s now shepherding were themselves raised in the children’s house, or may have been the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors, and as a result tend to overcompensate with their own children because they missed something with their own mothers who themselves were forced to raise their children in a certain way.
“They’re super symbiotic with their own children, without even really thinking about it, without making a decision about their kind of parenting,” said Geva. “I think that this last generation of women went heavily into attachment parenting to find what they were missing.”
That sensibility could be true of many mothers of young children, who want to offer their children what their own mothers didn’t give them because it wasn’t known or available at the time.
“I see attachment parenting in many aspects of parenting,” added Weissman. “It’s not just breast-feeding or co-sleeping, but how to raise children close to us. There are women who have to be taught how to keep their babies close, and others who I have to tell to go take a shower on their own.”
There doesn’t seem to be one particular Israeli path in parenting, nor a guru advocating attachment parenting, but rather a broader view of various methods that have proven helpful. What’s true is that Israeli parents, and mothers in particular, are looking to parent differently than their mothers, to find a way to answer their children’s needs while living up to their own goals.
The pro-attachment parents are vocal because in the long run, “they’re right,” said Geva. Yet, she notes, parents have to do what feels right for them.
“There are ages and stages,” she said. “Life is easier for a mom who has her kid on a schedule, and when life is easier for Mom, she’s probably a better mother.”