The other day I was hanging out with my friend and her four-year-old daughter. My son, the aforementioned two-year-old, at some point asked to breastfeed. I'm trying to cut down on nursing him in public, but he'd just spent his first night away from me, so I figured I could make an exception. I helped him up onto my lap, pulled down my shirt, and let my kid do his thing.
After a few minutes, my friend's daughter noticed what was going on, and said,
“Oh my God, what is his mouth doing on your nipple?”
I tried to explain that he was drinking milk, but she wasn't overly convinced.
“The milk is in the fridge. Milk comes from cows. How did the milk get from the cow into your breast?”
I told her that all mammals make milk for their young, and that her mother had fed her this way when she was a baby, but she still seemed skeptical. So I unlatched my son, squeezed my breast, and let a little bit of milk spray onto the palm of my hand.
“Now do you believe me?” I asked, a little smugly.
I have to admit, there was definitely a part of me that was stoked about how I was this kick-ass feminist mom who was teaching kids about natural bodily functions. There was a part of me that was high-fiving myself for being able to whip out my boob in public and squirt milk like it was no big deal and nothing to be ashamed of.
But there was also a part of me that was like, holy shit, what have I become?
When I was pregnant with my son, I didn't give much thought to extended breastfeeding. Actually, I didn't really think about breastfeeding at all –- I figured that if I could, I would, and if I couldn't, it wasn't a big deal. After all, I'd been formula-fed, and I turned out great, right?
During my pregnancy, I thought more about my kid's birth than about what would come after. I figured that I'd cross the breastfeeding bridge when I got there, but probably it was more important to deal with that whole labour and childbirth thing first.
I wanted a natural birth, or as natural a birth as I could have in the hospital, and I planned to do all the hippy-dippy earth-goddess stuff that was supposed to make labour and birth easier. I wrote out an adorably naïve birth plan, and smugly told all my friends that I was going to go drug-free.
I read everything about natural birth that I could get my hands on, and spent hours highlighting passages in "Ina May's Guide To Childbirth." I ranted about North America's abysmal C-section rate and bored my family with facts about how the medical model of childbirth is hurtful to women. I did breathing exercises and made my husband massage my perineum with olive oil to help it stretch. I felt prepared.
And then I went into premature labour, spent two weeks in the hospital on bed rest, and delivered my five pound, footling-breech son via C-section at 36 weeks.
And even though everyone kept telling me that it was OK, that I couldn't have done anything differently, and that I should just be thankful that my son was healthy, I felt guilty about my C-section.
So, so guilty. And so hypocritical.
Suddenly, breastfeeding assumed this huge, looming importance in my life. I had to breastfeed, to make up for the fact that my son was born early, to make up for my failure to have a natural birth.
Except that my son wouldn't, or couldn't breastfeed. I was chock-full of milk, but he had a hard time latching, and was too sleepy to stay awake for an entire feeding. His weight dropped to four and a half pounds and I started to break into a cold sweat every time the nurses wheeled the scale into the room.
Attempted feeding sessions always left me in tears of frustration and defeat. I began to dread the moment when my son's adorably squinty eyes opened, because it meant that I would have to try to feed him.
Finally, my mother said to me,
“Annie, it's OK to give up. I did, twice. It's okay if you have to give him formula.”
But in spite of all the Internet fights I'd had with so-called lactivists about how breastfeeding wasn't actually the be-all, end-all, in spite of constantly telling my friends that I was fine with the idea of giving my son formula, in spite of the rational voice in the back of my mind telling me to just relax about breastfeeding already, giving up didn't feel OK. I wanted to breastfeed so badly; after all of my other perceived failures as a mother, I just wanted to give my son this one thing.
So I worked at it. I worked really fucking hard to breastfeed, attending special classes at the hospital, and then shuttling my son back and forth to the family doctor and our local lactation clinic several times a week for weight checks and nursing advice. I tried pumping. I tried stripping him down to his diaper every time I fed him, just to keep him awake. I tried a nipple shield, which was what finally worked and saved our breastfeeding relationship.
I hated breastfeeding, though, and still dreaded every feeding. Whenever I nursed in public, I was sure that everyone was staring at my breasts, and I wanted to shrivel up and die. I planned to quit as soon as my son turned a year old.
And then I was hit, hard, with postpartum depression. And breastfeeding was the only thing I felt like I was doing right as a mother.
When the psychiatrist I was seeing told me that quitting breastfeeding would help me get better, I told her that she was wrong. My family doctor helped me find medication that was compatible with nursing. For all the awful things that it did to me, postpartum depression did, at the very least, renew my determination to breastfeed my son.
And eventually I even started to enjoy it, because I saw how much he enjoyed it. He weaned off the nipple shield, and feeding time suddenly became way easier. Breastfeeding went from being a chore to being a quiet, peaceful break from my other duties as a mom. I became more comfortable with nursing in public.
I'm not sure why I'm telling you all of this, except that I want to try to explain to you why I'm still breastfeeding my toddler. Because I'm not really certain myself, some days.
I could give you a litany of reasons why it's good for his health, and I could tell you that the WHO recommends a minimum of two years of breastfeeding, but, honestly, that's not why I'm doing this. I could tell you all about attachment theory and the role that breastfeeding plays in it, but even though I would say that my husband and I practice attachment parenting, I don't think that that's why I'm still breastfeeding.
I'm mostly still breastfeeding because my kid wants to, it seems like it would be a hassle to try to get him to stop, and I'm surprisingly fine with having a two-year-old launch his face at my boobs a couple of times a day.
Let me tell you, though, people are fucking weird about breastfeeding, especially extended breastfeeding.
I started noticing it when my son was around 18 months. Friends and strangers began asking me how long I planned to nurse him. Women started offering me their explanations as to why they'd stopped breastfeeding, almost defensively, as if by nursing my toddler I was somehow passing judgment on them. People started giving me strange looks when I nursed in public.
And then that issue of Time came out with the mom breastfeeding her three-year-old on the cover, and the Internet fucking exploded.
Mothers who breastfed their toddlers were selfish, online commenters said. They were only doing it for themselves, because they wanted to feel needed, or because they got some kind of sick pleasure out of it. Kids who were breastfed into their toddler years and beyond would be mentally scarred, I was told; at best they would unapologetically cling to their mother's apron strings and never fully grow up, and at worst -– well, no one was really sure what the worst thing that could happen was, but they knew it would be bad.
And while there were a few sane people who mentioned the fact that, you know, the majority of people breastfeeding their toddlers don't do it while their kid is standing on a step-stool, and that the Time cover was offensive to all mothers, not just those who don't breastfeed, most people seemed to be pretty firmly in the extended-breastfeeding-is-icky camp.
Honestly, though? It doesn't feel icky. It just feels normal.
I like to think of myself as a sort of reluctant lactivist. I don't proselytize, but if pressed, I will admit that I do think breast milk is superior to formula. I'll admit that I would love to live in a world where all mothers breastfed their kids for at least a year. But I know that I don't live in that world, and I know that there are a variety of really good reasons why women might not breastfeed.
Some women are physically incapable of breastfeeding. Some women aren’t able to pump at work. Some women find the act of breastfeeding triggering due to past sexual assault. Sometimes formula is actually better for the baby’s health, in cases with severe health issues or allergies. And sometimes women just plain don’t want to.
And that's OK. Because at the end of the day it really doesn't matter how you feed your kids, as long as everyone's health, happy and well cared for.
I just hope that you'll extend the same courtesy to myself and other mom who are still breastfeeding their toddlers. Because I promise you that most of us aren't trying to prove a point, or shove breastfeeding down your throat, or show off how good we are at being mothers.
Like you, most of us want our kids to feel safe and secure, we want to avert tantrums, and make our kids feel better when they're hurt or scared. We're doing all those things the best way that we know how, and even though it might be different from the way you calm and comfort your kids, that doesn't mean that it's better or worse.
Just different. And, as children's television programs continue to remind me, different is good.