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When I was pregnant with my daughter, I ran into a girlfriend I hadn’t seen since getting knocked up and hitched. We’d gone to acting school together and our friendship was based around doing avant-garde theater and staying up all night drinking and dancing.
She was a bit befuddled by my sudden transformation, and all she could say was, “Just promise me you’re not going to be one of those freaky moms who breastfeed for, like, two years. That’s so gross.”
I was taken aback for a second (why did she care about my breasts all of a sudden?) but I laughed and reassured her that of course I wouldn’t. Please! I was still young and cool -- I wasn’t going to turn into some sort of hippie earth mother.
Actually, I wasn’t so sure. I was already planning a home birth with a midwife, and I was definitely going to breastfeed my baby. My mom breastfed me into toddlerhood and had always talked fondly about it. All the women in my family nursed their babies for at least a few months, so I’d grown up thinking that breastfeeding was just what people did -- it didn’t seem gross or weird to me.
My friend’s comment was my first clue that other people were going to have something to say about the way I took care of my baby, and I didn’t like it. I was having a hard enough time adjusting to the idea of myself as a mother, without worrying about anyone else’s feelings on the subject.
My midwife required her clients to attend a series of La Leche League meetings before their due dates, so even though I felt a little silly going to a breastfeeding support group without a baby in tow, I brought my six-months-pregnant belly to a church basement, put on a nametag, and nervously sat down in a circle of moms and moms-to-be.
There were lots of babies, from newly hatched to crawling to toddling, and all of them seemed to be attached to a breast at some point. The tiny ones were sweet, nursing away in slings and under blankets, but then a boy who must have been at least three years old clambered into his mother’s lap, yanked up her shirt, and latched on. I carefully kept a neutral expression frozen on my face, trying to hide my disgust. I’d never seen a child that old nursing, and it just looked wrong. I vowed never to nurse that long.
The American Academy of Pediatrics advises that babies be breastfed until they are at least a year old, so I figured that was a good time frame to shoot for. One year.
Fast-forward to my daughter’s first birthday, and those first terrible weeks of breastfeeding -- when my breasts were rock-hard and painful and I was hormonal and sore and exhausted, soaked with milk and sweat, my toes curling in pain every time my daughter clamped her little gums down on my cracked, raw nipples -- were long past. We had settled into a comfortable routine; she was healthy and happy, easy to take care of. She slept next to me at night and when she woke up I heard her snuffle before it turned into a cry. I’d pull her close and she’d nurse back to sleep.
No matter what we did every day or where we were, I had to sit down and put my feet up every few hours so I could feed her, and it was one of my favorite things to do. It was time that I spent just looking at her, cuddling her, smelling her milky baby smell and memorizing her. Sure, there were days when it wasn’t so easy -- days when I needed a break, when I didn’t want to be touched anymore, when she kicked and bit and drove me crazy -- but I had lots of good mom friends, and we talked each other down when we were at our wits’ end.
Everything about breastfeeding worked for our little family.
Time went on, and there was never a pressing reason to stop. She liked it, I liked it, it was good for us both. You know how when you see someone every day, it’s hard to notice how much they’ve changed or grown? That’s how it was with my kid. There wasn’t one day where I suddenly looked at her and thought “OMG that child is too big to be breastfed!” It was part of our every day; an integral part of our relationship.
Not everyone was a great supporter of my continued breastfeeding. The comments began when my daughter got her first tooth at four months old, and they didn’t stop. From “Aren’t you glad you’re done nursing now?” to “Time to feed that kid real food!” friends and family made it clear that they were ready for me to wean.
Ironically, the people who had a problem with my daughter nursing for so long were people who weren’t affected by it at all and should have had nothing to say about it. Turns out folks are pretty invested in seeing other people make the same parenting choices they themselves made, or plan to make. Somehow, when it comes to kids, everyone -- your mother, your neighbor, strangers on the subway -- are convinced that they have the right to tell you what to do with your body.
Someone in my extended family even wrote a series of blog posts expressing his scorn for me. He said that no one liked me because I was a disgusting hippie and I thought I was “the best fucking mother in the world.” Also he said being in a room with me and my nursing toddler was grosser than standing in a room full of pigeons. Not sure what that was about. I find it funny now, years later, but at the time it was devastating. I remember not being able to breathe for a while after I read it.
Still, I continued to nurse my daughter. I’ve never been the sort of person who likes to be told what to do.
As she got older, we naturally nursed less. It became something she did mostly for comfort -- she nursed at night before she fell asleep, or when she fell and hurt herself. Eventually, she stopped. I don’t remember the last time she nursed; it was such a gradual process. I just remember that one day, when she was three years old, she tripped and hit her head on the coffee table, hard. She hadn’t nursed for a week or two at that point, but a goose-egg was rapidly rising on her forehead and she was really screaming, so I pulled her onto my lap and started to lift up my shirt -- it had become such a habit.
She stopped crying and moved in to latch on, then hesitated. She looked up at me, sniffled, and said “No thanks -- I’m OK.” And just like that, we were done.
These days, I don’t like to tell people how long I breastfed my children -- I had a second daughter, and she nursed until she was four -- because they invariably have an opinion about it. They think it defines me in some way; I’m a freak, a hippie, a pushy lactivist. That, or I must be passing judgment on them in some way.
I’m not. I don’t care. I just did what felt right for me and my daughters at the time. I don’t regret a single minute that I spent breastfeeding, but whether or not someone else wants to breastfeed doesn’t concern me at all.
And if someone thinks I’m gross or weird, I really don’t care. I used to, but I outgrew it, just like my daughters outgrew breastfeeding. In our own time.