It’s All Normal: A Story of Extended Breastfeeding in American Culture

20526275_10155428980056257_533579188615686729_n“How long did you breastfeed?” she’d asked as I started engaging in small talk at my husband’s friend’s New Year’s Eve party. She had seen me still breastfeeding my youngest earlier in her living room. I’m stumped by her question. This is the first time I’ve ever been asked point blank about the length of time I breastfed my oldest child.  I searched quickly for a non-answer and couldn’t find one. So rather than engage in awkward silence, I answered tentatively that he’s still nursing. She was astounded. “I mean don’t you want your body back?” She continued saying that she’d weaned at one because she needed to have her body back. It was her story, many women’s story, and another story that let me know I was different. This interaction left me feeling exposed, sure she would share my secret that my son was still breastfeeding at age 6.

“You know what they say? If you breastfeed past two it’s just for you.”  A co-worker who loves to instigate throws this quip at me after learning that I am still breastfeeding my then 2 year old son.  The implication is that I get sexual pleasure from the experience. It’s said in a tone that meant ‘not me of course, but that’s a belief that’s out there.’ It’s an offensive thought, but a small part of me feels the shame of society and looks inside as I defiantly defend myself and my sons need to keep nursing beyond what is socially understood or accepted in our ‘me first’ culture.

Up until age 2 I had an easy, pre-prepared come back; “The AAP recommend breastfeeding until one and the WHO recommends continuing to breastfeed until at least two years old.”  Even that gap between one and two years old felt tenuous when I said it. American pediatricians at least agreed that breastmilk was important enough for a child under one, but beyond that those WHO recommendations were really just for those living in 3rd world countries. For those living where it was less safe to mix formula for their child due to water conditions. Where disease was more prevalent and dangerous and breastmilk beyond one would help their survival rate. It really wasn’t for the modern mom living in western suburbia and headed to work every day.

So I developed a new story; “I planned to nurse to 2 years old, but my child had a different plan.” I used attachment parenting and the adage to follow your child’s lead to guide me through the years after two. But I became acutely more aware of the moments when he wanted to nurse in public, being extra sure to be discreet without actually leaving the room to hide my ‘shameful breastfeeding’ away. I wanted to normalize it, but had my own tenuous feelings of wanting to hide in those years after his 2nd birthday.

My son is 3 and perusing the food table stealing snacks and treats out of my view at a party. Eventually as day turns into night, he comes to me and wants the comfort of nursing or maybe it’s that he fell and bumped his knee, I can’t quite recall.  He wanted the comfort of being held close in his mama’s lap and the familiar rhythm of nursing. I don’t know these people, I think. I don’t feel safe to nurse here, so I steal away to a quiet, dark corner and sit at the bottom of an open stairway to nurse. This is the first time I remember feeling shame while nursing. I am more worried about who could see us than my son’s need to nourish himself, be it emotionally based rather than nutritional.

Before he was born I wasn’t certain how I felt about breastfeeding in public. It’s not something I had seen often and I’m not an exhibitionist who feels free with her body to expose it.  I mean whenever I was in a situation in college where everyone went skinny-dipping, I was the one sitting on the dock, fully clothed wondering what fresh freedom these people had found. It wasn’t that I was ashamed of my body, but that it was private and there was shame in sharing it publicly. How would these thoughts transition to breastfeeding my child? What I found is that my newborn’s needs trumped my concerns about what other people thought or saw. I mean which would they rather have, a crying, hungry baby or a possible nip slip sighting? I felt justified in those early days. And I’m pretty sure the hormones of birth and early parenting had a lot to do with that fierceness that allowed me to take care of my child regardless of setting. After all, this is what nature intended.

The cultural norm in countries where breastfeeding continues to term unhindered by these judgmental labels, what’s considered ‘extended breastfeeding’ in our culture (as if anything beyond 1 is abnormal), is 4-7 years old. Good, good. I’m within the cultural, biologically normal group. There’s nothing wrong with this, nothing wrong. We’re not an enmeshed family dyad where my needs depend on him needing me.

As the days and years pass, I tell myself he won’t nurse forever. He won’t need me forever. It’s as if I’ve resigned myself to his needs as I’ve always done since he was born, without considering me in the equation.  After all, what is motherhood but selfless service to another? I don’t need him to nurse to give my life value. His very existence as my child brings value to my life. He was a ‘wanted’ child that we conceived after two years of trying and many procedures poking and prodding my ovaries to work properly. Is it in my effort to prove to myself and the world that we aren’t enmeshed that I begin to push him away and resent his need of me? Is it what I feel or what society has laid on me?

In breastfeeding groups over the past ten years I’ve seen more women speaking out about how long they’ve breastfed. Proud of their 3.5 years, 4 years, 5.5 years. But you don’t hear much beyond that. Is there still shame in nursing to the upper limits of ‘normal’ even amongst breastfeeders? Portrayals of women who continue this connection beyond even the extended breastfeeders norm are considered freaks. The mother who has the bravery to share her story on TV is shown holding her child with their lanky legs dangling off her lap, certainly too old for breastfeeding. A story of someone who once knew a woman who nursed her son until he was 8, until her family had an intervention to say enough is enough.

My son lay next to me in his bed, our typical bedtime ritual in progress, reading a book, then lights out and nurse to sleep. It’s the only time my son nurses anymore. It’s the last of his security he’s had since he’s arrived on earth. As we turn out the lights and he drifts off to sleep sucking on my breast,  I hear my mother-in-law walking back the hallway to tell me she’s leaving. I quickly unlatch and we lay side by side as she comes in to say goodbye.

It should come as no surprise then when my son asked to nurse on another day in another time and knows that I’m scanning the room to see if I feel safe enough to indulge right then and there. I’ve taught him that it’s not safe to expose yourself, to be vulnerable even in the name of love. You must hide to feel safe.

Screams and cries as my son hits the floor in the lobby of the Farm Show building. It’s only been a few weeks since his little sister arrived in the world. We’re trying our best to keep his world the same and show our love for him by doing things. Nothing says love like the smell of a barnyard and petting a fluffy bunny.  As I carry his sister in the Moby Wrap, I assume he has tripped behind us and fallen to the ground. Nothing worse than the screams of a 4 year old in a massively crowded public setting. I scoot us to the side, out of the way of the moving crowd and know that he’ll want to nurse to calm down. I pass my daughter to my husband and I huddle up my son in my lap and enshroud us in my giant babywearing coat and hide in plain view of everyone entering and exiting the Farm Show. I comfort him. I meet his needs. And I send a clear message that what we are doing isn’t to be seen by others.

I often wonder how those messages were received. I continue to nurse to meet his needs, but if I’m ashamed of it what story does that implant in his brain. How will it display itself when he’s older?  Curiosity sparks me to continue nursing to term to see what is his norm, regardless of my discomfort which is more cultural than personal.

Despite my fears, I realize he still looks at it as a loving normal connection as I ask him if it’s OK if I share a story of our breastfeeding journey. He pauses for a second and looks confused as to why it would be important enough to write a story about it. It’s all normal. It’s the expression of the life giving love and power of motherhood…
regardless of the age of your child.

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