When my son was a few weeks old, we did he requisite Extended Family Tour. We drove to Montreal to see my grandmother and assorted aunts and uncles, and then we went to Kingston to chill out at my mom’s and see even more aunts and uncles. During these visits I felt like a queen receiving supplicants – I would sit enthroned in a big, comfortable chair, my breastfeeding pillow on my lap and my son nestled against my chest. Breastfeeding back then was a bit of an ordeal – we were still using the nipple shield, which meant that in order to get Theo to nurse I had to expose my breast, fiddle around with the little silicone shield, get it firmly in place and make sure that it was airtight, and then try to get Theo latched (not always an entirely successful endeavour).
This trip marked the first time that I’d ever breastfed in public. I hadn’t planned on it, but halfway to Montreal the baby was doing that whole enraged purple-faced screaming, and it didn’t seem like the soothing bumpiness of the drive was going to lull him back to sleep anytime soon. So we stopped at a rest station, and I proceeded to the furthest, dimmest corner table to set up my boobtacular operation.
I couldn’t do it, though. I couldn’t pull out my breast, engorged and leaking milk everywhere. I couldn’t expose my nipple, red and inflamed and a little cracked. I just couldn’t.
Meanwhile, my son screamed beside me, guaranteeing that everyone in the place was now staring at us.
My mother came up behind me and said, “Just do it, Annie. Just do it. No one is looking. Just do it.”
And, clumsily, fumbling with that goddamn nipple shield, I did.
I scrunched down in my seat, waiting for one of those rent-a-cops to come over and tell me that someone had complained, that I needed to cover up, that I needed to go somewhere else. But nothing like that happened. Instead, my son finished, I packed my gear up, and we hit the road.
I had to nurse him again at my grandmother’s house (god, what is with these babies, always wanting to eat? it’s almost like they’re growing or something), and whenever I did, all my uncles would studiously look away.
“I think breastfeeding is wonderful,” said one of my aunts, “but some women seem to do it for themselves. I saw a woman on the metro the other day just sitting there with her kid hanging off her. She couldn’t have waited until she got home? When it’s public like that I think it’s more about the mother than the baby.”
The next day, when we were back in Kingston, my uncle and his three kids came over to meet Theo. They were fascinated by breastfeeding, and would crowd around me whenever I did it, shoving their heads as close as possible to my chest to get the best possible view of the action.
The youngest cousin was three, and she seemed enormous compared to Theo. Afterwards, I said to Matt, “I’m not breastfeeding him when he’s three.”
Matt, whose mother had been a La Leche League leader and who had been breastfed until he was nearly four, said, “You don’t have to.”
“Did you see how big that three year old was? I can’t breastfeed someone that big. I just can’t.”
“Yeah,” he said in agreement. “She was pretty big. I can see why that would seem weird. You don’t have to breastfeed Theo when he’s three – just do it as long as you feel comfortable with it.”
“I’m only going to do it for a year. That’s what all the books say. A year. At twelve months they can have cow’s milk.”
Because, see, I wasn’t going to be one of those breastfeeding mothers. Oh sure, I thought breastfeeding was great, and I was proud of how hard I’d fought to be able to do it, but I wasn’t going to be some kind of breastfeeding weirdo. No way.
Here we are.
My son turned three in January, and still nurses once or twice a day – usually first thing in the morning, and right before bedtime. I’m not even producing milk anymore, but I don’t think that matters to him. It’s a comfort thing for him, and at a time when he’s going through so many changes, it’s hard to take it away from him. On top of all that, it doesn’t feel weird like I thought it would. It just feels normal – it’s thing we’ve been doing every day for nearly three and a half years, after all. I guess I thought that there would be some magic cut-off date, at which point I would be like, “oh, ew, this is too gross to continue,” but that never happened.
I don’t feel weird when I’m breastfeeding Theo, but I do feel weird when I think about how society views me. All I have to do is look up all of the articles written about Jamie Lynn Grummet, the woman who was photographed nursing her three year old for the cover of TIME Magazine. She’s sick, she’s depraved, she’s doing it to satisfy some perverted sexual desire. Her kid is going to be fucked up. Her kid already is fucked up, and that’s why he’s still breastfeeding. She purposefully fucked her kid up so that he would always be tied to her apron strings. She is everything that’s wrong with modern parenting (never mind that extended breastfeeding has a long history in many different cultures around the world).
Breastfeeding older children (and by “older” I mean more than 12 months old) is associated with spoiled, bratty little kids and sexually deviant, overindulgent mothers. If you don’t believe me, I can easily trot out a bunch of example of this in popular culture. Peyton Place‘s Norman Page and his mother certainly fit this mother. Same with Lysa Arryn and her son in Game of Thrones. Or Christos Tsiolkas’ novel The Slap, whose titular event takes place because a bratty, breastfeeding three year old is slapped by an adult after hitting someone with a cricket bat.
Or you could look at the comments on a recent Facebook post I made, jokingly saying that I’m now basically the TIME breastfeeding mom – people reacting in disgust (as I once did) that they could never, ever imagine breastfeeding a three year old. People wondering how this would affect him as an adult, since he will probably have conscious memories of nursing (to which I replied that if they’re so curious, they can ask my husband, since, you know, he was older than Theo is now when he weaned). People saying that they couldn’t do it with their three year old because he’s too smart and too aware of the world (which is hard not to take as a dig at my own kid’s intelligence).
As a society, we are still pretty uncomfortable with breastfeeding in general, and we are hella uncomfortable with breastfeeding toddlers in particular.
But anyone who thinks it’s gross should meet my kid. My hilarious, bright, amazing-as-hell kid. My kid who snuggles up beside me and says, with an impish glint in his eye, “Can I have some mama’s milks? Can I have the left side first? Which side is the left side?” My kid who pretends to breastfeed his dolls, who says that when he grows up he wants to be a mama first and have breasts and make mama’s milks, and then be a dada and just have nipples. My kid who tried to make me nurse his Spiderman action figure the other day.
Breastfeeding gives him one certain thing in this wild new world he’s exploring and learning more about every day. It’s something solid for him to hold on to, while from minute to minute he gathers in new information that slowly but surely pulls the rug of what he understands out from under him. So many things about life are confusing and contradictory and even downright scary for him right now – how could I possibly take away something that’s not?
The answer is that I can’t.