I’m a big fan of the ControverSunday blogging event that occurs every week, thanks to FFF Perpetua (and if you haven’t already, I encourage you to check out her blog – she links to everyone who participates, and it’s a great way to take part in some healthy debate and discover like-minded bloggers). This week’s topic is “extended breastfeeding”, which is obviously an appropriate topic for this blog – so here we go, joining in the fun…
Extended breastfeeding is such a hot topic, that even the terminology itself can inspire fiery debate. ” ‘Full term’ breastfeeding… is considered a less arbitrary term than “extended” breastfeeding because by the definition of ‘full term’, if the child is self-weaned or gently weaned past a year, as is the historical and biological norm, then he or she has nursed for the entire duration of one’s natural development,” explains blogger Melodie at BreastfeedingMomsUnite.com (her post is actually a really thoughtful piece on why this alternate term may do more harm than good; definitely worth reading). I’ve seen other articles stating that extended nursing is defined as breastfeeding past what is considered “the norm” in your area; using that logic, here in Los Angeles, I would say that anything past 2 years might raise a few eyebrows (but not as many as only nursing for what used to be a perfectly acceptable 3 months.) But I am well aware that in many parts of the United States, mothers are made to feel like circus freaks if they deign to breastfeed once their children cut teeth. It’s all relative.
Before FC was born, we were sitting at a local restaurant enjoying a pregnant brunch. I say “pregnant brunch” because I feel the need to justify the amount of food laid out on our table. French toast, eggs, orange juice, decaf coffee with several spoonfuls of sugar, a side of granola… and that was just for my husband. Kidding. The decaf was for me.
Anyway, at the table next to us sat a couple and their young son. He must’ve been about 4; he was sitting in a “real” chair (no booster or high chair), drinking a Coke. Since we were several months away from giving birth to a son ourselves, I was watching the kid carefully; all little boys had become either cautionary tales or hopeful inspiration since finding out FC’s gender.
He wasn’t the best behaved little dude; but then again, he was 4, and stuck in a restaurant, which I’m sure is boring as hell for kids of that age. Those waxy crayons and sub-par coloring sheets they give you at family establishments are poor substitutes for running around at a playground or playing cops and robbers or what have you. His mom was basically ignoring his whining, and she barely looked at him… until he got up out of the chair, drained his Coke, hopped into her lap, pulled up her shirt and began to nurse.
I’ll admit it: I nearly choked on my orange juice. (Serves me right. What pregnant woman in her right mind orders an OJ first thing in the morning? Can we say heartburn? Stupid pregnant FFF.) There was just something intrinsically wrong with the scene I was witnessing. I remember thinking that while I was excited to breastfeed my soon-to-be-born child, I would definitely be cutting him off by a year, tops. Or at least as soon as he could order a Coke.
Now, almost 2 years later, I think back to that judgmental version of myself and cringe. Because now I know how it feels to be judged. How a stranger’s eyes can burn into the back of your head; how you feel the need to look around and measure the vitriol in the room before continuing to feed your child. Yes, my shame might come from the polar opposite behavior, but whether it’s a bottle or a breast that is deemed inappropriate, the effect is the same.
We had dinner with another couple last night, and the husband was poking fun of the wife for her plans to “nurse until their child was in high school.” I got a bit snippy with him. I feel fiercely protective of this friend, who has been getting crap from her family about several of her parenting decisions – mostly her choice not to wean at a year despite being a working mom (the fact that her son won’t drink anything but water if my friend isn’t available to him – a situation which applies to much of the working week – is provoking some i-told-you-so’s from her in-laws) and to co-sleep (much to her husband’s consternation). I am so in awe of this particular friend; she is an amazing mother and teacher and friend, and the type of person who never makes anyone feel bad about his/her choices; she is confident enough in her own decisions to shrug off the criticism and not demand that everyone follow her same philosophies. She’s the person I think about when it comes to breastfeeding policy and advocacy – if anyone ever made her feel bad about doing what is best for her and her amazing, independent, perfect little boy, I would scratch that individual’s eyes out.
I don’t think I would feel the least bit of discomfort if I saw her nursing her son at the age of 5. So why do I give extended breastfeeding strangers a second glance?
I expect it has more to do with what I assume about them from this behavior. If they are that committed to breastfeeding, then I assume they fit a certain profile. (FFF Brooke recently discussed this in her post on attachment parenting). I assume that they judge me for my decisions; that they are breastfeeding longer than most to prove a point; that we probably wouldn’t get along.
Then again, like my junior high English teacher used to say, when you assume, you make an ass out of you and me.
I have a feeling that most extended breastfeeders are nothing like what I, in my weak moments, would expect. I bet most of them are like my friend. And they are probably also pretty sick of being judged, just like we formula feeders are. It seems that in this country, at least, you can only win the Good Breastfeeding Mom Award if you nurse for the standard year. Any less, or any more, and you’re made to feel like a selfish, negligent parent – for different reasons, of course, but the end result is the same. I’ve seen people comparing breastfeeding an older kid to child abuse; formula feeding moms have dealt with the same accusation. I’ve heard people call extended breastfeeding “selfish”, saying that the mother is trying to infantilize her growing toddler. And as we all know too well, formula feeding is synonymous with self-serving behavior in many people’s minds.
I’m not sure what my point is here, exactly… I guess it’s that being an FFF is not just about defending formula feeding. It’s about defending the right for ALL mothers to feed their babies (or toddlers) in the best way they see fit. Don’t get me wrong; it’s understandable to feel uncomfortable seeing something you’re not used to seeing. We don’t see many walking, talking, kids still nursing in this country; it’s just not the norm. I doubt it will ever be. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a good choice for certain families, and hey, if it works for them, then that’s all that matters.
On the other hand – and I unfortunately think I must add this caveat – I don’t think it’s fair for extended nursers to insist that everyone embrace their choice, because it just doesn’t fit within the puritanical, buttoned-up constructs of our Western society. But do you really need everyone to embrace that choice? I don’t expect everyone to agree with my feelings about bottle feeding, because that also doesn’t fit with a certain characteristic of our society – the tendency we have to romanticize motherhood, expect perfection out of women, and to want an easy fix for all of society’s ills.
And yet, as formula feeders well acquainted with the effects of judgment and derision, I would hope that we could all do our part to support extended breastfeeders. It is a parenting choice like any other, and it needs to be protected.
It’s our babies. Our bodies. Our lives.
That’s all. Go on with your regularly scheduled Sunday. I’m off to catch up on this season of Big Love… now that family’s got real problems…