Remember that Time magazine cover with the mother breastfeeding her preschooler? Who could forget it? That image was startling and made a lot of us question what we see as normal or preferable or the breastfeeding ideal. Why would a woman choose to breastfeed a child long past those most beneficial baby days? Why do we think 12 months is the right moment to stop? What influences our ideas on when is the best time to stop breastfeeding?
When I bottle-fed my babies I phased out the bottle and formula right around 12 months. It always seemed like a natural transition time to milk and a sippy cup and the start of the coming-of-age rituals that marks the end of babyhood and the beginning of toddlerhood. It felt equally natural for me to wean my son from breastfeeding at that same age. I’m really thankful he made that decision easy for me by showing less and less interest until he refused to nurse entirely just two day before his first birthday. But what if he hadn’t? How would I decide when to cut him off?
I want to be honest and say I have been a little irritated by moms with really long-term breastfeeding goals. How do you know what will be right for your child at that age? It comes across to me as being more about a mother’s desire to be needed than about what is best meeting a child’s need. If your plan is to breastfeed through toddlerhood, but your child self-weans earlier, does that make you a failure? If your child needs your breast to soothe them when they fall off the monkey bars, is that going to create some social problems for them? For you? I had a hard time understanding what might lead a mom to make the decision to do extended breastfeeding and that Time magazine article did nothing to help.
As a bottle-feeding mom I didn’t like this feeling that there was something I couldn’t offer my child so I didn’t want to consider that it might be meaningful to others. There was a lot I didn’t know about breastfeeding norms around the world. There were problems breastfeeding could solve that I hadn’t run into in my parenting experience. There are personality types that thrive on the closeness breastfeeding can bring in the toddler years- personality types I don’t have in myself or my children. I had judged an entire group of women based on what worked best for me and what I felt comfortable with. Not a very grace-filled act on my part.
Which is why I’m thankful for my friend. I’ve known her for a long time and she’s always been a great resource when it comes to parenting. She’s had a lot of little kids in a pretty short timeframe and knows exactly how challenging it can be to devote yourself to the full-time care and nurture of children. After the birth of my youngest (and only breastfed child) she was one of the first to offer herself as a resource if I had breastfeeding questions. As I’ve expressed here, my experiences were anything but smooth, and that’s when I came to depend on her to help me figure things out. Even though her experiences were different from mine, she was so encouraging that this was an important thing to do and worth pursuing even when it was hard. As we talked more openly about our own pros and cons of breastfeeding I came to find out she had done extended breastfeeding with her first child. I’ll admit it- I was a little shocked.
What I love about my friend is she didn’t do it to prove a point. She didn’t do it to be extra womanly or because it was convenient. Ultimately, she didn’t do it for herself, but as an act of self-sacrifice. She had a child that seemed to need it, she did the research and thought it would be a good thing for him, so she did it in spite of how inconvenient and at times unpleasant it was. I think she embodies what breastfeeding ideally is- it’s an act of love and nurture.
She has asked me for anonymity when it comes to her guest post because most of the people in her life don’t know about her extended breastfeeding. Like me, they might have preconceived ideas about what that means about who she is or what her parenting style is like. While being totally transparent might seem an honorable thing to do or a courageous thing to do, I really admire her for asking for anonymity. I think it reinforces how much this isn’t about her, but has been about what’s best for her child. While she may be proud of doing the right thing for him, she realizes he may have his own feelings about it as he gets older and may have a greater desire for privacy.
I think that’s why so many of us (even those who are breastfeeding advocates) had such a strong reaction to the Time magazine cover- it felt like all the bonding and intimacy were stripped away and what was left was motherly ego and a child as a pawn. I want to encourage you to read tomorrow’s guest post by my friend with an open mind. This isn’t a woman with a point to prove. This is a gentle woman who wants above all to honor God and serve her family well. We all have a lot to learn from her.
(*update- post can be found here)