(Top photo: Cosmo and me, recently. Bottom photo: Felix and me, during the later months of our nursing relationship.)
During the fantastic Womyn’s Summit that I participated in this past June (with Cosmo at 5 days old), my dear friend gave a talk on breastfeeding. She spoke so passionately about the joy, warmth, and love she felt while breastfeeding her toddlers, into their 3rd and 4th years. I was moved by her words, and I felt such solidarity with her as a friend, and a sister.
What it is that people feel so threatened by, when they see a mother breastfeeding her older child? I often read the accusation that these mothers are “just doing it for themselves”. Well, sure. And why shouldn’t mothers be feeding their children if it brings them, themselves, pleasure and comfort, as well as pleasure and comfort to their kids? The implication here, as always, is that it is somehow wrong, or inappropriate for mothers to find mothering joyful.
By a similar, yet paradoxical token, I have noticed what seems like unabashed disappointment from others, when I “reveal” the fact that I don’t breastfeed my children past (around) 1.5 years. As though the image that I project (as a free-birthing, attachment-oriented, homeschooling, “crunchy” kind of parent) is of the kind of mother who should be ecstatically breastfeeding her five-year old.
I have come to a point in my parenting journey where I feel that in order to truly “normalize” breastfeeding in our culture, we need to stop congratulating ourselves on the length of time we nurse our kids, or even whether we nurse our kids or not. Breastfeeding is normal. My breastfeeding activism has become this: I breastfeed my children, it’s no one’s business, and I don’t need a pat on the back. I am truly past giving a hoot about what anyone thinks about my parenting. I also know that the judgement of mothers, when it comes to what/how/where/how long we feed our children is unfortunately, absolutely real.
The answer to “Why don’t you breastfeed your toddler” is, quite honestly, “that’s none of your business” or “because I don’t want to”. But because this is my party and I’ll cry/whine/expatiate if I want to, here is the backstory: I have given birth to 6 children. I have never used or owned, a bottle, a pacifier, a breast-pump, or a sippy cup. Breastfeeding has never been an “option” for me, but rather a given–it is simply what I do; my baseline, my normal. Nursing my babies is one of the most wondrous, beautiful, perfect, satisfying, and loving experiences of my life.
However, before my first child was born, (when I was 20 years old) I had decided that I was going to be a super-duper ultra-organic, bio-dynamic, attachment parent. I had read all the books, including the Continuum Concept, and Mango Mama’s blog in its entirety (do you remember?) etc. I was fully prepared to breastfeed all of my kids till they were 5 years old or whatever they decided was best. I was firm in my knowledge that this was absolutely supremo for all children, and that yes, mothers who “weaned” their children were really not in touch with the deep holistic truths of our existence, or their children’s needs.
So I nursed my first son until he was 2.5 years old.
And to be frank, I hated the last year of it (from 1.5 years to 2.5 years).
What had at first been a magical, glorious, beautiful, mutually satisfying, healthy relationship based on need and nourishment, had become something altogether different.
My son would pull my shirt down whenever he felt like nursing, and this would invariably happen when we somewhere he didn’t want to be: while we were shopping, or if I chatting with a friend, or if I was otherwise engaged in something that didn’t revolve around him specifically. He also wanted to nurse if he experienced any kind of stressful event, like a fall or an upset, when I knew that he was actually at the stage where these incidents could be easily, (and perhaps more effectively) processed through discussion, hugs and cuddles that wouldn’t leave me feeling mauled and depleted.
I have several friends who nurse their children well into toddlerhood. This works wonderfully for them and for their kids, and I think that’s great. I have heard it described that nursing a toddler provides another “tool” in the parenting arsenal. Many mothers exclaim that breastfeeding can solve anything!
My personal feeling is that I don’t want to use breastfeeding as a tool, and I don’t want to use it to solve problems that my two year old can solve through regulating his own emotions with my loving presence and support without the solace of suckling.
I realized that for me, breastfeeding at the toddler stage with my first and second sons, had become a form of pacification, whereas during infancy, the breastfeeding relationship had been about nourishment in all its complex permutations: love, communication, connection. I also noticed that the pacification/manipulation went both ways: if I was trying to do something—talk on the phone or to another person—and my son became irritating to me, I would end up just popping him on my breast to shut him up, instead of giving him my authentic attention.
I didn’t enjoy this dynamic, but I felt compelled to keep nursing my first son for a variety of reasons: what I had read and absorbed about ecological breastfeeding, my ego, my determination to be the ideal attachment mother, and what I felt was the ideological nature of the attachment parenting community.
One day it hit me that our once-beautiful relationship had become desperate, painful, irritating, lacking in intimacy, and generally negative. So I sat my 2.5 year old son down and I said, “You know what my darling, we’re not going to nurse anymore. But I’m here, and I love you, and I will cuddle you and hold you whenever you need me to. Let’s go make lunch, ok?” And to my surprise, it was over.
From that day onward, our relationship drastically improved. It felt like a revelation. The whining was gone, the emotional outbursts were gone, and my child instantly became much more succinct in his verbal communication with me and everyone else, clear in his desires, and a pleasure to be around. I would *not* describe him as becoming more independent—this wasn’t about his independence, or about my wanting more independence for myself. In fact, our relationship became much more intimate. Whereas before, I couldn’t lie down next to him without him wanting to nurse, when I ended the nursing relationship, I could cuddle with him, and put him to bed, and he was there, with me, wanting to be with me, rather than wanting to nurse. I noticed that I had been feeling objectified. The change from objectification to mutuality was wonderful.
I nursed my second son until he was 2 years old, but again, the last few months of this were really hard for me. The same kind of dynamic of whining and frustration and irritation and the sense that we were both “using” breastfeeding to get other needs met, that didn’t really have anything to do with breastfeeding, began to develop. So at 2 years, I again stopped the nursing and the same thing happened–everything just got much better, richer, and more enjoyable for both of us.
With my 3rd, 5th, and 5th babies, I figured I would see what happened, but I had a feeling that I would be nursing them until they were about 18 months. And that is exactly what I have done. I don’t like the term “weaning”. The word has animalistic and somewhat brutal connotations for me. I have had a few cats who have given birth, and it is interesting to me that their “weaning” process involves hissing, hitting, and in some cases biting at the babies to let them know that suckling is over. At times, I have felt like that too, but I have [mostly] managed to avoid that kind of thing in favour of gentleness, conversation, and my husband’s takeover of bedtime for a little while. In essence, open communication with my children, and an *increase* in loving attention (from either myself or dad) has been central to my approach.
Let me reiterate that I don’t have any philosophical or (for goodness sake) moral problem with extended nursing whatsoever, and I fully support mothers who want to do this, and who feel good about nursing their 2, 3, 4, 5 year olds and beyond. When it’s wonderful, it’s wonderful. I support every mother’s decision to breastfeed her kids as long as she feels comfortable. But the conversation tends to get so polarized, and there seems to be ample fundamentalism on all sides of the issue.
I also hear from so many mothers who are breastfeeding their older babies who aren’t enjoying it, and who are looking for ways to deal with that.
For me, not doing it anymore was the perfect solution, rather than sublimating or denying my own feelings. I also hear from many mothers who continue to breastfeed their children because he or she displays anger and rage when denied the breast. For me, this would not be a good reason to continue to breastfeed.
I also see many mothers who, in response to their 3-year old’s tantrum or objections or aggression, will just pop them on to the breast. This is not the kind of dynamic that I am interested in establishing with my children. I want breastfeeding to be about nourishment, pleasure and mutual adoration—and I feel strongly for myself, that if either I, or my baby, are lacking in the mutual adoration or pleasure piece, the relationship has to change. Parenting is all about change, all the time.
When mothers write to me to tell me that nursing their 3-year old makes them feel so angry that she can imagine hitting and yelling at the child (which I have heard several times), but that the mother doesn’t want to wean her child because this would not be in alignment with attachment principles, or because the child still wants to breastfeed…my loving advice would be to stop, and sit down with that child, and say You know what sweetheart, I love you more than you can imagine, and I am finished with nursing you. I can understand if this might make you feel upset or angry, and I am 100% here for you in every way that you need, and we will not be nursing anymore because I am done. Let’s cuddle here and read a book, ok? And then take it from there.
But many of these mothers are looking for advice on how to overcome their aversion to nursing their older child—they don’t want to hear that maybe it might be time to stop. In this case, I don’t really have any good advice (although again, there are lots of mothers out there who probably do have good advice, who have enjoyed extended breastfeeding).
The way we parent is always filtered through our reality, and the challenges and circumstances we face as individuals and families. One of the primary ways for me to query healthy attachment and development is to ask the following questions: Is it working for everyone in the family? Is everyone being respected? Is everyone winning? Is everyone happy? Does everyone feel really really great at the end of the day? This simple method of assessment is why, for example, I can safely and happily reject, on a wholesale level, corporal punishment: Because it doesn’t work for the child, and it isn’t an expression of respect, and I believe that all parents understand this on a deep level. When we hurt our kids, we feel terrible about it afterwards. This is also why I can put aside—for my family—extended breastfeeding. Because it doesn’t feel good for me, personally, and because in my experience, my children have thrived in every way, after the breastfeeding relationship has ended at about a year and a half.
I also genuinely believe that every mother is doing her very best, dealing with her particular challenges, and that there is no room in a giving community, or in a healthy approach to parenting, for competition. At the same time, I am always analyzing my own parenting strategies, working on my very clear areas of weakness, and on a constant quest to expand my scope of love and respect for my children. I also remain open to the possibility that things will be different with my most recent baby, Cosmo, who is now just two months old, and with whom the extended nursing dynamic might be very different.
What I wish for every mother, is that she finds the freedom and space to figure out her parenting journey for herself, picking and choosing from the ideas she was brought up with, the books she has read, the philosophies she has come across, but primarily, her own authentic, intuitive self. I suppose that my point is that we, as mothers, can all give ourselves permission to nourish our children in a way that works for us, and that what matters is peace of mind, and the love we have for our kids. We’re all ok.