When he was 20 and I was 19, my husband and I spent two weeks traveling across Canada by train. During one portion of the journey, we watched in disgust as three siblings, who ranged in age from one year to five years, took turns at their mother’s breast.
We weren’t entirely insensitive. Breastfeeding is common in my husband’s family, and I had plans to nurse my own toothless, maybe-babbling-but-not-talking, maybe-crawling-but-not-walking BABIES someday. And we were thoughtful enough to wait until the group left the train to scrutinize the woman’s choice to breastfeed in public and to shame her for allowing her five-year-old to nurse at all.
When we returned from our trip, the woman starred as a crazy Canadian in the stories we told our family and friends. After a few weeks, however, the woman slipped my mind. Now, thirteen years and two kids later, I want to be her.
My memory of the woman was triggered by the May 21 cover of Time magazine. You know the one. Beautiful woman. Bare breast. Suckling, big-for-his-age three-year-old mounted on a chair. Yeah, that’s the one.
Since the issue hit the Web on May 11, it seems everyone—from parents and nonparents to breastfeeding advocates and celebrities—has weighed in, prompting a resurgence of efforts on all sides of the breastfeeding debate.
The controversy has pushed me to rethink my own position on the issue as well as the choices I’ve made as a breastfeeding mother.
Give the Breasts a Rest
At the start of my pregnancy with my younger son, my older son, who was 12 months old, was still nursing. The warrior mother in me thought, Okay. Sure. I’ll tandem nurse. No problem. But I was glad when he weaned himself a few months into the pregnancy. After a first trimester rife with morning sickness and exhaustion, I was glad to have a break from any aspect of parenting.
Within a week, I was sick with nightmares. In one, I lost him at a museum. In another, he pushed me away again and again as I tried to hug him. In the worst, he drowned within arm’s reach.
During my waking hours, I faced a new struggle. A remarkably independent infant, my son became clingy for the first time. He followed me to the refrigerator, the washing machine, the toilet. He would only accept help from me and refused the company of most everyone else.
The aftermath of our separation didn’t last long. We dealt with it, of course. But the overachieving, oh-god-I-scarred-him-for-life part of me worries that the dormant effects will manifest as horrific physical ailments and psychological disorders later in his life.
More Harm Than Good?
My fears were reawakened after I began gauging the public’s response to Time’s controversial cover. At first, much of what I read came in the form of half-witted, I’ve-got-an-artificial-platform-for-my-voice-so-I-might-as-well-use-it rants on Facebook and in the comments section of mommy blogs.
I started to assume the cover image would go further toward stigmatizing breastfeeding than toward normalizing it. Then I began to hear a chorus of voices—smaller in number but stronger in pitch—rise above the banter.
The most considerate response I encountered comes from actress, author, and breastfeeding advocate Mayim Bialik. Best known for playing the title role on NBC’s Blossom in the early 1990s. Bialik also holds a Ph.D. in neuroscience and recently published a well-received parenting book.
During an interview with CNN on May 11, Bialik enumerated the benefits of extending breastfeeding, citing research that shows breastfeeding well into the toddler years promotes physical and emotional health for both mom and baby. The interview ultimately convinced me that I should have encouraged my older son to keep instead of quit breastfeeding.
In fact, I nudged him to start back up again the other day. As I was nursing my younger son, he approached and said, “I have mama milk, too?”
“Okay,” I said and offered him my breast. Without latching on, he sucked for a second, pulled back quickly, and ran away. The following day, we ran out of cow’s milk, so I gave my older son some breast milk I had pumped for my younger son.
Don't worry. I can’t imagine he’ll ask for mama’s milk again and I can’t pump enough to split between he and his voracious younger brother. But, now that I have a different attitude about extended breastfeeding, I’m prepared to keep the milk flowing. My younger son and I are only four months into our attachment. Like the Canadian woman I saw on the train all those years ago, I have big plans to nourish him for as long as he needs it.