The other day one of my seven year old daughter’s guinea pigs died and it is the first death my two kids have dealt with up close and they love their guinea pigs, and I do, too, and so it was really very sad. Their father was away trekking for two weeks – because I am a saint and I gave him the gift of solitude for his birthday – and so, I found myself alone in a way too, with all of this. (Huge eye-roll in sympathy to the real single parents who do this solo parenting gig all year around and who get crapped on by so many people for their, frankly, friggin’ heroic efforts). The guinea pig death happened on this very chaotic morning. Actually, all the days where I am working in the city are chaotic because ‘school + kindy + workplace’ and back again in the evening equals a whole lot of trips in opposing directions and a very long day for all. The three year old was being a really obnoxious griever, entirely missing the point of why his big sister and I were so upset, and just wanting to endlessly explore the nature of death in gruesome detail. All he knows about death is that it is something that can happen when people fight with guns and it is why his mother is a bit sensitive about gun-play for little kids and why he gets frowned at when he pretends to shoot anyone. So, every second phrase out of his mouth was “who killed her, but who killed our guinea pig?”. Didn’t matter how many times I explained that death just happens sometimes, all he wanted to do was be a frickin’ detective. Meanwhile, his poor sister was getting more and more distressed by her brother’s death carnival. It was awful. And I did think quite a lot – why me, why am I having to deal with this alone while their father is out in the wilderness enjoying himself?
But by that night, when we three got home from ‘work + school + kindy + after-school care arrangements’ and I showed them where the little pig was buried, the three year old finally appreciated the finality of death and he was suddenly on the same page as the rest of us. We were all in my bed together (see the title of this post above), and I was breastfeeding him because that’s what he likes to do when he goes to sleep and also because I thought that breastfeeding might be a better comfort than story books. But he immediately came off the breast because he was sobbing too much to feed and it seemed he wanted to talk to my breasts about the guinea pig’s death. So, if your rule is ‘kids should stop breastfeeding when they are old enough to ask for it’ how do you feel about kids who are old enough to emote their grief to it? I don’t even know how I feel about that.
Sometime in their first year babies go through a developmental stage where they finally understand that the hand you wave in front of them or the nipple you pop into their mouth whenever you appear, is actually part of you and not some random toy you happen to pick up. Considering babies arrive in the world knowing almost nothing, you can see why this would be a concept that would require some thinking about for them, but apparently, that developmental stage can be incomplete. Three year olds exist in this really trippy stage of life where they know puppets aren’t real, and that’s why they’ve stopped screaming when one approaches them, but they are still capable of getting completely lost in ‘pretend’ and they really do imagine that inanimate objects can be kind of real and have personalities. So, when he started talking to my breasts (“breastfeedings” he calls them, in case you were wondering), and he was being so sincere and sad I did not know quite what to do. Should my breasts be answering him, it seems rude to remain completely indifferent to someone who is sharing the most tragic moment of their life with you? I mean, my breasts aren’t cold-hearted. And if my breasts answered him should they have my voice, which, would kind of take you out of the moment, or should they have a unique voice of their own, and in which case, what does a breast’s voice sound like?
So, this is breastfeeding beyond babyhood. It’s both strange and normal.
I hear you have a reality TV show coming to your screens in the US about ‘extreme breastfeeders’ and I thought you might like to know one of those weirdos for yourself. Here I am. Before I had children I thought breastfeeding for twelve months was pushing it. Six months is fine, but if they can eat solids then why breastfeed any further? With the first child I really surprised myself and I breastfed her for just under two years. Now I am breastfeeding a three and a half year old who is tall enough to look like a five year old. We could definitely do an impression of that notorious TIME magazine cover. He’s partial to a bit of standing-up breastfeeding, too. ‘This me’ would totally have horrified ‘old me’. Public breastfeeding? Wasn’t keen on that. Breastfeeding toddlers? Really wasn’t keen on that.
The thing I didn’t realise back then when I was repulsed by the idea of breastfeeding a child ‘old enough to ask for it’ is that babies ‘ask for it’ right from birth and they never stop asking for it, their methods just get increasingly sophisticated. And that sophistication, like all other milestones your baby achieves, makes a parent beam with pleasure. If you found yourself compelled to respond to their earlier requests you will quite likely feel compelled by their later requests.
Here is how a baby ‘asks for it': they cry shrilly, they nuzzle you, they suck on your finger, and they turn their face towards you if you lightly brush their cheek. Then one day, while balanced in your lap, they throw themselves backwards to be laying down near your chest. You think, holy hell, your little neck is going to break, because they do this when they’re still in their floppy stage and haven’t developed proper neck muscles. Sometimes, they clamp on to the fleshiness of your arms and they suck you a hickey. If you teach your baby to sign, like I did, of course I did – see the title of this post, then they might even begin signing ‘breastfeed’ to you at five months old. When someone else holding them passes the baby into your arms they will tilt their head sideways with their mouth gaping in anticipation. They can burst into impatient tears at the sight of you undoing your bra. Sometimes they will reach their arms down your dress or lift up your t-shirt. They usually do all of this before they finally ‘ask for it’ with a spoken word and even then their word may be nothing more offensive than the adoption of a particular pitch when they plead “Mama” at you. At what point are ‘they old enough to ask for it’, and at what point is it too much? Depends on you, their mother, but don’t be surprised if you start to find the notion of ‘old enough to ask for it’ absurd.
Maybe you want to ask me, your local extreme breastfeeder, some questions.
Am I an earth mama?
No, I’m an economist, remember? I do not fit the stereotype you probably have of extreme breastfeeders and I would be surprised if you find all that many mothers do. I vaccinate my children, I wear pencil skirts and high heels, I ride a motorbike, I can’t sew, I like sex and violence in my TV shows (hello True Blood!), I used disposable nappies (diapers) on my babies, I am an atheist, I have never learnt yoga or meditation, and I am argumentative (so, I really should have taken the time at some point to learn yoga and meditation). I love earth mama types, they’re some of the most generous mothers I know, but I am not one of them.
Do I feel like breastfeeding for so long has taken over my body?
I think this is the number one concern I hear coming out in discussions where certain feminists are sounding a little anti-breastfeeding, and this notion that breastfeeding undermines your bodily integrity is definately what I sense in some of French feminist, Elisabeth Badinter’s work. I can see that breastfeeding may feel that way for some women but for me so much of mothering ‘takes over my body/life’ that it would be difficult to identify exactly which aspects I can attribute to breastfeeding. I hope women aren’t stuck resentfully breastfeeding for months and months because of the pressure to breastfeed, but the truth is, plenty about mothering is done with a little bit of resentment on the side. Breastfeeding can be terribly annoying when you urgently want to get up off this damn bed and get on with something else for the night, but for the most part, breastfeeding is a lazy parent’s best friend.
Motherhood is a very challenging identity for many of us. There’s a huge fear of losing yourself, and your boundaries, and your sex appeal, and your focus and direction, and control over your body when you transform into a mother. Breastfeeding can push all of those buttons. We live in a very misogynist culture. The worst trolling on my blog has always been about calling me a cow and trying to humiliate me about breastfeeding. Clearly, the concept that we can be lactating animals scares the shit out of some of us.
Do I feel forced into breastfeeding for so long by society’s expectation of what the perfect mother should be?
No. I have really, really enjoyed breastfeeding, it’s as simple as that. I understand that not everyone finds breastfeeding to be so nice but for me it has been a very lovely, intimate, relaxing experience. Breastfeeding fills me with love and that’s a nice thing to feel with your children. And for someone like me, who has had a love-hate relationship with their breasts, I have to acknowledge that breastfeeding has been a rather healing experience for my psyche.
Do I feel smug about breastfeeding for so long?
To be honest, I feel kind of embarrassed about breastfeeding for so long. It’s a terrible thing for a feminist mother who advocates for breastfeeding to admit but the stigma attached to breastfeeding kindergarteners (and beyond) is really strong and I have not really outed myself in my writing before as an ‘extreme breastfeeder’. I think that says quite a lot, that a ranty feminist like myself can feel so intimidated by the prejudices against long-term breastfeeding in our culture.
Do I find breastfeeding for so long to be sexual?
Very much not. Three cheers for women who manage to have a discreet orgasm while breastfeeding because they like the sensation so much. There are not enough orgasms in motherhood. But for me, breastfeeding is not a sexual experience. And let me clarify, no mother finds the concept of their child breastfeeding to be a sexual experience; really, they don’t. You might just as well try to convince us that wiping toddler’s bottoms is sexual. So Much No.
Does my child find breastfeeding sexual?
No. He doesn’t find sippy cups sexual either. He’s a little kid and he doesn’t know about anyone finding breasts sexy yet.
Does my partner resent me for breastfeeding for so long?
If I’m going to be really honest here (why not?) – I think he feels a little impatient with the fact that significant amounts of breast-play have been off my menu for a while but he doesn’t feel in any way competitive with his son for my body, and he doesn’t find breastfeeding repulsive, and he doesn’t think my decision to breastfeed is particularly any of his business. (He knows that my breasts belong to me – he successfully went through that developmental stage as a baby).
When will I stop breastfeeding?
Soon, I hope. I am getting a little sick of breastfeeding and the right time for weaning for me is coming soon. Get in now with your questions before I am no longer your local extreme breastfeeder.
(Post-script: my blog is bluemilk.wordpress.com and you can follow me on twitter @bluemilk).