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Extended breastfeeding – why we need to get over it
Both my babies called time on their breastfeeding. The first at ten months, the second at around eleven-and-a-half months (the half counts, in the scheme of things).
With a decisive and unmistakable jerk of the head they made it pretty clear that their days at the nipple were done. That apple puree and the top-up formula they’d been guzzling to sustain the insatiable appetites of two bonnie boys were far more gratifying than anything I could offer. Gutted as I was, taking their rejection personally, wondering why my milk – and myself, weren’t enough, they were better men than me. As much as I missed our little catchups and tried in vain to convince them to stay, it was best they got in first and saved me the pain of extraction.
I wouldn’t have had the mettle to do it. To wrench myself away from the glorious bubble of connection that is breastfeeding would have been far too harrowing. If it had been left to me I might never have done it and then where would we be? Copping looks of derision and disapproval, having to explain my ‘choice’, becoming a poster girl for late-term breastfeeding and defending my decision on behalf of all the wayward mothers who have gone on ‘forever’.
Because that is what happens to women who suckle their babies past a certain age. Just ask them.
When our babies are born we are encouraged to breastfeed, and most of us (90% in the first three months, according to the Australian Breastfeeding Association) manage to do so. We are frowned upon if we abscond or give up too soon. Which most of us do. The World Health Organisation recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months, but only 15% of Australian mothers are still at it by then. This is the point where it gets confusing: don’t breastfeed and you’re selling your baby short; feed for too long and it’s certain damnation.
“Are you still breastfeeding?” A mother asked me when evidently I was, offering up my nipple, discreetly, mind you – for my then ten month old’s afternoon feed. The ‘still’ inferred that there was something radically amiss with my lagging, some psychological deficiency that prevented me from seeing the bizarreness of my ways by continuing to feed my baby – my non-talking, non-walking, very much dependent, onesie wearing baby – the way nature intended. She thought ten months was bad. Try ten years! That one really freaks us out.
Extended breastfeeding has the potential to unnerve a nation like no other aspect of mothering. Smacking children and leaving babies to cry is considered no one’s business but their parents’. But when a walking, talking child with teeth suckles from its own mother’s breast it bothers us no end and we feel we have a right to weigh in. We justify our disdain as sticking up for the poor hapless child, an unwitting victim to its deluded and selfish mother’s inability to cut the apron strings. By voicing our derision we think we’re doing our bit for the defenseless. Only, no one is suffering here.
All of the evidence , scientific and anecdotal, suggests breast milk is nothing but beneficial for the recipient, nutritionally and emotionally. Even if they have teeth. Yet it pushes our buttons. Big time.
Why does it bother us if mothers we don’t even know choose to lactate longer? Like the hot mumma on the cover of Time in May breastfeeding her three year old, he on tiptoes. Sure, with its headline, Are you Mom Enough? it was edging for a public stoush. And Time knew it would get one. Nothing gets the collective fired up more than children breastfeeding when they should be old enough to know better. “If they can ask for it they shouldn’t be having it” is the common lament.
Why not? If it’s concern for the mother we feel, that she is being hijacked by her life sucking dependent, well it is not our life. We are not the ones unable to leave the house or stuck in lactation bras and tops with hidey flaps.
Sure it might be hard on the menfolk. As writer James Braly laments, “There are some things in life most men cannot share with first-graders, and two of them used to be called breasts.” But they are not our husbands.
I wonder if deep down we’re jealous. I know am. I envy children who have fed till they’re done. What a blissful place to be enveloped by your mother, your life source, with no pressure to move on until you are good and ready. Unambiguous nurturing. A drawn out injection of unconditional love that would surely set you up for life. And I envy those mummas too who get to draw their babies close – at least for a few minutes after dinner – for a lot longer than most of us do.
As any mother who has ever breastfed a child knows you can’t force them to do it. God knows in the thick of many a weary dawn I have tried. It is up to the rest of us to get over it. Just as we managed to when pregnant women started baring their bellies. And hasn’t that become quite the look.
Image above: Georgia & 8 month old Theo
Main image: Brittany with 16 month old Joel
via Gregarious Peach