05 August, 2011

My Two Cents for World Breastfeeding Week

It’s World Breastfeeding Week and I am weirdly ashamed to admit in public that I still breastfeed my toddler of two years and nine months. I’m ashamed only in the United States, mind you. If I lived in verdant hills of South America or the wilds of Africa, I would not be ashamed because no one would expect me to not be nursing a child this young. I wouldn't worry that someone would say, “you’re still nursing your toddler?” And no one would look at me like I was a circus freak whipping out my past-prime sagging breast. I wouldn’t feel shame, and I probably wouldn’t think for a moment about whether or not I should have weaned by now.
I only admit we are still nursing on this mildly blog to bolster my self-concept and be proud that I have gone this long helping my daughter build her immune system and give her the nutrients of life that can’t be found in any synthetic form, (I’m sorry to say to all those formula feeders whose decision I nonetheless respect).
But, this giant public confession aside, I rarely, in my regular life, let people know I still nurse my child. In fact, I’ve gone out of my way to avoid the topic with other parents of toddlers, or, when my daughter has asked for “boob” when we’re out and about (which is pretty much never the last few months), I’ve said “no, not until we’re home,” or distracted her away from the thought, and then I’ve felt terrible about denying her the one thing in her life that gives her the most comfort. She’s only asked for boob in public in the recent past if she’s feeling uncomfortable or extremely tired (like when we’re singing the lullaby at the end of music class), and the fact that I’ve been ashamed to give my body to her is my own shortcoming of self-consciousness and self-judgement brought on by our Western culture’s norms.
The truth is, we hardly nurse at all – usually about two minutes in bed, at night, before she sleeps. She’s never been an easy go-to-sleep child, and still, though she sleep better than ever now, every night is a challenging practice in patience and empathy for me as she suddenly can’t walk when it’s time to get on the pajamas, or her arm mysteriously won’t bend to brush her teeth, or she decides she needs another book, or a drink of water, or, or, or. By the time I’ve wrangled her to a prostate position, I’m right there next to her because being upright is far too difficult for this old body. And then, after the light is finally turned off, I don’t have an ounce of energy to wean or deny her when she says, all sleepy and smiling and adorable, “I want some boob, Mama.” I lift my shirt and pray the milk, what’s left of it, (if indeed there’s anything in there at all), will do the magic sleep dance and lull her to sleep. And usually, the boob does do magic. She nurses for a couple minutes, pops off with a sucking smack, and then rolls over, not quite asleep, but almost. We rest for a while and in a few minutes she’s snoozing.
Do I wish my child would go to sleep without my boob? Hell yes. Indeed, she can go to sleep without my boob because sometimes she forgets to nurse, and sometimes her father puts her to bed, though very rarely because he’s not home at night a lot, and never if we’re both home, because she’s known for a long time his boobs don’t work that way. She just likes the boob. She likes the comfort and warmth and nutrition and sustenance. And, to be honest, from our first very difficult days in the hospital, I loved giving her my body, nay sacrificing my body, to feed her and comfort her. Nursing her from the get go, I have no doubt, was the main source for creating the close and sweet bond we now have when we were in peril due to our birth circumstances of not bonding.
Do I worry that she’s over-attached? Hell yes. Sometimes when she gets super-riled about me leaving to go somewhere, like work or a meeting or, lord forbid, out with friends or for a massage or some other form of self-care, and she’s crying and pleading with big old tears rolling down her cheeks, “don’t leave, Mama!” I think, man I have screwed her up. I think she’s too bonded and that she sees my leaving as some form of boobs leaving and I am sure I’ve been the worst mother in all of history that my toddler cannot simply say “bye, Mama.” I have nightmare visions about her having oral fixation problems, fanatically chewing her nails or pen caps, or, worse yet, having relationship problems where she’s screaming at her bolting, suffocated lover to “never leave her!” and then beating at her own breast.
But sometimes, she does simply say, “bye, Mama.” And, like I said, sometimes her dad puts her to bed. She is quite able to go to sleep without me and my boob. And, while I’m sure I should go out at night more often (as if I have enough energy to do that), if I’m home at night, when I put her to bed, I never offer anymore, but if she asks, I still give her the boob.
I don’t want to infantalize my growing daughter or screw her up more than I’m bound to as a human being/parent, of course. But at the same time, if I’m really such a proponent of societal change, in particular for women’s rights to make their own bodily decisions, I must release my shame aobut nursing my toddler. I must stand up and be proud that I still nurse her. I like being able to comfort her, and, even though she probably only gets maybe an ounce a day of my milk, I like knowing she’s getting some antibodies and fat proteins she must still need on some level.
Recently, I met up with a couple of old friends at a park who helped me get over myself. One is studying to be a midwife and she’s interested in other cultures and countries’ habits surrounding birth. She has a five-month old and a toddler a little younger than mine. She’s still nursing both kids and told the amazing tale of how she nurses the baby on one side to give him the nutrients he needs, and the toddler on the other to give him what his body needs. (An aside: my daughter is mostly nursing on just one boob these days, too, which makes me wonder about what’s going on with the other still-larger breast and its milk. Maybe I should become a wet nurse...). Anyhow, my friend’s boobs are also are lopsided but she doesn’t care because she knows the fact that her body can self-regulate is downright amazing. And she has no shame. Indeed, the other old friend who was with us at the park admitted she also nursed her now five-year old daughter until that kid was three. She also said that fact outright with no shame.
Toward the end of this discussion, with the dappled sunlight on her as we stood under the great big tree, the midwife-to-be said this great thing about her still-nursing toddler in this great way. She shrugged her shoulders and said, “Even though he only nurses a little, he’s still committed, so what the heck.”
Committed. My daughter is committed to nursing. So: What. The. Heck? As a parent, shouldn’t I be at least as committed to her?
Breastfeeding is a wondrous feat of the human body. I’m privileged to have had the experience of keeping a whole other person alive for many months just by the excretions of my boobs. I’m grateful I have built-in comfort providers and that I’ve been able to utilize them to their fullest extent. I suspect my nursing days are limited, probably countable on a few fingers and toes. Therefore, in honor of World Breastfeeding Week, I’m not buying any longer into my Western society-laden shame. I’m proud I’ve been able to breastfeed my daughter this long. And though I’m looking forward to having my boobs and hormones back in the near future, I’m sure I’ll miss nursing her when we’re done.


Amy Rangel said...

While walking home from school in Copan, Honduras, I passed by a woman sitting comfortably on a stool in front of her house, chatting away with the woman sitting next to her. Standing in front of her, tall enough to easily reach her boob without stretching, was her son, nursing. How old would that be? I'm guessing between 3 & 5, but I'm not a great judge of kids' ages. Nursing is not a secret, elusive, private thing there - it is as much of a part of daily life as eating, shopping, and hanging your clean underwear on the clothesline to dry.

Thanks for the commentary, Nancy!

Annaliese said...

Great job, Nancy, for accomplishing two brave feats: first, staying committed to your committed child, even when this feels like going out on a social limb; and second, uncovering and then undermining the shame that surrounds breastfeeding in public. As I see it, honesty dissolves shame, and so, in writing this piece, you have successfully undone the forces that keep us from freely acting in our own, and our children's best interest. I understand that there can still be feelings to overcome, but it sounds like you're working though those consciously, as we all are, day in and day out.
I too feel nervous about nursing a two and a half year old in public, fearing that someone is going to say something gross or hostile. That hasn't happened to date (except, ironically, out of the country, but I can't take it too seriously because that middle aged man might have been drunk)and so at times I wonder if the act of breastfeeding a toddler is publically more powerful than the dominant culture which paints it as strange unhealthy (ha!). I certainly have experienced the relief and even pride that you described feeling in your conversation with friends - how in being honest about what serves us and our children, we unleash a strength that fuels us to let nurture be our most important act.

Happy nursing, in these final days. May you and your little (growing) one both be blessed by the closeness you've shared!
To your health!