I was breast-fed until I was five years old, and because of this, I’m one of the only people I know who can actually remember being breast-fed. I can recall one summer day in Silver Spring, MD, driving in our old Honda Accord with my mom. I must have been hungry, because she pulled over and found a quiet corner of a parking lot to breast-feed me. I can remember climbing out of my car seat from the back of the car and into her lap as she sat in the driver’s seat. She pushed her seat back a few inches to make room for me (I was four years old at the time, after all), and I stretched my legs across the center console while I nursed. After a few minutes, we were back on the road. This was pretty typical for us, though it’s certainly not typical of most kids. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends at least six months of breast-feeding. But according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in 2010 in the U.S. only 49% of moms continued breast-feeding until the six-month mark, and only 16.4% of these moms were using breast milk exclusively to feed their infants. The reasons why mothers can’t or choose not to breast-feed their infants vary widely but can include: the need to return to work immediately, barriers to pumping breast milk at their jobs, not feeling educated about breast-feeding, cultural bias against breast-feeding (or against breast-feeding a child for too long), a simple preference to not breast-feed, a physical inability, and many, many other reasons. But even those mothers who do choose to breast-feed their children don’t typically do it for quite as long as my mother did. While pregnant with me, my mother joined La Leche League, an international organization that provides research and support to breast-feeding mothers. After I was born, the two of us attended the meetings together. (We were lucky that my father was able to earn enough that my mother had the luxury of choosing to be a stay-at-home mom.) She found many kindred spirits in the organization, and was so passionate about breast-feeding that she says she wasn’t bothered by the judgmental attitudes of others. “I think I was so passionate about how right it was to breast-feed that when others seemed uncomfortable I really saw it as their problem and even found it a bit strange,” she told me. (Remember, this was the early ‘90s, a time when breast-feeding was even less visible and accepted than it is today. So, to breast-feed a child into toddlerhood, let alone beyond, was almost unheard of.) After I turned two, breast-feeding was more supplemental nutrition than anything else; I could eat solid foods, after all. And by the time I was four, I mostly just nursed before bedtime, to help me fall asleep. My mom still wasn’t in a rush to wean me, but it just kind of happened naturally. “One night when you were five, you fell asleep while sitting on the toilet, believe it or not,” she recalls. “The next day, I told you that since you were able to fall asleep without nursing, it seemed like it was time to stop.” Apparently, I was briefly upset and forlornly objected, “If only I hadn't fallen asleep!”
“I remember that so vividly, because it was such a hard moment for you,” my mom added. “But I put it in a positive slant: [I told you] this meant you were entering a new stage of your life, and it was wonderful. And you quickly got over it.” Some women involved with La Leche League believe that children should “self-wean” and that mothers should breast-feed until the child decides to stop; others think it’s alright to encourage weaning after a certain age. My mother even threw me a “weaning party” with two of my closest friends. I attended a Waldorf kindergarten, and the parents who chose to enroll their children in such an independent school tended to be progressive thinkers. The entire day was captured on film, so I have a very clear mental picture of it: We danced around my living room, twirling wands and silk scarves in true celebratory fashion. I believe the music playing in the background was an old Cirque du Soleil soundtrack, a very wacky and silly-sounding score, and we ran in circles, taking turns jumping on a small indoor trampoline. I’m not sure whether my friends, also five years old at the time, had a grasp on what we were celebrating, specifically; it mostly just felt like a birthday party. After that, instead of nursing before bedtime, my mom and I spent a little more time talking. It was an easy transition.
Although many might see breastfeeding your child for so long as odd, it was the right choice for the two of us.
In fact, I didn't think there was anything unusual about it until I was a senior in high school and a conversation arose in my literature class about the role of breast-feeding in Toni Morrison's Song Of Solomon. In the book, the main character earns the nickname “Milkman” because his mother breast-feeds him past infancy, primarily as a means to achieve intimacy outside of her sexless marriage. The book casts the breast-feeding relationship between mother and son in a very negative light, almost as a perversion. My classmates couldn’t contain their disgust. Only at that moment did it dawn on me that my experience — my actual memories of nursing — might not be typical. But the more I reflected on it, I realized that I didn’t feel embarrassed or think of what my mother did as perverse in any way. To this day, her decision to breast-feed me until I was ready to stop is one I carry with pride. My mother says she breast-fed me because she loved feeling close to me, and she believed it would help me be a healthy child. I was grateful that she was able to disregard the judgment of so many others in order to do what she believed in. And although many might see breast-feeding your child for so long as odd, it was the right choice for the two of us. I’m not surprised that so many people who find out about my experience find it shocking; it’s incredibly out of the ordinary, and it can be hard for people to understand things they haven’t experienced personally. If you’re a person who finds my story gross or disgusting, I ask you to truly assess where that discomfort is coming from. My mom found it to be a beautiful experience, as did I — so what’s the big deal?