Breast-feeding a 3.5-year-old isn't creepy, it's hilarious
I was on the couch breast-feeding my newborn second child when her older sibling snuggled up close and asked, "Mama, can I have some mau, too?"
She is almost 4 - she can say "milk," and she does - but milk comes from a supermarket, while "mau" is the much more personal, magic elixir only mama can provide. During my pregnancy, "'mau' went on holiday." (She's a casualty of the #PeppaEffect, children who pick up a British lilt from watching the cartoon "Peppa Pig.") Upon realizing it was back, she began badgering about breast-feeding.
"Mau is for babies," I said.
"Please? Just a teeny sip?"
She burst into tears. Dismayed we were back here again after a long, arduous weaning process (she didn't self-wean, as I'd expected, at around a year, 15 months, 18 months or at 2). I thought of my own mother's claim that I self-weaned at 8 months, and our conversations surrounding my extended breast-feeding.
"Going to let her breast-feed till she goes off to college?" she'd chided.
"I'll send her frozen baggies of 'mau' in care packages."
I tried to make light of what I later realized is an un-funny matter - shaming breast-feeders.
After a few weeks of annoyance and deflection, another parent told me that breast milk tasted different for different babies and the older kid wouldn't like the new flavor. Armed with this, I agreed on the "one tiny sip." She'd try it, be repulsed, and we'd be done.
She took her "sip."
"Mmmmm," she said. "That was delicious."
My stomach sank.
"It tastes like vanilla strawberry mint chocolate chip!"
I laughed. Maybe this wasn't tragic. Still, it was a one-time thing. But a few days later, she scraped a knee, looked at me through tears, and asked, "Can I please have some mau to cheer me better?"
She'd weakened my resolve. She was maybe not as "big" as I sought to claim.
I decided to stop viewing the inability to get weaning to stick as a personal failure. I hadn't created this breast-milk monster. She was like this on her own. I parent by a combination of intuition and reason, and in this scenario, my instincts informed me of three things: that she wanted to nurse more than I wanted her not to; that child development is, like many other learning curves, not a linear process; and that this nursing relationship was private - I worried that I would be shunned even in our "crunchy" California town. I didn't even tell my husband, with whom I usually share every last unnecessary detail.
This stemmed from my own bias. If I'd seen someone else breast-feeding a preschooler, I would probably have commented to my husband that it was creepy. I would have said, "If they're old enough to ask for it, they're too old to have it."
In the midst of this renegotiation, Kristin Wilson, an anthropologist I'd met in a martial arts class, invited me to host the Q&A portion of an event for her latest book, "Others' Milk: The Potential of Exceptional Breastfeeding" (Rutgers University Press). Wilson, who interviewed over 80 "exceptional" breast-feeders, coined the term as a double-entendre: an exception to the norm, and also as in "outstanding." Maybe I wasn't so weird.
Before I had kids, I had no idea breast-feeding was controversial. Whether you cover up or not, nurse in public, or nurse past infancy, judgment lurks everywhere when you're a breast-feeder, especially if you become, to borrow Wilson's term, an "exceptional" one. Secrecy and shame surrounding exceptional breast-feeding is unfortunate, because once I accepted that we were still doing this, I discovered that breast-feeding a 3-year-old is hilarious primarily for the reason many find it strange: She can talk about it.
I started keeping a log of funny things said, including, "I saved some for Little Goo" (her sister), and "can I have some mau to warm me?" It turned out something I was initially ashamed of doing ultimately felt normal. Her current vocabulary for it is "Mom can I have a teeny?," as in "a teeny sip." When she asks for "more teeny" it sounds exactly like "martini" - to her, it's always five o'clock somewhere.
The reasons our culture is so uptight about breasts and breast-feeding aren't medical or scientific. The Mayo Clinic advises that breast-feeding is "recommended as long as you and your baby wish to continue," with benefits including "boosted immunity" and "improved health" for the child and "reduced risk of certain illnesses," including breast and ovarian cancer, diabetes, and heart disease, for the mother. The Mayo Clinic website states that children are weaned on average between ages 2 and 4 worldwide, and in some cultures, extended breast-feeding continues for a couple years past that, while the American Academy of Family Physicians recommends breast-feeding past infancy and gradual weaning at no precise age. When I asked our family pediatrician, she concurred - continue until one of you is done.
So in our culture, why isn't any choice a consensually breast-feeding duo make a nonissue?
"It has to do with controlling women's bodies," Wilson said at a craft beer house in Santa Cruz, California, where I asked her to meet to discuss her work. "We're able to make distinctions when it comes to dual-uses of our genitals, but "we don't do that with breasts and breast-feeding."
I wondered what would happen if our culture of judgment around the various ways we 'do motherhood' lightened up. More openness, less shame can only beget more of the positive qualities we'd want to imbue in our children, and ourselves.
"Look around this restaurant." Wilson pointed out kids and dogs. "Kids can walk around while parents have a beer. It reminds me of how in Europe there are more easygoing attitudes and not such strict boxes. It's the 'boxes' thing that's making you uncomfortable, the idea that there's a time and space for this, a time and space for that. . . . There's a larger theme of putting things in boxes and what needs to happen by when, and where, and with whom. Women bear the brunt of that."
Wilson calls breast-feeding a form of activism. I hadn't thought about the act as vigorous campaigning to bring about social change, but during my experience I realized I'd become passionate about the erroneous and narrow social construction of our views on breast-feeding. I began my campaign at home, letting my husband in on my exceptional breast-feeding.
"She wore down your resistance," he said. "I won't use the word pushover, but . . ." An elementary school special education teacher with experience in behavior management, he worried that my giving in to our child's demands to nurse, after I had been wanting to cut it off, would lead to further demand. But what about the extended breast-feeding itself? I asked, given that my stance on it had changed.
"It did surprise me when you were still nursing past the age of about 2," he said. "But I figured, whatever works for the two of you must be fine."
If I were rating his answer on a survey I'd have checked off "highly satisfied." Acceptance, even of choices one wouldn't make oneself, leads to the openness to have conversations and empower families to do what is right for them even in situations where others don't approve or understand. After all, I'm getting this essay written because both the baby and the preschooler are tandem nursing as I type - talk about multitasking. As Wilson's book reveals, what appears to be "exceptional" is actually a hidden norm.
What if more of us came out of our boxes and shared our stories? We'd evolve past harmful judgment - and have a few more laughs.