Before You Read: Of all the posts I’ve made on this blog, this is indeed the most vulnerable. I’m a bit terrified to post it, but I’m choosing to do it for the moms out there who, like me, have felt alone in their extended breastfeeding journey.
But it’s more about extended breastfeeding. It’s about our tendency to judge other parents. This is part of my story, and it’s written in narrative form to reflect that. I hope you can read it with open-mindedness, seeing it as an opportunity to gain a new perspective. Thanks for reading!
“How long do you hope to breastfeed?”
The lactation consultant surveyed the room in earnest. I looked over to my husband, then down to my protruding stomach. The evening’s class had reignited my excitement for breastfeeding and I was completely committed to it, even if the forewarned cracked nipples ensued. But how long did I hope to breastfeed? I wasn’t exactly sure.
One by one, the diverse group of women reported their goals. The common answer was to breastfeed for one year. Some mothers answered with cheerful optimism, others with timidity, others with ambivalence.
Then, a petite woman declared with unparalleled confidence: “I will breastfeed my daughter seven years.” I heard my husband gasp, and my elbow instinctively found his ribs. Every head in the room turned to gape at her, yet she continued on, defending her reasoning. I was too flummoxed to pay attention. Who in their right mind would intentionally breastfeed a school-aged child?
“What if your baby doesn’t want to nurse that long?” our teacher interrupted, her left eyebrow arched.
“Well, it’s whatever she wants,” the woman replied, grabbing her melon-sized belly. “The important thing is that she decides for herself.”
I considered that. Sure, it would be ideal to let the baby decide when to wean, but there was no way I would nurse that long.
When my turn came to answer, I joined the majority: “One year.”
For months, my husband and I talked about that crazy woman. We recounted the story to friends and family, many of whom joined in ridiculing her and pitying her poor child. We reassured our loved ones that we would never do such a thing. We weren’t after all, weirdos.
Or so I thought.
Well. Here I am, over four years later, choking down a piece of humble pie. I still breastfeed my firstborn. I nurse his almost two-year-old sister, too.
It wasn’t my plan. I was just going to do my best and see what happened.
What happened was, breastfeeding went great. I enjoyed it. Our son, Levi, was thriving and I was proud of my ability to nourish him, knowing I was one of the fortunate ones. Tongue-tie, low-supply, and mastitis became buzzwords on the online breastfeeding support group I was a part of. Some mothers lost the breastfeeding battle earlier than they had hoped, and I mourned for them while my son happily suckled away for a year.
Levi’s first birthday came and went, and he showed no signs of weaning. “How much longer are you going to breastfeed him?” friends and family would ask, their faces friendly, but the shape of their mouths betraying their concern. I would declare with practiced hopefulness, “I’m sure he’ll wean soon!” But he didn’t. I was grateful when they stopped asking.
Soon after he turned eighteen-months old, I got pregnant. Relief rolled in like a tide. I had heard numerous stories of women’s supply dropping during pregnancy, and I thought, Great, this can all happen organically without traumatizing him.
But the milk kept flowing.
I did everything but flat-out lie to hide that he was still breastfeeding. I felt increasingly embarrassed if he asked for “Mommy milk” in public. I’d learned the art of making up an excuse to leave a room, mastered the hushed voice with which I’d told him to wait until we were home.
We were officially weirdos.
I knew in my head that extended breastfeeding was normal, even ideal according to WHO. I knew in my heart I wanted Levi to self-wean. But I felt ashamed. I didn’t know a single person who had breastfed over eighteen months, let alone someone who tandem breastfed, as I was afraid I would need to do. My midwife assured me that tandem breastfeeding was perfectly healthy and worked well for some families.
“Why wouldn’t you tandem nurse?” my husband asked me when I brought it up. I had just recounted all the positives: continued antibodies for the toddler, great milk supply for the newborn, a better sibling bond. “Well,” I said, “According to the few moms that do it, the negatives are that it can be exhausting. And the fact that it’s a cultural taboo.”
My husband frowned. “Is that reason enough to wean him?” I turned and looked at my son. He was well-adjusted, happy, empathetic, intelligent, and grossly independent.
“No,” I said quietly.
He shrugged. “Who cares what people think?”
But I cared. While no one flagrantly criticized me, I could feel their disapproving gaze, I could hear their whispers behind my back.
It took awhile for me to realize that the whispers were my own.
I had fiercely judged mothers of breastfeeding toddlers, mothers who co-slept with their children, the ones who seemed to make their child the center of their universe. I labeled them as indulgent, compromising, and foolish.
Yet that was the mother I had become. Maternal instincts led me to make choices that I previously would have scorned. While endless reevaluation, research, and soul-searching had been invested in every decision I made, while I knew I was doing what was best for my son, I couldn’t get past the nagging question: What if people viewed me the way I would have five years ago?
I thought about that crazy woman in our breastfeeding class. I wondered if she was still nursing her daughter or if her plans had changed, too. I wished I could apologize to her, to commend her for her courage. Someone who I previously would have labeled as weak, I now saw as strong, and I envied her.
Nothing will humble you like becoming the person you swore you’d never be. But motherhood is about humility, isn’t it? It’s about making sacrifices and loving unconditionally and prioritizing your children’s needs above your own.
That’s why I decided to continue to breastfeed Levi, albeit apprehensively.
It wasn’t until our daughter, Lucy, was born that I felt a sense of peace. She found her way to my breast and latched with ease. The nurse was impressed, then asked me if I was experiencing any pain. “No,” I said with a chuckle. “I’m actually still nursing her brother.”
“That’s awesome!” she gushed. “You have no idea how wonderful that is. It will be so good for Lucy.” Never before had my decision been celebrated. It bolstered me up in a way nothing else had.
Then, when we brought Lucy home, Levi saw her breastfeeding and asked the question I anticipated. I pulled down my shirt and invited him over. He watched this little stranger as he nursed, green eyes wide and curious. Then, he reached out and caressed the arm of his baby sister. And I knew my decision was the best one I could have made.
Now, I have two children who are beyond the “normal” breastfeeding age. My journey with Levi has made nursing Lucy as a chattering two-year-old downright comfortable. I openly will nurse her in public, my heart sensitivities more calloused than they were two years ago.
But as for still nursing Levi, I’ll confess, it’s not what I want. But he is still not ready to be done. Some days, the stigma gets in my head and I begin to feel that shadow of shame descend upon me. What if people knew? What if they thought less of me? What if they view me as disgusting? What if…
The reality is, no mother should ever feel ashamed for taking care of her child. Period. It is up to her to decide what is best.
This is what I have to keep telling myself. This is how I keep going. Who cares what “they” think?
In The End
In the months that followed Lucy’s birth, I’d often nurse my children simultaneously. Often, my husband would grin from across the room and ask, “Did you ever think this would be your life?”
“Never,” I would always reply.
“You’re a great mama,” he’d say. I’d look down into the faces of our sweet children, pressed up against me.
I hope that they see me that way. In the end, it’s their opinion that truly matters.
If you liked this post, check out 11 Surprising Things I’ve Learned About Breastfeeding and my breastfeeding resource page.