Firstly, a big shout out to all the Mothers out there giving their families their all, in all sorts of fashions and flavours. There are so many different ways to nurture our families, and this is just a wee glimpse into the ways that are right for mine.
On a recent sunny day, I’m sitting at one of my favourite spots in the North of Ireland: Ballycastle beachfront. The sun is warm, but the wind is freezing even in June, my little one snuggles into my chest for a feed to bring some warmth to her icy extremities. We’re enjoying a moment of closeness with a sea view and salty air when a woman appears stage left mopping the melted ice cream from her knuckles and says to me “look at the size of him, he hardly still needs that”. I stare at her in silent bewilderment, but in my head I shout, “She needs it more than you need that ice cream and the lack of pink does not indicate a penis!!”. The woman strides happily into the distance.
So, we did it, we’ve relocated our lives from New Zealand to Northern Ireland (you may have read my previous contribution ‘The Call of the Mother’s Land’), and culture continues to interest me.
It seems, when it comes to mainstream approaches to most things in life, I find myself swimming in some other stream. It’s not that I set out with this intention, but as I follow my truth, this is often the result. So, you could say I’m accustomed to experiencing myself as non-conventional, or non-conformist or something like that. Maybe this relieves some potential uneasiness when I find myself the only person I’ve yet to see breastfeeding a toddler in public in the North of Ireland. I have no doubt there are lots of others, but I just haven’t seen it, it’s fair to say it’s not the norm. In fact, I rarely see other women breastfeeding in public here, period. So, it’s no wonder I get sideways glances (or very direct stares and looks of disbelief) when I openly feed my 27 month (yes, almost 2.5 years) toddler wherever/whenever she requires.
I’m fully aware of the physiological challenges of breastfeeding, which, compounded with the message of ‘breast is best’, can generate a sense of grief and shame for women who have not met their breastfeeding goals. I certainly don’t want to add to that. However, with it being breastfeeding awareness week; I think we need to look at some of the societal or cultural norms that add to the difficultly of what is a perfectly natural occupation: feeding our young. Research shows that seeing other women breastfeeding supports Mothers to do this successfully. I certainly have to give credit to the many women in my life whose example of this has enhanced our feeding journey enormously, not least one of my best friends, Mother of five, who feeds each of her young until the age of five: legend. When living in New Zealand, I didn’t once experience any negative response to the sight of me feeding my toddler, I credit this largely to the influence of a beautiful indigenous (Māori) people who place great importance on the raising of their young.
So, what’s going on in the North of Ireland? BOOBS! (I actually put this word in the title because I thought it might get your attention). We seem to be so obsessed with breasts and covering them! When there’s a toddler sucking on one, believe me, there’s not much that isn’t covered by its head. But, that’s not the point. I’m curious about where we get outrageous ideas about the sight of breasts being offensive. Or the fear that perhaps a feeding Mother is secretly looking for an excuse to flash her boobs (she’s not. No. Never.). I ponder on the discourses that create this saddening syndrome where feeding our young causes a sense of shame: is pornography to blame? Women’s bodies have been so sexualised through the porn industry that it’s impossible for us to see our bodies as having, first and foremost, important, natural, nurturing functions? Is it the giant corporations making money from formula that inject our collective thinking? Is this yet another avenue for women to experience their bodies as shameful? Oh patriarchy, you are a debilitating parasite; you have a lot to answer for, lurking in every corner of our psyche.
When pregnant with my daughter, I had lots of parenting ideals including co-sleeping, attachment parenting, elimination communication, I’d read all these buzz words. I also knew we just wouldn’t know how we’d deal with all the facets of parenting until we met each situation guided by the needs of our baby. Following our instincts with our daughter has become our ‘style’ of parenting, and ‘natural-term weaning’ is one of the buzzwords which fits for us, and ‘responsive feeding’ is part of that. Responsive feeding used to be called ‘feeding on demand’, but that phrase is phasing out as we come to acknowledge the unhelpful idea that babies are demanding. Babies and toddlers have needs, and it’s our job as parents and caregivers to respond to those needs. I don’t enjoy buzzwords in general, as they often become dogmatic ideals, and I can’t stand dogma in any form. However, language does help to shape experience and I do enjoy the idea of ‘natural-term weaning’, which points to the practice of children weaning from the breast as they are ready. This doesn’t suit every family’s situation, but it’s fundamental to ours. People also talk about ‘extended breastfeeding’, I personally dislike this term as it’s only ‘extended’ in mainstream western culture, in many indigenous cultures it’s the norm.
‘Anthropologist Kathy Dettwyler’s research suggests that the normal and natural duration of breastfeeding for modern humans falls between 2.5 years at a minimum and about 7 years at a maximum. Until around the last 100 years extended breastfeeding was a cultural norm.’ 1
If you find yourself horrified by this idea, I urge you to search within for the cause of your discomfort. Perhaps it is societal.
Feeding babies, no matter how this is done, is bloody hard work, and rarely without challenge. For my family, successful breastfeeding has required support, especially in the early days when I was prone to mastitis. Perseverance was never a question for us, and choosing to stop before our toddler is ready is still not an option. The primary reason being that we would feel we were severing a bond before our daughter reached that developmental stage. It does come with a huge cost: years of broken sleep, some social stigma, and being available 24/7 for me limits my ability to bring in income. However, my hope is that by continuing this form of bond with my daughter in toddlerhood, we are developing strengths to support us through the challenges of the teenage years. That’s without even going into the physical benefits of natural term weaning such as continued immune system building and increased IQ (yes, this is what the research tells us, contrary to mass belief that there is no nutritional benefit beyond babyhood). Research is also conclusive that ‘independence, not dependence, is one outstanding trait that breastfed children who self-wean have in common’ 2. Little ‘top-ups’ for my daughter at this stage are also, about comfort in unknown or intimidating situations, it’s ‘happy juice’ after a fall or a scare, it’s a super-food smoothie during sickness, and a hot toddy when it’s cold.
I am passionate about families being exposed to the idea that this is an option, and for shame to be lifted from those who choose to feed into toddlerhood and beyond. I am bewildered, and yes, slightly outraged that people are offended by women feeding their young in public. This is an act to be celebrated, because Motherhood is equivalent to 2.5 full time jobs (I read that somewhere recently, not sure how that figure was equated, so take it as a reference point!). Mothers who feed responsively give their all, everything: their body, their sleep, 100% of their time, their love, their passion, and often their career. To choose full-time Mamahood is a choice that is often disregarded in this society, but in my experience one of the most important and rewarding jobs.
So, if you’re unsure what do next time you see a woman feeding her young here are some suggestions: 1. Carry on with what you’re doing. 2. Ask her if she’d like a drink of water (feeding creates thirst!). 3. Say to her ‘Mama, you are amazing’. 4. If you feel embarrassed, look away, own your feelings, they belong to you.
1 Dettwyler, K. A Natural Age of Weaning. http://whale.to/a/dettwyler.html (accessed 8th February 2018)
2 Ferguson, D.M. et al. Breastfeeding and subsequent social adjustment in six- to eight-year- old children. J Child Psychol Psychiatr Allied Discip 1987; 28:378-86.
Words and images by Jocelyn McKenzie (except when noted)