I didn’t intend to comment on the Time magazine cover mainly because it was meant to be incendiary and I didn’t have any desire to give it energy. There are plenty of people with lots of letters after their names stepping up to explain why breastfeeding beyond infancy is natural and normal. They are doing a fine job. They are spending a great amount of time bringing the science of our mammalian biology to the masses in order to turn this into a teaching moment and initiate dialog.
However, last night I had to wonder if they are wasting their time. I have been astounded by the amount of vitriol directed toward this mother and mothers like her who follow their maternal mammalian instinct and nurse, as the World Heath Organization suggests, “...up to two years of age or beyond.” and per American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines recommending breastfeeding for “at least 12 months and for as long thereafter as mutually desired.” I am very much saddened by the harm this reaction does to mothers and babies. It is this that prompted me to share my observations.
My work for almost a decade has been to examine why certain birthing and parenting practices persist, despite the evidence that they are ineffectual at the very least, and in some cases actually known to cause harm. I believed for a long time, like those who are sharing information regarding term breastfeeding (for as long as 'is mutually desired'), that providing evidence would result in a paradigm shift for those who just hadn’t based their opinions on solid facts. After metaphorically beating my head against the wall for years in just such an endeavor, I came to the conclusion that providing facts will not change beliefs.
This was supported by a conversation I had last night on Facebook. The background is thus: A lesbian friend I know to otherwise be open-minded and compassionate commented that this cover was ‘disgusting’ and disrespectful of women. Another woman agreed and commented, “And gay marriage is wrong?! Pa...leaze!”
I only know one of the three women who partook in this exchange, but I have no reason to believe the others aren’t just as reasonable and compassionate, so my response was, “Just because you aren’t used to seeing it doesn’t mean it’s wrong. The pose was meant to be provocative and controversial, but nursing a 3 year old is healthy and normal and backed by science.”
Now, I thought that was a pretty benign response considering the disrespect being shown to women who are following a biological imperative...by other women no less. Not only that, but by women who have been disrespected by others who don’t understand them solely based on ignorance of biology. I kind of figured that was the end of it.
However, yet another poster suggested that it would be fine if the milk were pumped and given in a glass. I found that interesting considering that belief is based on the cultural (and might I add quite patriarchal) sexualization of the female body and ignores the biological fact that breasts exists to feed our offspring. I pointed that mammals posses mammary glands, and are actually classified as mammals because of this. I asked if toddlers with bottles elicited the same ‘ick’ factor. She said “no.”
In our culture, it is acceptable see toddler with a bottle or pacifier. If one stops for a moment to think about why that is, it is because we understand that mother’s milk provides sustenance to children beyond infancy, and sucking is a hardwired response to dealing with stress for babies and young children. Ok, now take the next step...why? Because before the advent of bottles and formula, the baby would be at the breast for those purposes. In many places around the world and for many people, that is still the case. Pacifiers and bottles are man-made devices meant to replace the breast...in effect to replace mothers. Anyone can do the job of feeding, nurturing and comforting once the woman’s special role is eliminated.
My response was, “I'm just wondering at the logic. A bottle doesn't ick you out because it is a cultural norm...but NOT a biological one. The parallel was provided for gay marriage. This is abnormal CULTURALLY...not naturally. Same concept. I'm not saying it's not 'strange'...as in you don't see it in a bottle feeding culture. However, naturally, it is NORMAL.” Mind you, I was not the first to bring up gay marriage, but as I said earlier, I did find the comparison appropriate for the simple reason that those who object to gay marriage do so on the grounds that they believe it is wrong. That is their belief, which is not supported by fact. The objection to nursing beyond infancy is based on belief, not fact. In my mind it made perfect sense to point this out, because I felt that perhaps the vehement response of these women was a visceral one and that once they saw we had some common ground, we’d come to an understanding.
A couple of comments that followed are what made me realize that wasn’t going to happen.
One was: “My logic is at the age of 3-6 a child is old enough to begin to understand body parts/basic anatomy. The time to wean children from breast feeding should be well before this, in my opinion, before there could be any confusion.”
Again, there is no confusion unless one has internalized that breasts are first and foremost sexual playthings. I use my hands for sex too, but that doesn’t mean I don’t use them for other purposed related to parenting my child. I haven’t heard anyone yet make the contention that hands are objectionable.
Next was: “People can write anything they want, even people with credentials.”
I’m sorry, but to me this reads as, ‘My mind is made up and I don’t want to be confused by facts from a legion of immunologist, anthropologists, neurobiologists, cellular biologists, neonatologists, perinatologists, psychologists or pediatricians.’
I brought up the WHO recommendations, which was met with, “You can throw every organization in the book at me and I still won't change my opinion. But do not sit here and draw a parallel between being gay (not a choice) and breast-feeding into toddler ages (a choice) because as far as I'm concerned you're comparing apples to oranges.”
At which point I checked out of the conversation with, “Yeah, 'cause facts never do change beliefs. I get it.” And I did. I suddenly realized that evidence is pointless in a case where someone has based their opinion on nothing more than a belief devoid of facts. Of course I knew it. I’ve written about it extensively. What surprised me in this case was it was a woman I wrongly assumed would be above shaming other women for something that’s perfectly natural.
The comparison was to people's opinions about gay marriage and people's opinions about duration of breastfeeding. So, for one, we are talking about culturally derived OPINIONS...definitely apples to apples. And both are a choice. Gay persons can and do certainly live in relationships not defined as marriage and always have. They can't always do so openly, and they are not afforded the same legal protections as couples who are 'married.' To be married and to fight for the right to be married is a choice. The same could be said for placing arbitrary limits on nursing a child that are based on nothing but beliefs about it that are not based on fact.
As far as I’m concerned, the comparison is apples to oranges only when the facts about breastfeeding are not understood. Misinformation only persists and proliferates when people refuse to educate themselves. In this case, it harms women and children to allow this to continue, and the feminist in me just can’t let it go.
Nursing into toddler years at this point in time is admittedly a choice because we have replaced (in our culture) that which is natural and normal. Thus, our children probably won’t die if we don’t breastfeed into toddlerhood. We have the ability to manufacture bottles, and glasses and mother’s milk replacements. We have exemplary sanitation and access to nutritious food (again, in the US and other developed nations, but not everywhere). Yet many women make the choice to bottle feed (or breastfeed for a limited time) because they feel pressured by culturally imposed ideas of what is ‘normal‘ and expected.
The poster seemed to assume I am not a lesbian woman in her objection to the parallel drawn between gay marriage and extended nursing. At first, I found that interesting, until I realized I assumed she was. She was correct, however. I’m not a lesbian woman. I admittedly cannot possibly understand what it is like to live as a lesbian woman. I did live and work with 400 lesbian women for a month, and 25,000 women (about 60 percent of whom were lesbian) for a week. During that time, the assumption of many people I met was that I was a lesbian or bi-sexual woman, which gave me just a taste of how women are often treated when they don’t fit the cultural norm. It also afforded me the opportunity to have many meaningful discussions with lesbian women about discrimination, cultural assumptions, patriarchal power and more. While I experienced a good deal of disapproval for many of my unconventional parenting practices and life choices, I will admit nothing compared to what I experienced during that time, or what my friends live with daily.
So when (someone I assumed to be) a lesbian woman pointed out how wrong it is for people to oppose same-sex marriage while at the same time using the same criteria to denigrate another woman for pushing societal boundaries, it made me wonder about a lot of things. For instance, how many gay and lesbian persons chose to get married to someone of the opposite sex not because it was what they knew was right for them, but because it was what was expected? Because they felt pressure to conform to some cultural idea of what was ‘normal’ that was not based in fact, but beliefs? Not their own beliefs, but those of the culture at large, no less. This is where I saw commonality.
Historically (and still in underdeveloped nations or in our own where poverty is prevalent) not nursing a child beyond infancy meant a high infant/child mortality rate. In the absence of clean water and abundant food, if another human mother wasn’t available to nourish the child, the child died. Let’s face it, before we became an agrarian culture, it’s not likely we would have tried to capture a sabertooth tiger or mastodon for their milk. While suckling from a different species does happen throughout nature, it’s not all that common. And without buckets, cups and bottles, not really all that practical for human babies.
Even with the advent of domestic animals we could constrain and containers to hold their milk, cow’s milk is made for baby cows who are born weighing 100 pounds and have 4 stomachs, not baby humans who are about 8 pounds at birth and have 1 stomach. Pediatricians warn against giving babies cow's milk because it is so bad for them. Yet guess what most formula is made of? Cow's milk! (Or soy, which is eminently worse.) And without proper understanding of the role of sanitation in wellness, many babies would still have died from such a substitution.
Today, in places where food and clean water is scarce, extended breastfeeding still saves the lives of children, not to mention the lives of women. Breastfeeding reduces the risk of breast cancer, and the longer the woman nurses, the more protected she is. The longer a child nurses, the less likely they are to become obese, which is certainly a problem for our youth today. None of this even touches on the healthy emotional development for a child that comes from having all their needs needs met in their mother’s arms. Because here’s the thing...babies who are nursed from birth have no idea that YOU think of breasts as sexual. None. To them, it’s lunch and comfort...and always has been.
Yes, today we have breast pumps and bottles and glasses. The fact remains that these things are cultural contrivances that replace Nature’s already perfect system of delivery of the perfect food. Breastmilk contains 400 substances that cannot be replicated in a laboratory, including white blood cells and other immunological factors that protect against disease in the child’s environment. (In fact, it is such a beneficial substance, it is sometimes prescribed for adult cancer patients.) Direct from the breast, it is sterile.
No mother should nurse beyond what is comfortable for both she and her infant. Neither should a mother feel shamed into weaning before she and her child both feel ready. Likewise, no woman who wants to breastfeed should endure disapproving looks or hostile comments from people who objectify women based on the erroneous belief that breasts are primarily sexual.
I find it very sad that women, especially a subset of women that are themselves misunderstood and maligned due to other peoples BELIEFS about them, devoid of facts, would be so unwilling to actually learn about why extended nursing is not only acceptable, but beneficial on so many levels. That these same women would impose the same cultural restrictions that others try to impose on them.
I know mothers who have been harassed for nursing a toddler. Women have had their 2 or 3 year old child away from them because someone in power didn’t understand that it is normal and natural to breastfeed a toddler. Women are discriminated against and harassed every single day for nursing even tiny babies in public. Further, the reasoning behind why these people who disapprove feel that women should hide themselves away in bathrooms to feed their baby, put a blanket over their baby's head, should just stay at home if they 'have' to do that, or pump and bring mother's milk in a bottle when out in public come from the EXACT same objection; that breasts are sexual and therefore seeing them used to feed a baby, even if it is the most natural thing in the world and the best for baby, makes people uncomfortable. To this I would ask, if you are gay or lesbian, have you been offended when you have heard someone proclaim that gay or lesbian affection in public is 'disgusting?' Do you think that what you know to be natural and healthy should be hidden away because someone else who is ignorant of the facts, and chooses to remain that way, might be uncomfortable? Do you feel that the discomfort of others should dictate the parameters of your relationships? Many nursing mothers pretty much feel the same way.
I actually agree that the cover is disrespectful of women, but because it pits women against each other, not because I consider nursing a toddler offensive. And as seen in the exchange that prompted my musings, it encourages women to judge other women in exactly the same manner as others have judged them. It infuriates me that women would do this to each other. It needs to stop.
This is a feminist issue. Unless and until we, as women, support each other regarding natural and healthy choices, we invite vilification of women by others who would like to control what we do with these amazing bodies we are blessed with. This is important, so I had to speak up.
My name is Kim Wildner. I am the author of Mother's Intention: How Belief Shapes Birth.