I never realized until I became a mom that one of the single most unifying opinions among women is unequivocal disdain for the long-term breastfeeder. As soon as my son was born ten months ago, every lady I know was asking me how long I planned to breastfeed. When I said I hoped to go at it for a year, almost everybody, except the long-term breastfeeders I know, said something like, “Good, because you don’t want to be one of those women who keeps going after the kid can TALK!”
But I worried, sleep-deprived and shell-shocked by baby love and sore nipples, what if it turns out that I do want to be one of those women? Or, what if I accidentally become this woman? Before I had a baby, I’d never fantasized about being a mom. As a kid, when my sister and I played with Barbies in the basement, our dolls mainly went to work and got haircuts. I didn’t think I wanted kids until, anxious about making ends meet as an actor, I started babysitting for a little one-year-old dude in my neighborhood and found myself having way more fun than I expected. But even then, my vision for my own maternal future was myopic, filled with vague images of me plopping my cooing babe down on some park grass and peacefully staring up at the sky together.
I started out wanting to breastfeed because my birth class teacher told us how beneficial it was and because I read about it in Ina May Gaskin's books and because, if I’m being totally honest, I’d heard it was an easy way to “get your body back” after pregnancy. I kept on breastfeeding through all the early ickiness - plugged ducts aplenty - because I felt an immense amount of internal (and internet-induced) pressure to prove to myself that I could do it. Nobody told me I had to. But I’d spent many a 3 AM feeding reading on my phone about the (possibly overstated) benefits. And, for better or worse, my acting work (or lack thereof) put pretty much no obstacles in my way. I’m breastfeeding now because, finally, it’s easy and sweet and I don’t have to think hard about it.
For the last ten months, though, I’ve felt pretty shy talking about what will happen after the infamous year mark, when, according to many women I know, I should start buying gallon jugs of whole milk and put my own jugs to rest. I might do exactly that, but I don’t know for sure. It’s not that I feel like breastfeeding is making my son any better than any other baby, it’s just worked out this way and I like it.
But making choices as a mother is so quickly polarizing: formula gets unfairly demonized and the long-term breastfeeding relationship gets over-sexualized. We struggle to celebrate a female body that isn’t always devoting itself to providing pleasure to some male viewer. Instagram and Facebook are laughably hypocritical, censoring breastfeeding and birth pics, but taking no issue with the scores of overtly sexual Photoshopped and often cartoonishly unnatural asses and breasts posing specifically for a male audience.
When a mom long-term breastfeeds, we mentally replace that male audience with her toddler. We equate her kid asking for milk to him asking to go to second base. My husband, an open-minded, progressive guy, still doesn’t love it when I breastfeed publicly without a cover (and I don’t own a cover.) His eyes dart around the restaurant or the playground or the deck furniture section of a random K-Mart we found on a road trip to Boston. He admitted that he worries about oglers and also about what people will think of me, that they’ll think I’m being inappropriate. We have a really hard time imagining that sucking on a nipple could be about anything other than sex because we are far more familiar with breasts exposed to arouse than breasts exposed to nurture.
That said, one mom’s choice to nurture with a breast or a bottle doesn’t have to diminish another’s. A woman's right to long-term breastfeed is a boon to all of us! The freedom they assert affirms our own. Maybe the long-term breastfeeding hate I’ve encountered isn’t really about why it’s done or if it’s done: it’s about the discomfort (and awe) we feel around the sort of person who unabashedly owns her body and performs this very female and, in some ways, animalistic act. A woman with that kind of gumption, those kind of balls (or rather, breasts), is terrifying to those of us who care a lot about how people see us. But so is a woman who happily admits she doesn’t really like breastfeeding and is switching to formula, particularly for someone like me, someone who got it into her head in those early months that breastfeeding was the ONLY WAY. Both these moms don’t give a crap what other people think and that kind of bravery is hugely inspiring.
We should be equally in awe of the woman who decides to formula feed, of the exclusive pumper, of every woman and each choice they make that is theirs and theirs alone. Motherhood is not a paint-by-numbers pursuit, but that’s what makes it so meaningful. That is the power of motherhood.
When we undercut the way any mom decides to feed her kid, we undercut ourselves and our prerogative to be whatever kind of loving mom we need to be. Let’s save our judgments for bigger fish. Like, say, the CLOTH DIAPERERS. Man, they’re the worst!
(Just kidding. Love you, cloth diaperers.)