This is what extended breastfeeding really looks like

When I first saw the infamous cover of Time magazine showing the little boy with his mom’s breast is in his mouth, I immediately recognized it as shock journalism. But there was something else unsettling about it. I just couldn’t put my finger on it right away. Yes, the mother’s breast is showing. Yes, the whole propped up boy looking directly at us made me think that Time was trying to misrepresent attachment parenting as something that turns moms into slaves who are at the whim of their children’s every want and desire.

Yet, that wasn’t what really was getting under my skin. I’ve witnessed the heated debates over the photo, the backlash and anger. I’ve heard people calling the photo child porn and accusing the mom of child abuse. I don’t agree with these harsh statements, but I don’t agree with the photo either (and if I’d been the one to fly to New York City for the shoot, I most definitely would not have agreed to posing in that manner).

I received an email from an attachment parent who said she saw the photo as not being sensational and as being natural. After I read her email, I took a look at the photo again. I could not agree with her. I practice extended breastfeeding. I am very supportive of it and attachment parenting, but there was nothing natural about that posed photo. And the only thing “attached” in it was the boy’s mouth to his mom’s breast. As much as I didn’t want to admit it as a mom who is nursing an older child, there was something twisted and sexual about it.

Later I was nursing my sweet 3-year-old, and I felt warm and cuddly. She gently brushed my cheek with her little, dimpled hand and said, “I ‘wuv’ you, Mommy.” And – ah-ha! – it struck me that what bothered me wasn’t what the photo showed but what it didn’t.

I have seen my share of photos of older children nursing in other countries where there’s a lot more of the mother’s breast exposed (like the whole thing – nipple and all – because both breasts are clear to the eye since she’s topless); yet, these photos evoke beauty, peace, and maternity. But this photo does nothing of the sort.

The Time photo shows defiance. It shows a flash of breast. What it doesn’t show is any inkling of serenity or maternity or love.

An anonymous comment over at Faith & Family LIVE! said it best:

“This pic accentuates this woman’s boobs (even if they are not size ‘D’ or anything like that, they’re still highlighted by the pose and clothing); the woman is wearing tight clothes and standing in a defiant pose that does not suggest softness, cuddling, or warmth. My point is that I think this pic was *carefully* designed to pose attachment parenting moms in an unattached way. And attachment parenting without the attachment is… well… what is it? Let’s see, it could be weird… it could be gross… it could be any number of things because the barometer of love between mother and child which guides the mom in her choices and style is broken without attachment. So, would or could it then dip in to some gross sexualized situation? Why not! Basically, this pic turns attachment parenting on its head and debases it. This pic is the antithesis of attachment parenting. Like porn is the antithesis of what sex is meant to be. And I think that’s why this pic feels a little porn-like, even though we all know its just a nursing mom.”

My friend, Michelle, added,

“Breastfeeding is one of those things that I had very little experience seeing until I myself was a nursing mom. Then I saw it everywhere. Never, never, have I seen a great looking mom wearing tight clothes, hands on hips, pulling her top down so her preschooler could get a drink. There is nothing soft, loving or motherly here. It is a pose of defiance that dares the world to tell her she can live her life any way she durn well pleases. Perhaps there are extended breastfeeding mother like this, but they would be in the minority. For most, breastfeeding is a quiet, comforting time for both mother and child…or a time where the mother says, “Again? I just fed your sister…I need to do the dishes…” followed by a sigh (I’ve seen that one most often!). I generally wean by age 2, because I wanted to, not because my children wanted to. And by the time they were 15-18 months old, I discouraged nursing in public just because of this sort of thing. I have friends who NEVER nurse in public, always bringing bottles of pumped milk around, even to my house where I told her she was crazy to pump to nurse an infant, especially at my pro-breastfeeding home. But she just wasn’t comfortable nursing in front of others because of stigmas fueled by this sort of news coverage.”

I hate it that women feel shame because of media stunts like this. I’ve already received several messages from moms who breastfeed older children who are embarrassed and sad due to this hoopla. Want to know the truth? Something that mainstream media rarely, if ever, portrays? This is what extended breastfeeding really looks like:

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There is love. There is warmth. There is quiet. We often live in a “not now” world when it comes to our children because everything else demands our attention now.

“Mommy, can you play with me?”

“Not now, sweetie. I’ve got to make dinner.”

“Mommy, let’s paint!”

“Now now, honey, I’m checking my email.”

Breastfeeding limits the amount of “not nows” my child and I have to share (although I certainly do turn down some of my older child’s requests to nurse. A baby’s needs and wants are one in the same. As our children grow older, the line is more blurred). Nursing forces my hummingbird self to slow down and to take time to cuddle with my child. The attachment is way beyond the physical. It hinges on peace and love. The only thing attached in the Time photo was the boy’s mouth to his mother’s breast. No wonder it made people uncomfortable. What is mothering – and breastfeeding beyond what’s considered the “norm” is about mothering and nurturing a child – without love?

If you have a problem with my version of extended breastfeeding, then I’m sorry, but the problem is more you. You are not comfortable with the idea that breasts are instruments to feed children and not just sex toys. You are not comfortable that a child who is beginning to speak for herself and seek independence still needs to be close to her mama sometimes. Or that it might even be good for mama to slow down and to focus on her little one who lives in a world that tries to make her big before she’s ready.

I understand your discomfort. It’s not entirely your fault. There are lots of mixed messages out there and when media portray breastfeeding as Time did, we all get a little uncomfortable.

Aside from shocking people and igniting new mommy wars, what this distorted cover image and its loaded words ultimately did was disenfranchise moms. Thanks to Time, there is one group of moms (those who nurse and especially those who nurse children older than what’s considered “acceptable”) feeling like freaks. They also probably either feel like they have to hide the fact that they are still nursing or are prepared to turn militant about defending their choices. Some may even feel they need to defend that misguided photo (like I was at first, maybe they aren’t even sure why the photo makes them uneasy) because breastfeeding is natural and loving – but not when it’s portrayed the way Time portrayed it. On the other side is different group of moms who don’t nurse and/or practice attachment parenting, and they’re angry at the implication that they are not mom enough because of those big letters on the cover: “Are you mom enough?”

Nobody wins. Shame on Time magazine for making any mom feel unworthy. And right before Mother’s Day, too.

Motherhood is undervalued in our society. We give it plenty of lip service, but we’re constantly trying to define it, box it into a set of principles or rules, objectify it, undermine it, and judge it. At its heart, mothering is about love. And that is what Time magazine purposefully, I believe, completely dismissed when they put that cold and completely detached photo on its cover.

***

The primary purpose of this blog is not to promote breastfeeding or to even defend it. I write to encourage mothers no matter how they choose to feed their child or what season of their mothering life they are in. I also am not trying to be sensational by showing a photo of me nursing my 3-year-old, but I believe we’ve got to put ourselves out there some if want to fight the stereotypes and help to normalize breastfeeding. I’ll get off my soapbox now. Happy Mother’s Day to you all!!!

UPDATE: I feel compelled to add after reading some of the comments and receiving some emails that I was careful to not personally arrack the mom in the photo or to project blame upon her. I’m aware of how it could have possibly been my child and me manipulated into a pose that would sell magazines or even just unaware of all the snapshots being taken. In this post and in all of my discussions about the Time cover, I have referred to the photo and the magazine and its editors as being culpable rather than pointing my finger at the mom. I never said she didn’t love her child or that she was not emotionally attached to him or that she was flippant or arrogant and feeling “mom enough” – only that Time magazine chose a photo that didn’t exactly conjure up maternal love  and portrayed the act of breastfeeding and attachment parenting in a distorted way.

UPDATE (again because it’s my website, and I can update whenever I want): I frequently see passionate parents guilty of making a common logical fallacy when I or some other mom shares her own parenting style or even just a glimpse into her parenting life, and frankly, it drives me nuts. For instance, I’ll say something like I do “A” because it is a way to show love to my child, and someone somewhere angrily wags her finger at me (or that’s what I imagine her doing) and responds by accusing me of saying that because she doesn’t also do “A,” she doesn’t love her child as much as I do. Or because nursing helps to curb me from saying “not now” too often and living more in the moment that nursing longer than expected is the only way to do that. Rubbish.

I’ve heard overwhelmingly positive feedback about this post. There was one guy on Twitter who said the photo was maybe even creepier than the Time one. Whatever. I’m not going to even waste energy defending my words or photo to someone who makes an assessment like that.

But there was one mom, who was charitable in sharing her opposition, but was clearly upset with this post, feeling like I was asking not to be judged but judging moms who didn’t nurse as long I happen to be nursing one of my kids. (For the record: I did not nurse my first two nearly as long either. Also, I actually had to immediately wean the child who is now still nursing when I was put on bed rest after going in to premature labor. She did not nurse for 10 weeks but when the baby was born, she asked about a little mama’s milk, and here we are.) First off, I never asked not to be judged. In fact, I know that even a loving portrayal of breastfeeding an older child would have been rejected by some if it had ended up on the cover of a glossy. And I know there are probably people who saw my photo and squirmed a bit, and remember there’s the Twitter guy who found it really creepy. In these cases, I stand by my statement that that’s the person’s problem. Not that it’s completely anyone’s fault. We have some pretty strict cultural scripts to rewrite before everyone can become more comfortable with breasts’ sole purpose being to feed children – even older ones. Yet, what I never said is that if you choose not to breastfeed your child for a long time (or even at all), then the problem is with you.

But one mom saw it differently. She chose not to breastfeed her children as long, and she felt like I was being divisive and felt that I was saying she and her husband had a problem because they felt like gently weaning earlier was right for their family.  She felt that I was saying that anyone who does not nurse her child as long as I do has a problem. Rubbish, again, I say. I never said that. It was falsely deduced. So often people connect imaginary dots and end up feeling attacked.

As I shared in the combox after this comment, I’m a little disheartened because I so did not want any mom to feel like she had to defend her choices. I hate the mommy wars and always try to be charitable when discussing my mothering lifestyle and choices without making other moms feel like they’re not “mom enough.” I never imagined this post would go so viral, and I realize that there are a ton of people who are new to my website and don’t realize that I’ve written ad nauseum about how how I don’t like labels and that good mothering does not come in one-size-fits-all.

I also read something really great by Lauren @ Hobo Mama about how extended breastfeeding or tandem nursing probably seemed a little weird to most of the women who ended up practicing it now. She writes,

If you think extended breastfeeding, or tandem nursing, is weird, you’re not alone. Most of us did at one point or another, too. Most of us started out merely wanting to breastfeed until our baby wanted to stop, or until we as the nursing parents needed or wanted to, or until it wasn’t working for our family. We wanted weaning to be a gentle and gradual process. You don’t start out breastfeeding a four-year-old — you start out with a newborn, who just keeps growing. By the time a four-year-old is breastfeeding, the frequency is way down, and you both know it’s phasing out. Trust me, it’s not “all about the mother” — it’s about the relationship. And there’s no way you can force a child to breastfeed, so it’s definitely the kid’s choice.

That’s an excellent point. I don’t have “end dates” in mind when I start nursing an infant. I don’t think most moms do. I might have even thought it would be weird to be nursing two kids at once or to be nursing one for longer than toddlerhood. But here I am. And it doesn’t feel weird at all.

I’m adding these tidbits here and there because this post is continuing to attract a lot of attention, and I really appreciate the charitable and engaging conversation that’s going on. And I want anyone who finds her way here to know that I feel called to encourage all parents – whether their kids were breastfed for four years or not at all.

Extended breastfeeding is not extreme parenting

When visiting my parents’ house, people frequently enter their powder room and disappear. It’s a lovely room. My mom knows how to make people feel at home. There’s potpourri (and Poo-Pourri , too). There’s often a scented candle burning and freshly picked flowers from her garden displayed in a simple but tasteful vase. There’s foamy soap and silky lotion as well as luxuriously, soft towels that make you feel like you’re touching clouds when you dry your hands. Yes, it’s a cozy, soothing room.

Of course, there’s also a commode and a stash of the latest People magazines. My dad’s guilty pleasure is keeping up on pop culture and imbibing the magazine’s trashy content. We’re all so grateful he shamelessly subscribes because we all retreat to the powder room and get lost in what our family jokingly refers to as Poople since the pages are often perused while taking care of other, more natural business. (My family has never reached total adult maturity because we still find potty humor hilarious.)

Over Easter weekend I found myself in the pooper – er, I mean powder room enjoying an almost spa-like experience. A springtime scent – gardenia maybe? – wafted into my nostrils. The kids weren’t trying to break in as they do at home because they were happily occupied, playing in Gaba and Papa’s basement. I picked up a recent issue of People magazine and realized how out out of touch I am because I don’t even recognize a lot of the celebrities anymore.

I flipped through the pages, checking out the latest gossip and fashion trends (I am a closet clothes horse) when a celebrity short entitled “Extreme Parenting” caught my attention. The brief piece featured photos of three celebrity mamas along with text highlighting their “extreme” parenting behavior. First up was Alicia Silverstone. I’m familiar with the vegan and former Clueless star. I’m pretty sure she’s about my age. Anyway, she apparently is a mama bird who pre-masticates her food and gets it all nice and soft before her toddler son scrambles over to her and takes the chewed-up food from her mouth. I don’t like to judge parenting styles providing it’s not negligent or blatantly harmful, and this parenting style does not outrage me since it’s not likely to harm a child (other than perhaps resulting in more infections because of the potential for germ swapping) or make him feel neglected, but this does seem a bit excessive, gross, as well as completely unnecessary to me. Not that I’ve never been known to pre-masticate a bite here and there for a wee one. Come on, you know in a pinch you’ve maybe chewed a bit of avocado or something else to make sure it’s soft for your little birdy.

However, I have no plans or desire to routinely chew up food for my kids, and I would never think of using my mouth as a bowl for my little ones. Ewww. It wouldn’t even ever cross my mind to do so. Probably because I belong to the mammalia class rather than the aves one, although apparently some mammals and even some human cultures do practice pre-masticating for their young.

However, I can’t really figure out the benefit of this. Human mouths don’t need to be food processors, especially mouths belonging to humans who are millionaires. Feeding even the youngest of our children what we eat – natural, whole foods – is something I strive to do, but I am completely okay with using a blender or something like this Extended breastfeeding is not extreme parenting to get the food to the right consistency. And we do eat Goldfish for snacks, so our pantry is far from completely pure.

While I’m unaware of the science behind the practice of pre-mastication (or if there is any even), this does seem to fit in the extreme category and also just seems kind of nasty. Besides, its potential to share and spread germs seems great. I’m sure this parenting trend/choice is really, really cringe-worthy to anyone who is more germophobe than I am.

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Lazy Parenting 101

Someone asked me what my plans for Holy Week and Easter weekend were. I started rambling about how my husband will be working 12-hour days, so I’ll be heading to my parents’ house since taking all the kids to Mass solo is nearly as brutal as The Hunger Games Trilogy. Oh, and I love being with my extended family as well.

“My 2-year-old does okay at Mass if the baby’s not attached to me but when I’m holding him, she immediately wants to be held, too. Then she starts asking to nurse – loudly,” I said.

“So are you tandem nursing?” this fellow mom asked.

Thinking this mom, whom I don’t know all that well, might either start to categorize me as a weirdo for nursing an almost 3-year-old or might be getting ready to canonize me as Saint Mommy, I quickly explained, “Yes, but it’s just because I’m a lazy mom, and all this nursing helps with spacing my babies.”

“I completely understand!” she exclaimed.

We went on to discuss how neither one of us ever planned to follow a set of rules for parenting or to subscribe to expert So-and-So’s mothering ideology. Instead, we wanted to pave a parenting path that worked the best for ourselves, our husbands, our children, and our family as a whole.

For me, this means taking the easy route and doing things like nursing my children for a long time (because natural weaning is a whole lot easier than parent-led weaning in my experience), sleeping close to my babies (and oftentimes my older children as well), and tucking kiddos into Ergos when puttering around the house or when on-the-go.

This style of parenting may intimidate some people. I don’t know why because the truth is I really just practice lazy parenting.

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"Oh! Yea! I finally get to eat at the table with the family! Thanks, Mom!"

Allow me to explain.

My 90-year-old nana has recently been asking me when I was going to start solids with Thomas. The boy has clearly not missed too many meals, so it’s not that she was concerned about malnutrition. She just thought he might sleep for longer stretches if he was getting some more food in his belly (something that has never proven to be true for my babies; they don’t start sleeping through the night until they’re ready. It doesn’t matter how much food-food they’re gobbling up).

“To be honest,” I confessed. “I hate starting solids. That means I have more messes to clean up, and I’ll have to sit down and feed him instead of just nursing him whenever and wherever.”

See? Lazy parenting!

Now I have started to put him in the high chair during dinnertime, so I don’t have to hold him and have him knock my plate onto the floor when he spasmodically decides to grab something that looks new and fun (and everything looks new and fun to him these days).

I often give him some slices of homemade whole wheat bread that are slightly frozen to gnaw on. Even the bread is made the lazy way with this excellent bread machine Lazy Parenting 101 and recipes from The Bread Lover’s Bread Machine Cookbook: A Master Baker’s 300 Favorite Recipes for Perfect-Every-Time Bread-From Every Kind of Machine Lazy Parenting 101.

At 7 months, Thomas is very happy with his new mealtime  experience. I’m dreading having to start feeding him all three meals. Ugh. The mess! The time! I was so lazy with Mary Elizabeth (my third child) that I didn’t give her one nibble of solid food until close to 10 months.

Before I champion lazy parenting any further, I have to stress that one area of parenting that demands more work than laziness is discipline. It is not beneficial to mama or anyone to resort to yelling or coercive discipline in order to get kids to do what we want them to do right this very minute. Yelling is a not-so-nice form of lazy parenting.  It’s not effective either – at least not in the long-run. (I speak from personal experience, I’m afraid.)

Yes, it’s emotionally exhausting (and sometimes physically exhausting – and dangerous, too; be careful to not get kicked in the tummy) to calmly wrap your arms around an explosive child with flailing limbs. It takes effort to notice and encourage good behavior and to be less coercive and to use positive approaches rather than empty threats. It’s tough to be consistent and to let your child deal with the natural consequences of not listening when you asked her to put her soccer jersey in the hamper and she forgot so now she has to be smelly and dirty, and you worry her jersey’s tainted state will be a poor reflection of you when, in reality, it’s a reflection that you’re sticking to your guns and imparting a valuable lesson about obedience.

So, yes, discipline is one area where I strive to stop being a lazy parent. Being gentle but firm and consistent zaps a lot of Mama’s limited stores of energy, but it’s well, well worth it.

Losing control more often than you’d like? I understand. Really. I had a nasty case of postpartum depression after baby number 3. It was not a glittery gold time in my life. Praying, humbling myself and asking for help, as well as reading She’s Gonna Blow!: Real Help for Moms Dealing with Anger Lazy Parenting 101 helped a lot. I’m a big fan of this parenting blog as well. Good stuff.

Now what about the family bed? Is it always the picture of calm and beautiful bedtime bliss? No way. Sometimes there’s a pinkie toe dangerously close to entering my nostril. Sometimes there’s a snoring 2-year-old. Now I do find baby Thomas irresistible to snuggle with, but I also can’t imagine having to stumble out of bed three or four times each night to nurse him. Instead, we cuddle close and when he squawks, I roll over and pop in a breast. Easy peasy.

But what about that big girl who still nurses? Well, a few months ago when she was asking on the hour to nurse, I decided it was time to gently wean. She didn’t end up completely weaning though, but she now only asks to nurse once or twice during the day and then she wants to nurse at bedtime. It is so stinkin’ easy to get her to bed now. She gets so excited about “mama’s milk” and cuddle time with me that she sometimes asks to go to bed starting at around 6:30 p.m. She nurses for 10 minutes at the most and passes out, and I’ve successfully taught her that she’s not allowed to ask for mama’s milk during the night because the 24/7 diner that is me needs to make sure it has enough liquid gold for baby brother who can’t eat yummy stuff like ice cream.

She still says my milk tastes like a “tandy bar,” and she’s just so sweet during our bedtime routine. I’m not ready to let it go because I love how she snuggles. However, I also love how easy it is to get a very stubborn child to bed. Lazy parenting, once again, my friends.

As for toting kids around in the Ergo, well, why should I try to spend all that time rocking sweet Thomas to sleep when tucking him in a carrier close to me is equivalent to giving him Ambien? Wearing him as an accessory knocks the litte guy out. He’s close to mama. He smells mama. He feels mama. Life is good. No sense fighting sleep.

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"Life is good even though my mom is really lazy."

Oh, and why do I insist on bringing my baby everywhere even to out-of-town conferences, even on a beach trip to celebrate my husband and my 10th wedding anniversary? Well, I do enjoy my little man’s company quite a lot (like his daddy, he’s a very easy-going guy, and I find him quite fetching as well), but I also can’t imagine the grueling work of pumping pints of breastmilk. It’s much easier to give it to him straight from the source.

I shouldn’t even have to mention the obscene indolence of choosing to regularly nap with my baby and/or toddler. It’s not for my precious children, folks. It’s a good excuse for me to zone out and put the laundry on hold. I used to be horrible at “sleeping when the baby sleeps,” but I’m getting lazier with each child. Bring on the naps! Nirvana.

Wait a minute. How about natural childbirth? That doesn’t sound like lazy parenting. That sounds like masochism.

Nope. I’ve been blessed to give birth naturally four times now. I know this is not possible or the ideal for every mom out there, but for me it means shorter labor and less problems breastfeeding. Non-medicated births are often shorter than average, and there’s some research showing that babies born naturally have less challenges latching on.

***Don’t you dare feel guilty if you opted for an epidural and/or if you had a natural childbirth and still had a marathon labor and a newborn who initially had no interest in nursing. The point of this post it to make people laugh and to avoid putting moms who might practice extended breastfeeding or pop out wee ones sans medical interventions on a pedestal. Let’s not take ourselves so seriously, mamas. Laugh a little. Be lazy! Be happy!***

I realize this style of parenting may not be for everyone. Some of you are probably far more motivated than I am to scrape off high chair crust. More power to you. But I just love my lazy parenting. Best of all, my children seem pretty pleased with it, too.

*Are you a lazy parent like I am? Share your most favorite lazy parenting tip.

 

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