My husband smiles knowingly from across the other side of our bed. I long to reach out for an early morning embrace but there’s an obstacle between us, making him seem an unreachable distance away. It’s 6:30am and our three-year-old son is breastfeeding in his dreamy slumber. This has become our morning ritual; nursing for half an hour before he officially wakes to greet the day. Soon he’ll be all smiles, laughter and affection. But if he misses this nurturing, this time of reconnection, he’ll wake like a confused bear cub who’s been robbed of half his hibernation.
The sun and the birds have been awake since 5am and I have too; lying in the soft stillness contemplating how to simplify my day and maximize toddler-free moments dedicated to minimizing my ever expanding to do list. I’d love to crawl out from under the covers and take advantage of this quiet time before my son rouses. To go for a walk, make a start on my day job or pen some words for my blog. Occasionally I do, but lately my little man has a sixth sense for when his maternal security blanket has left the bed, and this morning I’m craving a few more minutes of silence.
So, I channel patience, extinguish frustration and practice gratitude.
I remind myself this selfless act is time well spent, cementing our connection which will reward us both for years to come. Many cynics claim mothers who breastfeed their toddlers are selfish, narcissistic and doing it for themselves, not their children. Anybody who makes such ridiculous comments has clearly never breastfeed nor had a partner who nursed for a long period of time.
I’ve freely chosen to sacrifice my independence to give my son this gift, but that doesn’t make it easy. We’ve never spent more than a few hours apart, he’s nursed to sleep every single night for the last three years and no matter how dedicated a mother I am, at times I crave personal space. It has challenged my sense of self, with the lines between what’s mine and his blurring and lately, seemingly up for an animated debate.
It’s getting easier lately as my son slowly self-weans and only nurses a few times a day. Occasionally when he skips his afternoon nap he also forgets to nurse. Hours later I’ll realize and feel my heart skip a beat as I sense this season of my life will soon be drawing to a natural close; I fear I’ll deeply miss it. I don’t know if we’ll have another baby and I’m the first to admit I’m in no hurry to prematurely close this chapter of our magical fairytale.
I don’t know what motherhood looks like without breastfeeding.
I’m anxious about losing my maternal superpower: it has gifted us an intimate closeness and an unwavering trust I never imagined possible. It has been the single greatest surprise of motherhood and I feel the experience is devalued in our modern culture, too often reduced to a nutritional comparison of formula versus breastmilk.
I feel lucky to live in a relatively tolerant and open-minded society but I’m not immune to the stigma attached to breastfeeding a three-year-old. I’m acutely aware of the judgement and outrage breastfeeding a toddler can precipitate, which is sadly borne out of ignorance and fear. If I’m being honest, though, as brave as I feel, I’m relieved we rarely breastfeed in public these days. If my son needs it, I discreetly nurse him and happily I’m always surprised how few people seem to notice; I guess we’re masters of our art form now. I have thick skin and can handle any negativity that comes my way, but I don’t want my son subjected to a stranger’s insecurities and personal phobias.
Despite my confidence, I often feel isolated nursing my toddler and with good reason: despite the World Health Organization’s recommendation for children to be breastfeed until at least age two, only 5% of mothers nurse their babies beyond six months. A recent study published in the Lancet suggested if breastfeeding were scaled up to near universal levels, 823,000 deaths of children under five could be prevented every year. Yet, sadly, many doctors don’t support breastfeeding mothers, which makes it seem like an impossible road to follow.
I find it exhilarating to be a trailblazer rediscovering a path less travelled.
I share my story, not to fuel a debate amongst mothers but to paint a picture of what sustained nursing looks like. It is so rare, so foreign in our modern day world, that we simply don’t know what it looks like nor what to expect. When my naturopath suggested I breastfeed my son for at least two years, the notion made me anxious. It sounded abnormal because I’d never seen it before. I was nervous about what others may think.
But, breastfeeding my little man has been nothing but an extraordinary adventure, which unfolds and takes me down parenting side trails I never expected. It rebalances him after an emotional upset and reconnects us after time apart. He makes me laugh when he asks for “boo-zies”, the “big one” or the “other one” and surprises me when he casually puts his tiny hands down my front; an unsubtle hint he’d like to nurse. He melts my heart when he looks up at me with the same innocent blue eyes he always has, and gently whispers tall tales or recounts our day together.
Acrobatics are common, biting is non-existent, laughter is frequent and smiles are guaranteed.
To be fair my experience with breastfeeding has inevitably changed my attitude towards it. It has deepened my respect for the power of the female body and heightened my maternal instincts, softening me along the way and giving me renewed confidence in my evolving body image. But, despite being a proud breastfeeding mother I’m still a modern day woman who craves feeling attractive. When I stand in front of the mirror naked, I remember my breasts used to sit a little higher. I’m anxious about whether my husband thinks the same and I wonder how they’ll look when I eventually stop nursing. But, then I remind myself I can’t go wrong if I forge my own path, live my truth and care for my family in the way that feels right for me. And nothing is sexier than authenticity.
I’m grateful I’ve been able to nurse my toddler son for as long as I have. Not all mothers can, with work commitments and health issues throwing obstacles in our paths. And for many mothers it’s not a choice that’s right for them – it’s a personal decision which should be respected and supported either way. But for those of us who can and want to, we owe it to ourselves to proudly nurse our children for as long as they need it.
If my twenty-year-old self could see me now she’d be horrified; at that age I couldn’t imagine breastfeeding. So, as I lay here reflecting on how my views have changed I’m filled with hope and positivity. I wonder what other twists and turns life will take and it excites me. If we deny ourselves the freedom to grow as people and to challenge our long held beliefs, our comfort zones shrink, our minds close and life loses its colour, fading to black and white. So, as demanding as it is at times, I’ll never regret a single moment I’ve spent nourishing my son.
It has been the most selfless act of my life, but it has given me infinitely more than it has taken.