(This article also appears in Mother Support News for the World Association of Breastfeeding Action, Vol. 14.)
Strangers can have immense capacity to reassure a mother that she is doing the right thing, even when her own relatives fail to provide such support. Not everyone breast feeds long-term or until a child self-weans, but for those who do, the controversy of breastfeeding an older child is a constant challenge. There are many variables that are individual to each dyad.
I once sat with my husband’s family at a crowded Cracker Barrel when traveling in Iowa with our then almost 3-year-old son. Back when our son was 9 months old, some of those family members had ganged up on me to pressure me to stop breastfeeding. I made the mistake of trying to share information with them to counter their insensitivity, but they were not interested in learning anything or in forming a connection, only in their own very limited perspectives.
That experience was painful, and today, I still feel a tinge of anger when I reflect back, perhaps because those family members didn’t just limit their controlling criticisms of me and my family’s lifestyle choices to that one incident. We deserve support and compassion from relatives. My feelings come from being disrespected and dismissed by them on numerous and similar occasions.
While at that restaurant in Iowa, I was feeling unsupported in our extended breastfeeding journey and retreated to the restroom to nurse, where thankfully there was a chair.
As I breastfed my toddler by the sinks, three women came in, virtually and serendipitously one after the other. These women were not associated with one another, yet each one expressed supportive words to me with a confidence and assertion that left me feeling completely validated.
They all asked me (rhetorically) why I was breastfeeding my son in the bathroom. One matronly woman personally invited me to her table, and told me that I was more than welcome to breastfeed there. While we were pretty much finished with the nursing session as it was, I left that bathroom beaming with pride at the validation I had received from strangers.
Back at our own table, I made it a point to share the story of this validation with a grand smile upon my face, emphasizing that not one, but three consecutive strangers had encouraged me. Everyone was uncomfortably silent, but I continued beaming, feeling a renewed confidence in my power as a mother doing right by my child. In that moment, I felt like I was repositioning my stance among them from one of feeling unaccepted to really not giving a damn.
Sadly, over the years it has become clear to me that some of those family members will never get a clue about how it is that they disrespected me, because they themselves did not learn respect from being respected – a systemic familial dysfunction. This is also an inherent source of society’s cognitive dissonance.
My breastfeeding journey has been over for nearly two years. At the time that it ended, I was ready. And, even though I was mindful and focused to remember, I have actually forgotten the last nursing. Perhaps this is because in weaning, the last few months of nursing were erratic, skipping days, and lasting only seconds each session. It was circumstantial as well, enabling us as a dyad to converse about the complex feelings we shared mutually.
In breastfeeding, I experienced and still cherish a connection so profound that I can identify no comparison for it in my life. Perhaps this is because I only had this experience with a single child and knew that I would never be able to experience it again. I really don’t know if all nursing mothers feel this way, or if they feel this way with every child. But I can gather that most of them experience challenges that have the capacity to shred hearts, and moments where they expound magnificent metaphorical hues of radiant emotion.
I miss that precious privilege and I acknowledge these feelings as I continue to let go of my child in other ways were he asserts independence. It is all integrated in this incredible, giving, nurturing journey that we assert as a mindful pathway for our children.
For me, the creation of this pathway expanded to encompass almost seven years in breastfeeding, a journey that left me understanding why no dyad deserves judgment from infant to older child, even as my own child surpassed ages (more than once) that I never dreamed he would while still nursing.
When a journey like this is over, we tend to reflect upon all the things we feared that never came to pass. We note the numerous obstacles, threats, and burdens that never over powered our strength, our resolve, our convictions, and our commitment.
I realize that breastfeeding might not be this profound for every mother, but for me it was transforming. I maintain a quiver upon my back and an aim to protect, encourage, and defend breastfeeding dyads challenged by society’s cognitive dissonance, even if my gestures are far less noble than I imagine.