I’d always imagined breastfeeding as a divine act. Me, a glowing Madonna nourishing my serene Baby Jesus. But when the time came, I found that nursing a newborn in public felt more like trying to pull off a magic trick. Watch this screaming infant disappear under a cloak!
At a party three weeks postpartum, I was attempting to do magic—nurse my son under a shawl that kept sliding down—which a friend took as an invitation to ask, “How long are you going to breastfeed him?” Unsure how I would make it through the party, let alone an entire breastfeeding journey, I grunted out a verbal shrug. “Just don’t nurse him until he’s three, or I won’t come over anymore,” she sniggered. This pushed me over the hormonal cliff upon which I’d been teetering, and I blushed with my entire body.
If I had a time machine, I’d set the clock back to that very moment, look her in the eye, and say, “I’ll nurse him through toddlerhood to boost his immunity against the deadly pandemic.”
As I settled into new motherhood, I did a lot of research about breastfeeding. If the option is available to you, the benefits were clear: the longer, the better—to a point. The World Health Organization recommends nursing a child until age two or longer, or as long as the mother and child mutually desire. A decades-long Brazilian study, which followed thousands of babies from birth into adulthood, concluded that the amount of time a baby was breastfed correlated with higher IQs, educational attainment, and salaries in adulthood. My own mother was a hippie Buddhist who breastfed me until I was three-and-a-half, so by that logic I should have a mansion and a personal invitation from Mensa, but there’s an exception to every rule. I resolved to nurse my son until two-ish—long enough to turn him into a CrossFit champion genius CEO who is miraculously not a douchebag, but not as embarrassingly long as I had been nursed.
Even I was surprised, then, when I found myself crouching behind a play structure breastfeeding a flailing towhead more than half my height on his third birthday. One of the dads at the party startled at the sight of us as he rounded the corner: a petite woman mounted by a sizable boob vampire. As he grimaced at me and I grimaced back, I was well aware he was thinking of that moon door kid from Game of Thrones. I could see it in his eyes. If I’d had a moon door, I might’ve jumped out of it.
Nursing my son until three wasn’t the plan, but six weeks after we celebrated his first birthday, a deadly virus hijacked our lives. We sheltered in place, gulping down headlines about soaring death rates, long covid, and children with Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome. As my brain treated me to a revolving reel of Worst Case Scenarios, I found a source of assurance in the face of such fearful uncertainty: my own breast milk, which just so happened to be giving my son 24-hour access to an immunity super tonic. Chock full of vitamins, probiotics, and immune boosters, breast milk is the O.G. Elixir of Life. The nipple even analyzes the baby’s spit to see what nutrients they need, adjusting the recipe accordingly. I wish I had that kind of free, individualized healthcare.
Like wiping down groceries—ugh, that phase—I clung to this measure to keep my son safe, resolving to breastfeed for as long as it took. Strong, stubborn, and prone to hand-to-hand combat, he was sure to be a real pain in the ass about weaning, anyway.
When the vaccine finally rolled out, studies found covid antibodies in the milk of vaccinated moms just days after their first shot. Cedars-Sinai called it “liquid gold.” With this news, nursing moms were the heroes of the day. The vaxxed and lactating sold their milk online. Those who had recently weaned attempted to relactate. Moms snuck breastmilk into their older kids’ cereal! Older kids cringed when they found out about it! It was Milkmania, 2021. Then everyone kind of moved on. My friends and family went back to asking me, “How long are you going to breastfeed him?” Or, as the weeks went by, “He’s still nursing?!”
Though it’s common in other places around the world to nurse a child to school-age, we don’t see it much in 2022 America, where breasts are still so sexualized it’s apparently affronting to consider them as functional. My son and I catch a lot of looks in public, and I get it. It’s surprising to hear a kid request a breast with a full, grammatically correct sentence.
When my son started attending his preschool, which is like Harvard but for germs, in the fall, continuing to offer him the maximum protection felt even more important. He is unvaccinated and a passionate anti-masker. Covid outbreaks routinely shut down classes. But, three shots in, I now have Pfizer and Moderna on tap, and while the FDA remains dubious of the Pfizer vaccine’s effectiveness for infants and children under 5, it has long touted the immune benefits a child receives from breastfeeding. It’s reassuring to share this protection with him—if only to curb my own anxiety, though that’s not the only benefit for me. Breastfeeding lowers my chances of getting several breast or ovarian cancers, Type 2 diabetes, and rheumatoid arthritis. Most exciting of all, nursing gives me a faster metabolism and bigger boobs. If there were a drug for that, it’d be more in demand than the covid pill.
Plus, it’s the only time my kid shuts up.
Not that it’s all health miracles and D cups. Sometimes it sucks. And occasionally bites. As he’ll proudly tell you, my son is now three-and-a-quarter, and breastfeeding him has gotten a little awkward for everyone—except my mom, who is thrilled I’ve turned out to be just as much of a hippie as her. At this point, I’m so used to having a breast out, I’m liable to forget to put it back in. It’s one thing to nurse in public, but to wander around with a freed tit at Costco is simply unacceptable. Whole Foods maybe.
As we barrel toward three-and-a-half, I’m researching weaning for the first time. I just can’t bring myself to breastfeed a kid on a kindergarten waitlist. What has been a hedge against a capricious virus, and my covid sourdough habit, makes less sense as cases finally plummet and summer mercifully approaches. I no longer feel as torn between societal expectations and doing my best to shield my kid from covid.
I won’t miss the nipple bandaids, nor feeling like a dairy cow, nor the siphoning of hydration. I am going to grieve breastfeeding when we finally stop. Extended nursing has forged a deep bond between my son and me. It has gotten me in the wonderful habit of giving my all to him. It has helped me learn to not give a fuck what people think of my parenting. I’m going to miss feeling so connected to him. He’ll start going to school five mornings a week instead of three. Then full days. We’ll never be this close again.
Weaning him also means losing my two most effective weapons against tantrums: lactating breasts. The other day, my son had an Oscar-worthy meltdown over, wait for it, a broken cookie. He screamed, wailed, kicked, and hit. Fearing for my safety, I deposited him in the Pack n’ Play and backed away. When he finally calmed down a bit, I gathered him in my arms and wrestled him to my breast. He fought me at first, then let out a shaky sigh and melted into me. Cuddled up on the rocking chair with the mood tonic of mama’s milk, he chilled out as quickly as he’d gotten angry. The contact and rush of oxytocin brought us back to our bodies, back to each other. He was suddenly, miraculously serene. Triumphant, with a crumbled cookie in my back pocket, I was the glowing Madonna at last.
Kelly MacLean is a humorist, journalist, and podcaster. Her work has appeared in Esquire Magazine and Los Angeles Magazine, and will be featured in the forthcoming book “Best of Readers Digest 2022.” You can follow her @thekellymaclean.