As my baby has crossed over the one-year mark, while still breastfeeding part-time, I have started to take notice of the “weirdo” moms. The ones still breastfeeding their babies past whatever indeterminate point of not-a-weirdo no return. Case in point: This Chicago Tribune op-ed headlined, “I’m still breastfeeding my four-year-old. Here’s why.” It showed up this morning in my Google News search for mom stuff, and I clicked with anticipatory horror. The particular sort of horror that you feel toward something that is both entirely socially unacceptable and actually kind of relatable.
“I had vowed to myself that I would breastfeed until my son turned two,” writes Elisabeth Becker Topkara. “Two came and went.” Friends and family judged and counseled her around when to stop. She writes, “Some suggested a (seemingly random) appropriate age - one, two or three years - while others listed milestones that would automatically age him out of the breastfeeding club (‘when he can talk,’ ‘when he’s in school’).” Instead, she kept on keeping on, sometimes even falsely talking about breastfeeding in the past-tense to hide it from judgmental eyes.
But now she’s written an op-ed about it, and about which many people will surely have very strongly held opinions. This is precisely the kind of mom that, these days, makes me shift a little uneasily in my seat. Not because I anticipate breastfeeding until my son is four-years-old, or even close to it (here I am, performatively distancing myself), but rather because of the generalized threat of judgment, of being deemed a weirdo mom, a mom who is a little too much of a mom.
It is not unlike my experience in the first few months after giving birth. I had this sense that so much about motherhood felt like ironic performance art. Everything had air quotes around it. I was coming up against all of the bad stereotypes that come with motherhood—and probably some degree of internalized sexism—which made it hard to fully own the role. I tried to hold my mom-ness at arm’s length, lest I be judged by it.
It was a smart survival instinct, because what happens—dear god what happens—is that you start to develop empathy and understanding for other moms. Which is terrifying, because it’s kind of like becoming like other moms.
In the past, I might have seen that infamous mom breastfeeding her three-year-old on the cover of Time magazine and thought, Huh, okay, and promptly moved on with my life. Now, I think, Oh shit, will that be me? In large part because it doesn’t seem all that weird to me anymore and that is mildly alarming. In fact, in my pre-child memory that Time cover featured a nursing five-year-old, not a three-year-old, a mere 22 months older than my son. And thus begins the unanswerable calculus: At what point—at how many months, exactly—do you tip over into weirdo territory?
So much of early breastfeeding is about simply surviving the marathon of expectations—from holier than thou “breast is best” rhetoric to the more soberly put recommendations of the American Academy of Pediatrics to exclusive breastfeed for the first six months, and then breastfeed alongside solids until at least 12 months. Meeting those expectations is tough under the very best and rarest of circumstances, which, for moms working outside the home, include decent paid maternity leave and a job that allows for pumping breaks. As a result, the reality is that breastfeeding statistics in this country show significant racial and class disparities.
Which is to say, worrying about becoming a weirdo mom is an absurd privilege. If you want to—and are lucky enough to be allowed to—make it to the 12-month mark, then says the AAP, breastfeeding should continue “for as long as mutually desired by mother and baby.” So, you go from the precise world of mainstream medical recommendation—which provides a normative defense against the creeps who look askew at breastfeeding moms—to the wilderness of dysfunctional public perception relating to all things boobs, motherhood, and babies.
You’ve crossed the finish line, but you’re still running—maybe not all the time, just sometimes, once or twice a day—because you like running, actually. As a 1994 study of moms still breastfeeding after 12 months found, “The most frequently chosen reason for long-term breastfeeding was that breastfeeding was a special time for mother and baby that the mother was not ready to give up.” That same study noted the phenomenon of “closet nursers” and found that one of the major themes to emerge from these women’s comments was “the importance of being strong in the face of social unacceptability.”
How quickly, and imprecisely, the very thing that you labored at—desperately, insanely, unrealistically—in order to meet expectations becomes a tool of judgment. This seems to happen right around the one-year mark, when moms are freed from a sense of medically-mandated obligation. When they can do it in no small part because they enjoy it. In truth, the lesser-cited World Health Organization recommendations suggest “continued breastfeeding up to 2 years of age or beyond.”
Several months ago, I was out shopping with my baby strapped to my chest when a hip, young-ish mom approached me. “Is he still nursing?” she asked, bizarrely and invasively. When I said yes, she launched into personal story time. “My son nursed until he was four. It was so cute, he would tell me, ‘What did you eat today, mommy? Your milk tastes funny!’” Later, as I smiled uncomfortably, she added, “He would even unclip my nursing bra for me and say, ‘Thank you, mommy,’ afterward.”
I am not going to lie. I have since recounted that story many times with something like horrified glee to my friends, moms and non-moms alike. I feel bad for mocking that woman, who optimistically, albeit somewhat non-consensually, decided to share her breastfeeding journey with me. But part of what inspired my mockery was how easy it was to imagine, even in some small way, becoming like her. Because, yeah, I do genuinely believe that it can be “a special time for mother and baby” and, no, I don’t just yet feel “ready to give up” entirely.
I agree with Becker Topkara when she writes, “Breastfeeding is a powerful thing. When people see this as damaging, deviant or ‘sick,’ they aim to contend with women’s power to give and sustain life.” It’s a power that is most palatable when it takes place within the largely unrealistic expectation-setting dictates of medical recommendation—and while hidden away under a swaddling blanket. It’s treated as somewhat suspect when women enjoy, and are not restricted, by motherhood.
The real horror here isn’t a mom breastfeeding a four-year-old, it’s the judgment directed at her. It’s how quickly and easily the revered and holy state of “breastfeeding mom” is rendered obscene and harmful. These weirdo moms are scary because they are cautionary tales.