Extreme breastfeeding in novels

I am reading Emma Donoghue’s Room at the moment. It is one of those novels that everyone is suddenly talking about. Narrated by a five year old, it is about he and his mother’s very isolated life. The book has an extraordinary premise, which I won’t give away here, but there is another element to the story that everyone can’t help but seem to notice and unpick and that is that the five-year old is still being breastfed.

Which brings up the one part I struggled with a bit. Very early on, we see that Ma breast-feeds her son. The book opens on his birthday, and she tries, halfheartedly, to wean him, but he loves this intimate connection to his mother’s body as much as he loves all the walls and objects and routines of Room. There’s a flicker of unease in the reader here — and it’s a good and interesting flicker. Room is a sanctuary for Jack, but where are the lines, the boundaries between mother and son? When does security go too far?

Ah, breastfeeding. So rich with subtext.

I am breastfeeding a toddler, myself, for the second time in my life. I weaned Lauca when she was almost two. But Cormac, whom I am currently breastfeeding is a year and a half old, and to be honest, I don’t see us stopping any time soon. For the most part I enjoy breastfeeding. Apparently once you breastfeed past twelve months you are practicing ‘extended breastfeeding’ and if you persist past another point, precisely where I am not exactly certain, you start practicing ‘extreme breastfeeding’. I am pretty sure breastfeeding five-year olds, as happens in Room is considered extreme breastfeeding. (Incidentally, The Slap is the only other novel where I can recall references to extreme breastfeeding, can you think of others?). I am not an earth mother. If anything you would probably stereotype me as a career woman, though I am not that either. I wear pencil skirts, high heels and stockings to work. I can’t sew. I don’t usually make things myself, I buy them. I fantasize about modernist furniture and architecture. I don’t do world music festivals (or women singers harmonising together, either). But I am very content breastfeeding a toddler.

I try to remember what it was like when I was squeamish about this. I was never the sort of person to tell a woman off for breastfeeding in public. I never felt offended by it. But I may have felt uncomfortable sitting with someone while she breastfed in a restaurant. I may even have later, behind her back, agreed with other friends that breastfeeding her toddler was kinda ‘weird’. I can remember being that person, I know the thoughts that ran through my head but I can’t recall now how it felt to think that way. Somehow I have crossed a divide since motherhood.

And now?

If you’re perturbed by my extended breastfeeding you might just as well be telling me that you think the toddler is too old for me to be wiping his bottom, that you find it vaguely sexual or somehow too intimate for a child his age. I would nod slowly, showing you that I listened and thought about what you said, and then I would walk away thinking you poor fool with your ridiculous hang-ups.

Cross-posted at blue milk.

Categories: arts & entertainment, gender & feminism, parenting

Tags: , ,

19 replies

  1. This one from Jay of Two Women Blogging: Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon. The main character is called Milkman because his mother breastfeeds him when he is school-aged. There’s definitely something sexual and pathological about the relationship, although it’s been more than 30 years since I’ve read the book and I don’t remember the details.

  2. I watched one of those BBC parenting shows a while ago. The Mum had been breastfeeding the youngest, but now that the youngest was five and about to start school, she would (still) demand to be breastfed, to the point of slapping or poking and pulling up the Mum’s shirt and forcing the issue. The Mum was at a loss as to what to do, and the Dad was (frankly) useless, always telling her to give in so he didn’t have to listen to the tantrums. Which was when the Mum contacted the program, because it was free help.
    I think this is the opposite side of the spectrum. I don’t think there is anything wrong with breastfeeding a toddler, but there is a certain point where they stop being toddler, and start being small child (and start school, etc), and I think if you intend to continue to breastfeed at this point, you need to have a serious think about how (or if) this will impact you.
    But on the other hand, what you do in the safety and sanctity of your own home is your own business, provided that it does not hurt anyone.
    …When I read “extreme breastfeeding”, I can’t help but think of a woman breastfeeding her baby whilst engaging in sky diving or something. Impossible, I know, but that is the thought it brings to mind. 😛
    This being said, I don’t have kids, although if I ever have them I do intend to breastfeed. And then I am sure to have a more complete opinion 😀

  3. A Tree grows in Brooklyn. 35 years later I still recall the yicky description of the little man in his knickerbockers breastfeeding in a way described as smoking a vast pink cigar. I was scarred mentally.
    In this book, though, it of course makes a very horrible sense. And I can’t actually manage to read it properly because I find it too horrifying.

  4. I breastfed my daughter until she was 3 and my son until he was 2 and a half. She just graduated from college and is employed (in this economy! thank god!). My son is a freshman in college. I say this because if you are having this argument today, you can say that one woman on the internet sounded normal and she did it without making her kids too scarred to function. We lived the entire time in a US middle of the road suburb, not in a yurt or on a commune.
    We started out nursing on demand at birth, and slowly it evolved to being something we did whenever there was an ouchy or something scary and for naps and bedtime. Then we added another rule: never in front of grandma (that was at 1 and a half or two) which was not hard because even my daughter could feel the disapproval. It also got our food really quickly if we needed to breastfeed in a restaurant, even though nothing was showing except legs and feet. I’m sorry if there are people who were squicked out by this, but more for them than for us.

  5. Hey, I’m sorry for that post. This is about how this is portrayed in books and not how people behave. You can tell that after all these years, it still pisses me off.
    Though I do believe this is my only extreme sport.

  6. comment, not post. Sigh. Getting off the internet now.

  7. I thought WHO put out recommendations recently that it is best to breastfeed until the child is 2 years old (not that that influences people’s ideas about morality or squickiness).
    (not a mum)

  8. Breastfeeding photos ‘unsuitable for children’… sez Facebook

    I was looking into Flickr’s policies and staff statements on non-sexual nudity and intimacy of various kinds and they seem good about it, recognising that the mainstream US position on images of naked children and also on breastfeeding is fairly conservative. (This does not stop some of their users posting to their forums with the names of “child pornographers”, meaning anyone who has made an image of any naked child public, and encouraging harassment of them.) Facebook and Livejournal both have trouble with this.

  9. On breastfeeding: I am breastfeeding a voracious nine month old. He probably has extreme breastfeeding ambitions. I always intended to feed him for a long time, and to do it in public, but I was still really not totally comfortable seeing other women feed even during pregnancy. Not judgey uncomfortable, but “hrm… that’s an intimate thing to be seeing” uncomfortable. (And this is from someone who labouring in the middle of the day in a brightly lit hospital room said “oh, are my clothes getting in the way, it’s fine, I’ll take them off, I have no problem being naked”.) It just really isn’t something you see in my circles often enough. I certainly have friends who look at their laps and blush while he messes around latching on and then milkily grinning at people while an exposed nipple sprays milk in his ear. (Good going, baby.) I also have people who actively try and stop me talking about it; it’s OK to do it, but do you have to say? Please. That’s uncool.
    So, I think the weird feeling comes from perceiving breastfeeding as intimate but (sorta) OK as long as it’s being done to a baby but not when it’s being done by a baby or child. (We are definitely done by now, the other day he gently but firmly held of a breast and gave it, and thus, me, little insistent shoves until it was in the preferred position.) People (sometimes) know they are not supposed to be uncomfortable with it at all, so they displace it onto older children.
    I therefore think it’s good to say “yeah, I used to think (or feel) it was weird too.” Because it shows that women who were successfully alienated from it can breastfeed successfully.

  10. I thought WHO put out recommendations recently that it is best to breastfeed until the child is 2 years old

    It’s not even a recent recommendation. In the Australian context though you get statements like “The NHMRC also recommends breastfeeding, complimented by appropriate solid foods, should be continued until at least 12 months of age.” (from here, the NMHRC’s actual words are here).
    I am not sure why the discrepancy, perhaps the local recommendations are made with an eye to not seeming too “out there”. But part of the problem is that breastfeeding through to and past 2 years needs to seem less out there, and someone needs to give norms an appropriate shove.

  11. I think it’s part of this pathological desire people place upon children to ‘grow up’ already. If you’re talking about how independent and mature your 8 month old is, then that 8 month old making a dive for your chest will only get weirder and weirder as they get older because the ‘maturity’ will increase separate from their actual development.

  12. OlderThanDirt – I loved your perspective, thanks for adding it, not a derail at all.

  13. I loved being an “extreme” breastfeeder, though I really only wandered into that territory with my youngest son who weaned at about 4 and a half. It wasn’t about months or years or what’s appropriate, it was about him and me and both of us maturing in our roles and relationships. I will always remember how he used to ask for “didi please mama” – no shirt tugging or yelling demands.
    I can only wish I’d been as wise with my oldest son who seemed to be grown up enough to manage without breastfeeding by 12 months, well, so everyone told me. By the time the youngest showed up (12 years later), it was pretty clear that 12 months is just a wee baby, and 2 years and three years (and older!) are also very small vulnerable people.
    The middle son (weaned at 3.5 yrs) is the one I would really call the extreme breastfeeder – his favourite drinking position was downface dog (for him, not me).

  14. Katherine/Mary: The WHO recommendation is not “until age 2″, it’s “to age 2 and beyond”.
    Julie: What you describe is not a breastfeeding problem, it’s a manners problem. A typical five year old is well and truly old enough to be taught breastfeeding manners (heck, a typical 12 month old is).
    G, I’m boggling rather at your comment. Gussie was three years old in A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, not a “man”. The scene is deliberately written in fairly unappealing terms, but it’s hardly horrifying for a three year old to breastfeed, nor is the behaviour described (standing up while feeding) particularly unusual. Have you never been around any nursing toddlers?

  15. Katherine/Mary: The WHO recommendation is not “until age 2?, it’s “to age 2 and beyond”.

    Lauredhel, sorry I wasn’t clear on that, it’s what”breastfeeding through to and past 2 years… [emphasis added]” was intended to allude to, but it’s in a whole separate para from the links so I see the problem.

  16. Since I was under 10 last time I read that scene- it’s pretty clear that it was written to be horrific. I thought that was the question. And I breastfed my toddlers.

  17. …When I read “extreme breastfeeding”, I can’t help but think of a woman breastfeeding her baby whilst engaging in sky diving or something. Impossible, I know, but that is the thought it brings to mind. 😛

    Hahaha, me too. I had an image of breastfeeding while white-water rafting.

  18. I breastfed my two oldest children of less than a year, but my youngest, now a strapping man of 32 with two Uni degrees, until he was nearly three. It was only in the night towards the end – he used to get out of his bed, come and nurse, then drop back to sleep in our bed. We hardly noticed he was there. At that point my mother died suddenly (I was 29), and I decided that I really didn’t want to go on nursing. I just didn’t have enough emotion for everything that was going on. So I went away for a weekend, and while I was away he just came in and snuggled with his Dad. When I came home I dug out a long nightie that didn’t have a front opening (one of my mother’s, as it happened), and the first night I was home he popped into bed, patted around a bit, then settled back into sleep beside me. That was the end. And we were both fine about it.

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