The following post is the first of a series of excerpts adapted from Unlatched: The Evolution of Breastfeeding and the Making of a Controversy by Jennifer Grayson, which will be out from HarperCollins on July 5 (available here).
In 2012, the May 21 issue of Time magazine hit the newsstands and promptly set off a media firestorm that lasted for weeks and beyond. On its cover, an attractive blonde named Jamie Lynn Grumet breastfed her nearly four-year-old son, who though tall for his age, posed on a stool to latch on. The boy stared back into the camera, breast in mouth, as though he had merely been interrupted helping himself to a glass of chocolate milk from the fridge.
I was nursing an eighteen-month-old at the time (though mostly in private and definitely not on magazine covers). By this juncture, I had come to believe that breastfeeding a child into toddlerhood, while outside the norm, was certainly not abnormal. If anything, it was natural. Anthropological evidence supports a biological weaning age for humans that is anywhere from two and a half to seven years of age. My friends and family, however, didn't give a hoot about anthropological evidence. My husband, Matthew, begged me to promise that I wouldn't still be breastfeeding our daughter, Izzy, at the age of four. My mother and brother teasingly warned that I would be on the next cover of Time with Izzy climbing up for a drink. The consensus among my friends was no better: Breastfeeding for years, not months, is insane!
The American media -- and, by and large, public opinion -- concurred. And it wasn't only the Time magazine cover that stirred up controversy. By 2012, everything that had to do with breastfeeding was stirring up controversy. "Breast is best" may have been deposited into our national consciousness, and it may finally have become consensus in the medical establishment, yet still, we all felt pretty conflicted, even queasy, about breastfeeding. Seemingly each day (or was I now simply more aware since I was breastfeeding a toddler?), another breastfeeding blowup found its way into the headlines: "Facebook Removes Photos of Women Breastfeeding, Citing Content as 'Offensive'!" "Michelle Obama and Michele Bachmann Come to Blows on the Politics of Breast Pumps!" "Gisele Bündchen Reveals Breastfeeding Selfie on Instagram!" Even the release of scientific breastfeeding studies sent thousands of commenters running to the message boards, as women proclaimed themselves either "lactivists" or proud bottle-feeders, each camp pointing fingers at the other.
I, too, was conflicted. Up to this point, breastfeeding my daughter had felt right, but I also didn't feel completely comfortable with the prospect of one day breastfeeding a four-year-old. Then again, I wasn't ready to wean, even though I was expecting again. Pregnant and exhausted, it was pretty great having an excuse to lie down and get cozy with my otherwise unstoppably active toddler. And given my past health struggles, it certainly didn't seem like a bad idea to give her the two full years of nursing recommended by WHO for her optimal health. My doctor gave me the go-ahead to continue breastfeeding, although she explained that the few children still nursing at this time ordinarily stop by themselves because hormones later in pregnancy can change the taste of the milk. Perfect, I thought. Izzy will wean herself right around the two-year mark.
But Izzy didn't. Not only was she still nursing as the pregnancy wore on, she seemed to find her Milky more delicious than ever. Her second birthday came and went, and then it didn't seem fair to wean my daughter just a couple of months shy of the birth of her new baby sister. After all, I didn't want her to resent the new addition to our family. Like all parents about to welcome a new sibling, I was determined to do anything to ensure the transition would be harmonious. The tantrums, of course, got worse.
"That's because she's two years old and still sucking a f---ing boob!" my husband exploded, hurling his familiar refrain to explain why our daughter -- now a full-blown Terrible Two -- was throwing tantrums daily. He and I had opposing philosophies on the subject: his, that Izzy was old enough to deal with her emotions herself and that we were approaching freak show territory with the nursing; mine, that our daughter had been on earth for only two short years, and that she was dealing with anxiety about her new sister on the way and was still too little to "sort things out" without the comfort of her mommy. To compromise, we had attempted to place limits on her nursing, saving it for morning, naptime, and bedtime. But clearly, the approach wasn't working. At every outburst, she would scream, "MILK-Y! MILK-Y! I WANT MILK-Y!" then launch herself toward my breast for consolation.
We agonized over the situation. Why were we putting her through what was, to her, a premature termination of breastfeeding? In the grand scheme of things, would a few extra months of nursing really make a difference? Were we permissive parents, ignoring cultural norms that seemed to work perfectly fine for everyone else? But just how "normal" were those norms in reality?
Save for the terrible twos, we knew our daughter to be a wonderful child -- compassionate and confident, bright and beloved by all who knew her. It appeared we were doing something right. After the heat of a tantrum had passed, Matthew usually agreed.
But inevitably we would go through a week of particularly bad tantrums or a string of sleepless nights when, for whatever developmental reason, Izzy would awake at four in the morning shrieking for MILKY! at the top of her lungs. Then the battle about the breast would start all over again.
Suddenly, with the birth of our second daughter Mika, our family was four. I was becoming reconciled to the fact that I would be simultaneously breastfeeding a newborn and a Terrible Two in full tantrum mode, an arrangement known as tandem nursing (it's called that without the tantrums, too). How I would explain this to the curious, the naysayers, and even the appalled was another thing altogether.
More excerpts from Unlatched: The Evolution of Breastfeeding and the Making of a Controversy to come. Copyright © 2016 Jennifer Grayson. Reprinted with permission from HarperCollins.