9 Things Pop Culture Gets Wrong About Extended Breastfeeding (And The Moms Who Do It)
I can't tell you how many times I baby wear one of my children, mention my midwife, or (especially) nurse my toddler and someone asks me, with an almost sly smile, "Hey, have you seen Maggie Gyllenhaal in that Away We Go movie?" I laugh and I give a little eye roll and say, "Yeah, I'm a big hippie." I'm never offended or even annoyed, really, but it's still getting a bit old. Pop culture's depictions of extended breastfeeding (which is generally defined as nursing a child past the age of 12 months) are superficial at best, usually meant to elicit a laugh or a horrified gasp.
I think we all remember where we were when we first saw Lysa Tully breastfeeding on Game of Thrones and how the internet exploded as a result. In short: pop culture almost always depicts nursing a child (older than a very small infant, anyway) as a short-handed way to reveal something about a character or story beyond that character simply breastfeeding. Often, it's indicative of a mother being a smug, "crunchy" mom or a stiflingly neurotic or fundamentally flawed on some sort of psychotic level. Sometimes, you hit the jackpot and extended breastfeeding is used to reveal all of the above.
This does a disservice to "breastfeeding culture" in America. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusively breastfeeding, when possible, to six months old and continuing to nurse until one year. The World Health Organization suggests nursing until 2 years of age. Both recommendations far surpass what most American people will see in their daily lives, since most babies are weaned before six months. So, when extended breastfeeding is portrayed as "bizarre" or "gross " or even "damaging," there's a problem; not just for the women who are currently extending their breastfeeding journey, but pregnant women who are contemplating breastfeeding and how long they're willing (and able) to breastfeed their child.
The following are a list of misconceptions about mothers (and children) who breastfeed beyond one year old, perpetuated by pop culture, that I would like to clear up and, eventually, never see again so I can breastfeed my toddler without the inevitable gasp or inappropriate question or horrified stare. I mean, a mom can dream, right?
We're Not All Hippies
Yes, Maggie Gyllenhaal's character in Away We Go was very funny. Yes, there's an element of that whole bit that rings true in some cases. But not everyone who decides to nurse beyond a year is actually a cartoonish stereotype. Do a lot of self-described hippies breastfeed toddlers? Sure! But so do a lot of parents whom you would never in a million years think of as a "flower child." Basically, stereotypes don't do anyone any good.
We're Not Creepy And Smothering And Overprotective
Just because a mother chooses to breastfeed past a particular age, doesn't mean she doesn't allow or want her children to grow up and become independent, self-sufficient human beings. Moms who nurse toddlers (or older) want their children to spread their wings, become their own person, and explore their world, the same as anyone else. Just because they occasionally come back to the breast while doing so, doesn't inhibit their development (like, at all).
We Don't Judge People Who Don't Breastfeed
Seriously: the great majority of us do. not. care. at all. You do you, we're just doing us.
Sometimes We Even Use Formula
True, some of us never used formula, but for a great deal of women who breastfeed beyond one, lots of our babies were either supplemented with formula at some point or were even combination fed breast milk and formula. Breast? Bottle? It doesn't matter: fed is best.
We're Not Doing It "Just For Ourselves"
There's this pervasive sentiment, it seems, that women who breastfeed "for a long time" are doing it to feed their own sense of self-importance. TRUST: if the child didn't want to breastfeed, they wouldn't. I say this as someone who had to kick two children off the boob because I was done. You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink, and you can lead a toddler to a boob, but you can't make them nurse.
Our Kids Are Not Spoiled Little Dictators
On the flip-side of the "extended breastfeeding is all about the mom's wants and needs," just because a child nurses past one doesn't mean they're the one calling all the shots. Sure, sometimes (though not always) there is a conflict of interests between nursing parents and their children, but it's called a "breastfeeding relationship" for a reason: both parties figure out how it works for them.
Our Kids Aren't Maladjusted Weirdos
From Robin Arryn on Game of Thrones to Harvey on Little Britain, extended breastfeeding is often used as either comedy or horror. Just like breastfeeding mothers on TV are often used as punchlines or morality tales, so are breastfeeding children and regardless of the fact that studies have shown prolonged breastfeeding has no psychological effects.
There Are Actual Benefits To Nursing Beyond One Year Old
Breastfeeding doesn't magically stop providing myriad benefits as soon as a baby hits six months to a year old. Like, no one says, "Breast is best... but after a year your milk turns into stupid juice that'll make your baby stupid!" Nursing past a year continues to provide children with nutritional benefits. (Not to mention extended breastfeeding is good for mother's health, too.)
This Isn't New Or Unique
While the trope of the "mom who breastfeeds for way too long" and "the bratty kid who breastfeeds for way too long" is relatively new (due, I am certain, in no small measure to increased rates of breastfeeding in the U.S.); around the world and throughout history, children nursed for way longer than one year old. Today, the World Health Organization recommends breastfeeding up to two years of age or beyond. In short: you're misinformed and tardy on this one, pop culture. Time to up your game.