There’s a lot of drama going on at TIME about ‘extended’ breastfeeding and whether the cover photo of a gorgeous blond mother nursing a three-plus year-old was such a great idea. Oh, how can I count the ways this bothers me? Let me start with this:
Why are we so quick to criticize ‘extended breastfeeding’ when we have no such impulse to crack down on the myriad negative ways that adults fuel their own oral fixations? Where’s the anxiety about “extended” use of alcohol, tobacco, illegal and prescription drugs, and unsafe sex and food?? I don’t think mothers who practice extended breastfeeding are narcissistic creeps and molesters. I don’t think a lot of the children who love breastfeeding are maladjusted weirdos; they just really love nursing and find it comforting in the same way that a lot of kids find thumbs and blankeys and transitional objects comfortable because, let’s face it, childhood is scary and stressful for many (and maybe most) kids. Why add shame on top of the list of things a young child has to worry about?
Any nursing mother knows you can’t force a child to breastfeed if she doesn’t want to. It’s like forcing someone to urinate. So why do we care about the tiny number of young children who, for reasons of biology or circumstance, have above-average soothing needs and a mother willing and able to indulge them? Why should we care if someone’s breastfeeding habit has gone on longer than a nosy neighbor might find appropriate? My neighbor’s drug-buying habit has gone on longer than I find appropriate!
My point is that grownups have a lot “self-soothing” habits that, unlike extended breastfeeding, can cause widespread and costly societal harm. The CDC estimates that 75,000 deaths annually are caused by alcohol, ranking third after preventable deaths from tobacco and poor diet. And that estimate is based on a level of drinking that many would consider merely a pleasant habit. Maybe if adults were less judgmental about breastfeeding mothers, and instead focused on the hypocrisy of their own oral fixations — smoking or drunk driving, for example, or hiring a sex worker for a blowjob without a condom, or even just eating way too many cheeseburgers – they might feel less inclined to criticize very young children for acting like, heaven forbid, babies?