Before I had a baby, I never thought twice about breastfeeding. Sure, I knew it existed, just as I knew formula existed, but I'd never spent any time thinking about either one. When I was 26, I moved to Tanzania, where, amidst a lot of culture shock, I met my future husband. One day, I went to a village church. I remember trying to listen, but, not understanding Swahili well, my eyes roamed the pews. I spotted a young mother with an infant, and when he started to cry, she pulled out her breast and he began sucking. I tried not to stare, but I was bewildered. Tanzania women dress more conservatively than I was used to; how could women dress so modestly yet breastfeed in public, let alone a church? It bugged me; I still saw the breast as a purely sexual object, and to ignorant me, that seemed hypocritical. Now I look back at all the women I saw breastfeeding in Tanzania and I feel glad, because being in that environment before I had a child had introduced breastfeeding to me without me even realizing it. Now, I look back with great respect at the mothers nursing squirming babies on crowded buses, or while farming, or running errands. I just never imagined I would be one of them.
My daughter Grace was born a few weeks early; the first 24 hours were confusing. I knew I was supposed to breastfeed, but I didn't know anything about colostrum or if I was doing it right or that the baby could still be getting something from my breasts even if my milk hadn't "arrived." That first night, the nurse muttered demands in Swahili at me as I panicked and said I didn't want any formula, but somehow was intimidated into giving my baby some anyways -- which bewildered me completely, as I had assumed formula was a nonissue in a country where breastfeeding was so prevalent. That was just one of many naïve assumptions I made.
A few weeks after Grace was born -- after an afternoon spent in a cramped shop, sweating, as we took her passport photos, followed by a visit to the U.S. Embassy -- we moved back to the United States. It was my first time nursing on a plane, and I didn't know yet that women around the world were being told to cover themselves or, worse, not nurse at all on planes. Since then, I have nursed many, many times on flights. In fact, until my daughter was almost two, she nursed during take-off (and sometimes landing too) to alleviate pressure on her ears, sort of like the effect of chewing gum. I never had anyone say anything to me, but I was always paranoid. It was so frustrating, and exhausting, to try and cover up in a cramped airplane seat while a squirming baby-turned-toddler nursed and peeked around and I worried, unnecessarily, that someone might get a glimpse of my bare breast. It was almost a relief when my toddler stopped needing to nurse on the plane. Actually, I take that back: it was COMPLETELY a relief.
Breastfeeding for me was about navigating the unknown. None of my close friends, siblings or cousins had babies yet. I was completely figuring out things on the fly. I still remember the shock when my breasts turned to bowling balls as my milk came in, when I was still in the hospital recovering from my C-section. I remember the sheer agony that came with the beginning of breastfeeding, as my nipples felt raw and I thought they were surely to going to fall off. I slathered lanolin, used hot compresses, and cried every time Grace needed to nurse. That passed, too. As she approached a year old and teeth continued to sprout, sometimes she would bite me as she nursed, or to punctuate the end of a nursing session. Often I would cry out, or spend the nursing session in fear of the possible bite. Sometimes she drew blood.
I had no idea that kids could be sensitive to food traces in your breastmilk; while we were lucky to avoid allergies, I voluntarily abstained from anything caffeinated (have you ever been the mom of a newborn while avoiding coffee? If so, you are invincible!). I also had to avoid any citrus, which seemed to make Grace incredibly cranky. I'd spent my pregnancy surrounded by mango and pineapple and amazing juices in Tanzania, so it was a shock to have to cut that out. This summer is really my first summer being able to have citrus, and so I drink lemonade everyday. So no, nursing was not always easy, and it's probably good I didn't always know what to expect. As I ventured into the world of extended breastfeeding, I found fewer and fewer friends or relatives who'd experienced that. It was always something of a relief to meet another mom who still nursed a toddler; the feeling of normalization should never be underrated. But the truth is that the benefits of breastfeeding were so tangible that I didn't need it normalized in order to do it; there are so many sweet memories of nursing, of getting a moment's peace while cuddling, of bonding and connecting and looking into her eyes. I've watched her thrive, and I feel proud for what I have done. It's worth doing just even for the amazing connection you make with your child.
I wish I had been more open about my nursing from day one. At my rehearsal dinner I sat in a toilet in the bathroom as my 5-month-old nursed. At my wedding I snuck away to nurse in my hotel room upstairs. In my own home, I nursed wearing a coverup if anyone was around. Eventually, I stopped covering up, but it took a long time to get there. When a friend has a baby, I gingerly try to see if they're able to breastfeed and to offer support. If appropriate, I mention that I'm still nursing. Because the thing is, nursing can be really hard and strange, but it's worth doing anyways. I wish I'd had friends who were experienced, to whom I could have asked questions or nursed freely around without them feeling freaked out at the sight of my breast. But oh! How your views of breasts change once you become a mother. My view of my body in general changed, too. I stopped seeing my role as meant to please others, including my looks. I realized how amazing my body was, for carrying and delivering and nursing and loving a baby. My body became my own. Although, on that note, it was a revelation when someone introduced me to the term "touched-out." After nursing and co-sleeping and, in general being a parent practicing AP and RIE, sometimes I felt touched-out, with the need to reclaim my body and personal space. There became a need to balance my own needs with my child's.
I don't talk often about nursing my 2-year-old, mostly because we live in a society that shames breastfeeding, particularly extended, and most of my friends are childless anyways. But here's why I'm glad to still be breastfeeding:
- My daughter is almost never sick. When she does get ill, she recovers quickly (faster than the rest of the family). This is likely due to the great antibodies provided in breastmilk! And when she is sick, nursing helps ensure that she is getting fluids.
- Now that I have gone back to work full-time, it is more important than ever to connect with her. She is a busy, active kid, but she loves nursing at bed time.
- I like to think I'm setting a precedent in normalizing breastfeeding for my friends and family. Some probably think I'm weird, which is fine, but I will continue to inform those who want to know more, support those who do nurse, and hope that I've blazed a path others feel comfortable to tread.
- It encourages me to value what I eat and drink, since it affects my daughter via breastmilk. This is how I quit soda, stick to organic when possible, and abstain from artificial colors and flavors. It encourages me to try new foods, like spicy curries or zesty salads, because I know she benefits from new flavors too.
- Breast cancer runs in my family,and studies show that breastfeeding (especially extended breastfeeding) can help lower women's risk.
- Milk produced by women lactating for over a year has greater fat content, which is perfect since young children need (healthy) fat for various reasons.
- I continue to take prenatal vitamins, which helps my body and transfers nutrients to my daughter via breastmilk, although breastmilk has so many built-in nutrients (like 60 percent of a kid's vitamin C needs, not to mention an important source of Vitamin A).
There are myriad other reasons, which a simple Google search can drum up, but mostly I hope during World Breastfeeding Week (August 1-7) we are able to have a dialogue that acknowledges that breastfeeding past the age of 1 is normal, and healthy, and wonderful -- not weird or sexual or gross. It is strange that while the American Academy of Pediatrics and World Health Organization fully endorse extended breastfeeding, culturally we have so far to go. But I'm hopeful. And I'm here.
This post is part of HuffPost Parents' World Breastfeeding Week series. For more from the series, click here.