I was totally cool with nursing a toddler. Everything I had ever read indicated that nursing beyond the age of 2 is biologically normal, acceptable and even preferable. I was able to test this out for myself when my 2-year-old son was hospitalized with pneumonia. My antibody-rich breast milk helped to sustain him when he refused all other food or drink. I was so glad I hadn't weaned him before that, and the doctors and nurses agreed. I decided then and there that I would continue to nurse him through the next cold and flu season if he still wanted to.
He did, and I did.
There was one thing I wasn't going to do, however. I wasn't going to nurse him in public. Nursing an infant was hard enough for a prude like me who feels shy in v-necks. Forget about nursing a "walkie-talkie," as my family calls toddlers, out and about. I wasn't too keen on inviting the stares of strangers who might be judging me silently or taking pictures without my knowledge and using social media to shame me. (This is something that happens daily on Twitter and Facebook, even to moms of small infants.)
I didn't think this goal would be difficult to achieve. After all, nursing toddlers breastfeed far less than infants. They are eating solid food, drinking from a cup. Nursing is a supplemental activity, like drinking a nutrient-rich smoothie or taking a vitamin. Only it has the bonus of being comforting too. I figured after the age of 18 months, with nursing only happening three to four times a day at most, setting limits wouldn't be an issue.
And it wasn't. Until it was.
Since the world doesn't always operate on my family's timetable, there were times I was in self-imposed exile. Like during my aunt's wedding, which coincided with nap time. Weekly church services. Parties. I don't want to complain, because certainly no one told me to leave the room. I did it to myself. But I do hate that I took myself out of activities I enjoyed and where my company was welcome just out of the fear I felt over making other people uncomfortable.
And I really hate that it makes people uncomfortable. I've talked about it before, but do you know what mothers were doing before rubber nipples were commonplace and readily available? They were rocking the SKIN NIPPLES that grow on their bodies. Nursing whenever, wherever. Infants. Toddlers.
I've been looking at pictures and paintings from bygone eras, mostly the Victorian era through the Great Depression, and all the nursing moms have one thing in common: Lack of shame.
I didn't think that I could ever rid myself of shame though. I'd nursed in enough dirty bathrooms, fitting rooms, freezing cold and scalding hot cars and other people's bedrooms to think that the time for me to develop a thicker skin and a prouder attitude had passed.
All that changed at the LEGOLAND Discovery Center in Atlanta, Georgia when we visited over Christmas. The center closes at 9:00 p.m., and tickets are half-price after 4:00 p.m. We got there a little after 5:30 and we wanted to make sure all four of the children had ample opportunity to play. My littlest guy, like most toddlers, isn't always predictable. Sometimes, he can go and go like a little Energizer Bunny, keeping pace with the older kids, and other times, not so much. I have a back pack carrier I use for those tired times.
When he got fussy around 8:30 I tried distraction, snuggles and walking him around in the carrier to no avail. He was ready for his nighttime routine, and for us, that includes nursing. And I had a decision to make. Do I make a production out of gathering up the older children, which could actually take until closing, while the 2-year-old cries, disturbing those around him? Do I wander around an unfamiliar mall in an strange city trying to find a more discreet place to nurse my son?
I found a bench and sat down at one end, close to the wall surrounding one of the rides. I sat him on my lap, facing me, his legs straddling mine like a horsey ride. I quickly lifted my shirt, latched him on and held him close so his body covered the bulk of my exposed flesh. He leaned his face to the side, against my chest, and let my milk calm him.
I chose to meet my child's needs. Without shame. Right where I was. At the LEGOLAND Discovery Center.
I looked up. There was a woman looking... at me? At her phone? Was she using social media to complain about what she was seeing?
For once, I decided to not care.