I was contacted recently by a television producer from LA who was looking for people to take part in a documentary she is making about extended breastfeeding. I was excited, flattered, and… a little wary. Depending how it’s handled, the women on the programme could end up looking like amazing mothers or absolute freaks. I answered the producer’s questions and then added a couple of my own… But really, I knew I wouldn’t get picked.
Television producers are out to make eye-catching television shows — no doubt this producer was looking for extended-breastfeeders who were militant, activist, perhaps shaking an angry fist. They’re not looking for women like me — I’m still breastfeeding E2 as she nears her third birthday partly because of a medical need (to supplement her severely restricted diet) but mostly… well… just because we’ve never stopped. It’s really nothing more exciting than that. I still changing her nappies every day, which I’ve been doing since the day she was born. I still dress her and bathe her and lift her in and out of her cot (crib), as I’ve done since the day she was born. And, two or three times a day, we breastfeed, just as we’ve done since she was born. It doesn’t feel weird and it doesn’t feel radical… it feels perfectly normal. It’s just what we do, same as we’ve always done. And that’s probably pretty boring television.
But if that television producer focuses on only the freaky of extended breastfeeding, she’s going to miss out something much, much better. It’s quiet and subtle — so soft I hardly noticed it at all — but it is really worth noticing. The best thing about extended breastfeeding — the real surprise of it — is that it is wonderful, and wonderful because it is the kind of bonding time that mothers of newborns always hope for, but never quite get. When my daughters were newborns, breastfeeding them was (cue script) amazing, of course, but it had a certain… a certain one-sidedness to it. Sometimes it felt that the love — much like the milk — was flowing only one way. I fed and I loved, I cuddled and I stroked, and my baby noticed nothing more than the breast. There were days when I felt like a milk-machine: the baby demanded, I produced, the baby demanded, I produced, endlessly, endlessly …and I wanted something more. I wanted something more from my baby.
It came — eventually — in dribs and drabs: a little eye-contact, and then deep, meaningful gazes — a connection at last! And then, one day, smiles, and then giggles during feedings, and cuddles that went both ways. That feeling of being nothing more than a walking milky-bar began to slowly fade. And it’s just at this point — just as it’s all about to get so much better — that so many mothers are told it’s time they weaned their babies.
Feeding a toddler is completely different from feeding a baby. For a start, all that panicked frenzy for milk is gone and, in its place, we’re in a nice, easy routine that we both understand. We feed at home, at the same times every day, and it’s rare for E2 to ask for her milk otherwise (indeed, on those rare occasions when she does, it’s a sure sign that she’s coming down with something). And she’s really good at feeding now — where she used to take an hour to get the milk she needed, she can now do the same job in 15 minutes. Breastfeeding a toddler is just so much easier than feeding a baby — like night and day.
But the real change is something far more significant than those purely practical considerations. The real change is quiet joy. A toddler, by her nature, rarely stops moving — if her mother gets a kiss, it’s fleeting; a hug is a violent bodyblow before the whirling dervish whirls off again. Life with a toddler is constant movement, never-ending noise — it is exhausting. Quiet does not exist… except when we’re breastfeeding. It’s only then that all the chaos and the wild energy stops, when my daughter crawls up into my arms, and snuggles against me, rests her head on my arm, and we spend that little time just being together.
I sing to her while she feeds. She smiles — skilled enough now to smile without dribbling. We hold hands, walk our fingertips together, and trace shapes on each others’ palms. I momentarily forget the lyrics and she pulls off, corrects me sternly, and then latches back on. Sometimes she stops feeding and sings to me — a whole song from beginning to end — before returning to her milk. I ask her questions while she feeds, and she tries to answer them, still feeding and mouth full and sounding ridiculously indecipherable. It makes me smile… The whole thing makes me smile. Breastfeeding has become a time we truly share, a few short windows of quiet and togetherness that punctuate our chaotic days. She loves to be held, I love to feel her body-weight on mine, to stroke the soft fullness of her cheeks, to smell her hair. When she falls asleep, I look at her face — so relaxed, eyes closed, rosebud mouth open, her breath slow and rhythmic, her smell so sweet… and for a moment, she is a newborn again.
This is nothing freaky. It’s a mother and a daughter doing what they’ve always done, and finding that’s it changed and become better as time has gone on. You could never capture that change on film — and, even if you did, it probably wouldn’t interesting television, and so that producer won’t be emailing me back. But I wish she could capture it, I wish people could understand what it is.
Because the extended breastfeeding story that I’ve got… it’s nothing short of beautiful.