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Extended Nursing Doesn't Make Me a Pedophile

Photograph by Getty Images

"Speaking of pedophiles, are you still nursing your 4-year-old son?" asked one of my male friends. His tone was jokey, but the word "pedophile" landed like a fist to my teeth. We hadn't been talking about pedophilia; we'd been talking about Bill Cosby.

My reaction was stunned silence.

"Just kidding," he said, when it became clear I didn't think the "joke" was funny.

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He was not the first person to react to my extended nursing. Plenty of people raise their eyebrows when they learn I'm nursing a child old enough to ask for milk. Where initially friends and colleagues praised me for making it to the six-month mark, by the time my son was 2, I got plenty of comments like, "You're going to stop soon, right?"

You know, before it gets "weird."

Now my son is 4, and we're still at it, though we've tapered to about two minutes every other night. (Confession: He's actually 4 and 1/2.)

In all other respects, my family and I are mostly average. We did a smattering of co-sleeping and a touch of cry-it-out; we have limited screen time and occasional trips to McDonald's; we have a garden but don't buy organic at the grocery store.

We're middle of the road all the way, except for this nursing thing.

To say that extended nursing is not common in the United States in a staggering understatement. The American Academy of Pediatrics currently recommends that babies be exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life and suggests that babies "should continue to breastfeed for a year and as long as mutually desired by the mother and the baby." UNICEF recommends that mothers breastfeed "up to 2 years of age." According to KellyMom.com, in 2008, less than 10 percent of mothers were still breastfeeding their children at 18 months.

The topic is impossible to discuss because the air is so polluted with judgments and projections that I'm thrust into the role of educator or defender, when I don't want to be either.

It is more common abroad for mothers to nurse beyond the first year of a child's life. The worldwide average for weaning is just over 4 years old. That's good news for someone in Madagascar, but for someone smack in the American Midwest, that's not very helpful.

Being an extended nurser is not something I go around advertising because, frankly, people think it's unusual at best and criminal at worst. In fact, none of my extended family members know I'm still nursing. In a recent trip home, I tensed up when I thought my son was about to ask to nurse. Instead, he got distracted by a Spider-Man toy, and I dodged an awkward conversation with my parents and my brother that would have put my breasts front and center.

The thing is, I'm not up for being a poster child, straw woman, scapegoat or some phantasmagoric combination of all three for other people's feelings about mothers' breasts and the practice of breastfeeding. It was hard enough to discuss breastfeeding when my son was a baby, when I felt universally supported in breastfeeding. Nurses, co-workers, deli clerks and a very nurturing Gap sales woman all high-fived my efforts to breastfeed my infant son.

But now that he's older, the topic is impossible to discuss because the air is so polluted with judgments and projections that I'm thrust into the role of educator or defender, when I don't want to be either.

But this guy called me a pedophile. I had to say something.

What, though?

I used to imagine what other people thought about my nursing. I projected that they thought I was infantilizing my son, spoiling him or setting him up for a lifetime of narcissism. Worse, I was going to turn him into an insatiable sex addict with a breast fetish—a real "boob guy" whose extended nursing crippled his ability to have healthy relationships.

I was able to project those messages on to other people because they were echoes of my fears. I, after all, am a product of this culture, and I've absorbed plenty of messages—some of them toxic—about mothers, sexuality, breasts and desire. Also, there is so little information about extended nursing and so few real life examples that I've struggled to counter-balance the negative with positive images and associations.

I wasn't going to fight the breastfeeding battle with him. I fight hard enough with myself.

I never planned to nurse this long. My mother didn't breastfeed, and I didn't embark on motherhood with a focused mission to blow past my son's first birthday four times over.

We ended up here because it's still working for us, and my parenting style tends toward an "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" pragmatism. But that doesn't mean that I don't have concerns and reservations about the choices I'm making, especially when I'm in a tiny minority of American mothers who choose extended nursing.

I wasn't about to tell him about how I tried to wean a few months ago—probably too abruptly—and my son's agonized wails make the walls shake and broke me like nothing else I've done in all my mothering.

None of that was any of this guy's business.

Here's what I said to him: "Thank you for supporting my choices. It's a lonely road that a lot of people misunderstand."

It was his turn for stunned silence.

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I wasn't going to fight the breastfeeding battle with him. I fight hard enough with myself. I've got nothing left for people who want to open the conversation by calling me a criminal. I'm not going to change his mind anyway, so I figured I'd tell him a bit about my experience—that sometimes it's lonely feeling like the only one.

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