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When I wrote last week about what it was like to appear on the cover of Time magazine, where I was pictured breastfeeding my almost 4-year-old, of course I expected negative comments. If that experience taught me one thing, it's that not everyone is in the U.S. is comfortable with nursing past the baby years.
But among those saying a year of breastfeeding is long enough for any child were the comments from others who said that picture of me normalized extended breastfeeding for them and that it gave them permission to try child-led weaning.
I'm happy that Americans are getting used to a completely new style of parenting and honored to know I've made the difference for some moms who want to try but aren't sure. I self-weaned at 6 years old, which was even more unusual back when I was a kid than it is now (and a detail Hanna Rosin included in her ridiculous Slate piece about me at the time back then, and I love that she used her platform to unintentionally normalize this, too).
I want people to know that the way I'm raising my two sons isn't new to me. It's how I was raised. But this time, it isn't my story that needs to be heard, it's my brother's.
Let me start from the beginning:
I am the youngest child in my family. My parents had my brother and sister in their early twenties and, due to a tubal ligation (and subsequent reversal), didn't have me until their mid-thirties. My mother tells me that, as a first-time parent, she was intimidated by social pressure. She remembers hiding in a closet when guests were over to breastfeed her baby. Especially when these guests pressured her to put her baby on a schedule. (I guess unsolicited advice to moms, too, has survived the ages.)
Eventually, society's pressure won and my mom started parenting her children conventionally in order to avoid social stigma and severe judgment. My sister responded to the new parenting just fine.
My parents believe that my brother's challenges would have been mediated had their responses to him been more attuned to his needs when he was young, rather than the cookie-cutter parenting of the time.
My brother, however, did not.
He was different. My mom says she saw that immediately after he was born. Nature had created his brain to be more sensitive, more high needs than that of my sister's. My parents—mostly my mother—had to fight all of her instincts and what she felt was right in order to parent my brother in a way that was culturally acceptable.
By the time I came around, my parents were older and truly believed my brother's issues, which had arisen in those 11 years between our births, would have been mitigated had they parented for his unique needs rather than society's wants.
With me, my mom did everything intuitively. She was stronger and more confident in her choices. That meant co-sleeping, child-led weaning and other practices that were unusual for the time. Dr. Sears book didn't come out until years later, so there was no name for how my parents raised me. Now, we call it Attachment Parenting, but for my parents, it was just a way of meeting my unique needs.
I grew up with siblings who really were happy that I was part of the family. They also helped raise me. My sister was 14 years older than me and when she started having babies when I was around 9, she decided to follow my mother and parent her children in a way that was healthiest for them, rather than the general parenting rules of the 1990s. My brother also had said how I was more like him than my sister, and he really thought that my parents tossing out the bullshit and narrow socially acceptable parenting really helped me thrive.
My brother struggled a lot. He said more than once, "I'm too broken to be fixed." He tried to self-medicate his OCD, ADHD and depression with illegal and prescription drugs. His addictions began to consume his existence by the time he was in his early twenties.
After his multiple overdoses, hospital stays and watching my parents do everything in their power to try to get him well, I remember thinking, as a child, how I wasn't sure how he could come out of this alive. I was his baby sister and close to him in a different way than my older sister was. I had a different perspective. My sister, our parents, never lost hope, and I think that is one of the most heartbreaking realizations for me as I write this.
I associate the Time cover and child-led weaning with the overall issue of social stigmas of parenting.
I remember the day it happened still so vividly. I was in Carmel, Calif., with my parents. My mom and dad had already spoken to my brother several times that day, as they usually had. My mom was asking my dad on the last call how he sounded. She was worried, as usual, and my dad hid his concern, trying convince my mom (and probably himself) that he sounded much better. My brother and father had made plans to go on a Colorado fly-fishing trip together, and the hope and excitement in my dad's voice still sticks with me.
The three of us had gone out to dinner and came home to frantic calls from my sister. My brother had been shot six times in the head by the police. It was a suicide by cop. He had even left a note on his printer that named each one of us and said how much he loved us but that his brain was broken and life was unbearable.
I was 14 at the time. For a couple of months after his death, I slept between my parents in their bed. They welcomed me in, and it was therapeutic to be somewhere I had associated with being so safe since childhood. I would wake up in the middle of the night to my father, this large masculine man weeping so deeply that it seemed to come to the core of his being. The entire bed shook enough to rock me back to sleep.
Even though my parents were always supportive of child-led weaning and other stigmatized healthy parenting practices, it was only after my brother's death that their sorrow led them to heavily scrutinize the social stigmas and the ignorance. My parents believe that my brother's challenges would have been mediated had their responses to him been more attuned to his needs when he was young, rather than the cookie-cutter parenting of the time.
Of course, they are also well aware that his fate could have been the same, regardless. What they have to live with, though, is knowing that they knew what was right for them at the time and, rather than allowing their parenting mistakes to be their own, they allowed an apathetic society, caring only about the glazed over superficial aspects of family, dictate how they would raise their child.
Now he's gone, and they don't get that time back.
So, for me, this is about much more than breastfeeding. I associate the Time cover and child-led weaning with the overall issue of social stigmas of parenting. Perpetuating these stigmas as a society, while many (maybe even Rosin?) think is benign, is actually so damaging to us all. We are a social species by nature, and we need community and support to survive.
As my mom says, "Those people who are judging you and mocking you won't be there when the coroner shows up."
It's interesting how this sort of shaming tactic is use most commonly on women ('attention whore' sounds a lot worse than an 'attention pimp' ).
The truth is, there are many ways to parent well. Every family needs to find the one that works best for their family's needs.
The year the Time cover came out, I met with the police officer who shot my brother. It was important for me to talk to him about what happened and hear his own grieving process. Through our conversation, I was encouraged to follow the path that had been laid out for me after the dust of the media coverage was settling. Breastfeeding was a conversation that needed to take a back seat to some of the other work I was doing.
That image of me breastfeeding though? It opened doors.
Through this conversation, I had access to media. So I dove into shining the spotlight onto the global aid projects in Ethiopia, South Africa and Uganda. Every single connection I made due to the coverage of the cover was exploited to garner awareness and funds for those specific projects and of which I will write about in this space in the coming weeks and months.
Before that, though, what I want to leave you with two very important things I have learned in the past three years, since my day of infamy:
1. Parent for your child's needs rather than society's wants
Society is not going to be there when things get tough. Allow your mistakes to be your own.
2. Attention is not a bad thing
It's interesting how this sort of shaming tactic is use most commonly on women ("attention whore" sounds a lot worse than an "attention pimp" ). It is just another way our patriarchal society tries to scare people into doing what they want. That sort of accusation gets spouted off whenever someone is doing something that is challenging the norm and gaining traction. Promoting something you believe in and receiving attention for this is not, in and of itself, a bad thing. Again, as a social species, we need attention and interaction. If you really want to take it to the next level, understand that some narcissistic traits are actually healthy for a well-rounded human (not the old school diagnosis narcissistic personality disorder, which is much different and very unhealthy!).