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Extended Nursing and Extended Family

Photograph by Getty Images

I’m always stressed at holiday time. Who isn’t, right? There’s all the rushing around, the shopping, and the extra items on my to do list that haunt all my free time. This year we are upping the ante by adding cross-country travel to the mix. My stress level has increased exponentially. And it’s not just the 4-hour flight with two children under 5 that has me shaking with anxiety. It’s being surrounded by extended family for four straight days and having to deal with breast-feeding.

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It was one thing to take my babies to relatives’ houses where I could grab my nursing cover and go to a back bedroom. Certainly that was stressful because I wasn’t exactly comfortable with my Great Uncle Henry accidentally walking in and having to endure the uncomfortable bluster of apologies for intruding. And it wasn’t exactly relaxing to finally sit down to the big holiday meal only to have my babies wailing to nurse.

But now it feels even more complicated. I’m still nursing my son, who is almost 3. I have no idea what my extended relatives think about this practice, but I am spending a fair amount of time projecting that at least one of them will think that 1) it’s weird; 2) it’s gross; or 3) it’s inappropriate to nurse a child who can walk right up to me and say, in perfect English, “Mama, I want to nurse.”

I get a pit in my stomach when I think about how I will feel when my son yells across the room that he’d like to nurse.

Our extended family spans several generations, so it’s not hard to picture a set of pursed lips or a question or two about how (and why) I am still breast-feeding my son. Even if those comments are made with the best of intentions, I am nervous about how to deal with them.

Of course, I believe in my decision to continue breast-feeding for the foreseeable future, and I trust that my extended family will respect my decision even if they don’t understand it. But I get a pit in my stomach when I think about how I will feel when my son yells across the room that he’d like to nurse. It’s not the same as when he yells it across Target for lots of random strangers to hear. There’s something about being exposed in front of my family—literally and figuratively—that makes it feel harder.

The truth is that this would not be a source of stress if I were more secure; I wouldn’t have that jittery feeling at the thought of my family learning that I’ve chosen to breast-feed my son into his third year of life. And I’m insecure because I want to fit in with my family—and they are not extended breast-feeding types of people. In the context of my extended family, this practice makes me an outlier, and that’s not the role I want at the holidays. At almost 40 years old, I probably shouldn’t be so concerned about fitting in with my family. But there’s something about traveling home for “the big meal” that we’ve had every year since I was born that makes me want to be just like everyone else at the table. I don’t want to stick out, or be political, controversial, or make anyone uncomfortable with my bare breast—I just want to be one of the family.

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And at this time of year, I need all the stress reduction I can get. I need to save my energy for corralling children during the long flights and eating my grandmother’s famous pecan pie. At this point, I am praying to just trust my decisions and answer any questions honestly and gracefully. And in the end, it’s possible no one will even notice and all this anxiety will be for naught.

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