It’s been about a year-and-a-half since I’ve nursed my daughter. She is now three-and-a-half, well-adjusted yet prone to emotional outbursts, as many young children are. She also does and says things that are hilarious and worthy of being written in the book I am curating for her – a baby book of memories. I didn’t know it was going to become a thing.
“Hey nipple, nipple, nipple,” she says, flicking my nipple with her fingers as I am about to get into the shower. She pets my breast and baby-talks to it like it’s the cutest puppy she’s ever seen.
It is at once amusing and embarrassing. I’m not sure what to do here. This is my first parenting rodeo. What are the social norms? And are the social norms the ones we should be perpetuating? Years ago, a child would be told to stop, hand slapped away. Breasts are a person’s private parts. I open my mouth to begin that lesson.
But I stop myself. Breasts are such a natural thing. We are born with them and they have a use – a miraculous use. I don’t want my daughter to have weird associations, and I don’t want her to be ashamed. After all, men can walk around bare-chested without a second thought. In fact, this is something she recently asked about.
“Why are men’s breasts so small? Can I take my shirt off? I’m hot. You’re hot, mommy, take your shirt off. You’ll feel better.”
When she is emotional, she cuddles into me in the all-encompassing hug of the young – full body-on-body contact. When she is particularly fraught, she sticks her arm down the collar of my shirt. She places her tiny hand on my breast and her breathing slows and settles. Her heaving sobs stop. It relaxes her. She feels safe.
I was not breastfed myself. In New York in the late 70s and 80s, women worked and formula became popular, owing to its effectiveness and convenience. I never thought I would breastfeed. I actually never thought much about it. I was not exposed to breastfeeding at all.
Fast-forward 30-plus years: I lived in Seattle. The natural earth-mother community is strong there, and I hopped on board. Once I was pregnant, I thought, yes, I will breastfeed. I heard gruesome stories about breastfeeding difficulties and hoped I wouldn’t struggle.
Despite a terribly colicky infant, breastfeeding went on without a hitch. Nursing was, in fact, the only way to quiet my incessantly crying baby. I enjoyed it more than I thought I would.
When I was at the end of my mental tether and the echoes of her cries filled my every minute, I could quiet us both by breastfeeding. Airplanes, restaurants, day-time and middle-of-the-night – it was our quick-fix. I loved that I could provide this for her. In a way, my breasts were the reason I survived the postpartum blues and colic-hell I experienced after my daughter was born.
I nursed her for about two years. We weaned in the typical graduated manner: first putting a stop to nighttime feeds, then the pre- or post-nap nursing sessions, and eventually whittling feedings down to twice a day, then once. After I left for a weekend away, we were done. I put my shirt back on, and instantly, my breasts became off-limits.
Try this with anything else and you will understand how difficult that kind of bisection can be.
We expect that a child’s relationship to their mother’s breasts should cease. We would never take away a plush lovey in the same way. But children “of a certain age” are expected to stop nursing and thereby sever all ties from the thing that provided sustenance and comfort in the first years of their lives.
As my preschooler daughter still gravitates toward my breasts, what should I do? What is appropriate? And who defines “appropriate?” I am not making a case for when to stop breastfeeding. Some don’t breastfeed at all, some do for a few months, a year, or several years, and I believe all of those approaches are acceptable. But are we really expected to end the relationship between our child and our breasts in such a stark manner?
For now, I allow her to rest her hands on my breast if she feels she needs comfort. After several “here nipple, nipple, nipple” moments, I’ve explained that breasts are generally considered part of a person’s private parts. I’ve taught her that she is the captain of her own body, and we’ve had the discussion about private parts and genitals, and who can and cannot touch them. I explain that, in public, I’d rather her not touch my breasts.
My daughter is still really young. Eventually, she will reach an age where my body does not bring her the comfort she seeks. I don’t wish for that to come any sooner than it has to.