In Mongolia, it is said that “the best wrestlers are breast-fed for at least six years.” I have chosen to breast-feed — with little expectation that my son will become a wrestler — since I gave birth more than four years ago. I have breast-fed him through infancy and toddlerhood, beginning nursery school and moving across the world.
Giving birth transforms women. It makes us into mothers, whether we are young or old, married or not, no matter what languages we speak or beliefs we hold. Motherhood is often referenced as a “special club,” but it is less a club among mothers than an unbreakable bond between us and the children we bear.
Motherhood inspires strong opinions because our lives are, suddenly and irrevocably, reoriented toward rearing our children. We want not only the best upbringing, but a better world for them. We all know about the “mommy wars,” in which mothers decry one another’s parenting choices and styles. By bringing life into the world, we are tossed into the middle of the battleground.
From the moment my son arrived in 2014, small, wrinkled and pink, I didn’t know what to do but to love him and breast-feed him. He inched himself up my chest, latched on and promptly fell asleep. He was an all-night-nursing baby and we quickly fell into a rhythm of what is commonly called “attachment parenting.” He cried if I put him down, and cooed in a ball of warmth on my chest. He slept peacefully when my husband carried him on long walks, lulled by the twin beats of their hearts.
I wasn’t taught to breast-feed. It was my body’s most basic response to having a newborn; we are mammals after all. Still, I immediately saw breast-feeding as a gift to nourish and comfort my child. It was demanding and exhausting. But it calmed and reassured him. As he grew longer and fatter, and began to laugh, I swelled with pride. I never imagined something that felt so natural to both of us would turn into a fight over my body in public life.
I was asked to leave a local cafe in our Berlin neighborhood, the city in which my son was born, when I breast-fed my infant publicly. On the other side of the Atlantic, my sister was asked by a cafe owner if she could breast-feed her baby daughter in the bathroom or basement, because other customers “appeared uncomfortable” with her “display.”
And it wasn’t only in public. There were plenty of times in private spaces that unsolicited opinions reared their ugly heads. From the time my son turned 6 months old, I was cautioned to stop breast-feeding. “It is time,” many friends and family members told me, “that’s why he isn’t sleeping through the night.” “He has to learn.” “This is going to ruin your life.” “He will never be independent.”
By the time he started walking, when he was 1, some family members, friends and even acquaintances asked me when I would stop breast-feeding. Some suggested a (seemingly random) appropriate age — 1, 2 or 3 years — and others listed milestones that would automatically age him out of the breast-feeding club (“when he can talk,” “when he’s in school”).
We moved back to the United States so I could finish my PhD. I went to the doctor, who prescribed me antibiotics for an infection. I asked if they were safe to take while breast-feeding a 2-year-old. She cupped her hand around her ear as though she’d misheard. “A 2-month-old?” she asked. I shook my head as she shook hers.
“Don’t worry,” our pediatrician assured me, not long after. “Soon you will want to stop breast-feeding and you will come to me for advice.” A dentist insisted that breast-feeding was ruining my toddler’s teeth (despite the fact that there were no signs of decay).
Their words didn’t change my choices, but they unsettled me. As time went on, and I continued to breast-feed, I chose not to tell doctors, many friends or colleagues. At times, I even used the past tense when I talked about breast-feeding, even though it was still very much a part of my present.
I was caught in a strange tug of war between my gut, which told me to continue to breast-feed my son, and the reactions of people around me, including experts in the medical field. This is particularly ironic because of the well-documented medical benefits of breast-feeding. I was versed in all of the statistics, because I had worked in the nutrition division of an international organization that advises women to breast-feed their babies until they are at least 2 years old (as the World Health Organization also recommends). I had vowed to myself that I would breast-feed until my son turned 2.
Two came and went. We, too, came and went, moving across the world, living in four countries and seven cities by the time he turned 4. Breast-feeding provided him comfort through myriad adjustments, a place of respite as he found his footing in London and Berlin, New Haven and Madrid. He didn’t have a lovey or a favorite stuffed animal. He had my husband and me. And he grew into a self-confident and kind young child.
As time went on, the pressure to stop breast-feeding gained ground. I was told I was “holding him back,” yet he thrived in nursery school and made many fast friends. I was often told that I needed to let go or he would never be independent. He was 3. The layering of these experiences over years — the judgment aimed at me for this choice, the disgust, the determination to intervene — somehow transformed the most natural act into what felt like rebellion.
After my son turned 3, I joined a social media group, Breastfeeding Older Babies and Beyond, connecting with tens of thousands of other women around the world who are breast-feeding beyond infancy. I found immense comfort in what we shared — choosing to follow our gut over caving to social pressure to do with our bodies what others advised/expected/intended. They, too, described the unrelenting pressure to stop breast-feeding, including claims about tooth decay, malnutrition and harming subsequent pregnancies. They, too, were shamed — by doctors, family members, friends, even spouses — for making independent choices about their bodies.
I am still breast-feeding my 4-year-old and have no plan to stop until he and I decide that it’s time. I am fortunate that I have had role models, including my mother and sister, who breast-fed beyond infancy, and that I have a virtual network that has supported me in this choice. I am now open about it with family members, colleagues and friends, because while I know my body has been treated as part of a battleground, it is still mine.
Breast-feeding is a powerful thing. When people see this as damaging, deviant or “sick,” they aim to contend with women’s power to give and sustain life.
Embracing this power has brought me immeasurable joy. I have the capacity to calm my crying child in any circumstance; to both bring, and find, comfort in times of uncertainty, illness and pain; and to look my son in the eye, day after day, and know that, together, in the face of adversity, we persevered.
Elisabeth Becker Topkara is a sociologist and writer in New Haven, Conn.