Breaking Up Is Hard to Do

Why does it bother people when toddlers still breast-feed? Could it be about sex?

Ben stops nursing. "Soda," he says, patting my breast. He grins, devilish and pleased with himself.

"Noooo," I say. "Milk. Mommy's breast has milk."

"Soda!" says Ben. "Soda! SO DA!" I tickle him, and in a Big Bad Wolf voice, I threaten to wean his silly butt. He thrashes and shrieks until I stop, then lies spent and grinning.

I'm proud: At two and a half, he's figuring out humor, learning that tricky balance of aggression and attachment. But I'm also unnerved. My God, I think, I'm still breast-feeding a child old enough to tell jokes.


Naturally, I'm riveted by the case now rocking the lactation world. This fall Illinois child-protective authorities removed a five-year-old boy from his home because his mother refused to stop nursing him. The boy told both a baby-sitter and a child-protection investigator that he didn't want to nurse anymore; his mom said it wasn't true, and rather than relinquish her right to nurse her child, she allowed the state to place him in the baby-sitter's custody. On December 27 she had her day in court, where she claimed a victory of sorts: The judge ruled she could regain custody, but only if she follows court-ordered conditions, including counseling.

That mom bugs me: What kind of mother would risk losing her child for the sake of a parenting principle? And if a five-year-old tells other people that he wants to stop nursing, shouldn't she be willing to consider that maybe, just maybe, it's time to stop?

But mostly, I think, she bugs me because she's a more extreme version of myself. At a hearing earlier this month, she brandished a stack of parenting books -- the kind, I suspect, that occupy my own shelves: La Leche League's Womanly Art of Breastfeeding; William and Martha Sears's The Baby Book, which calls long-term breast-feeding part of "attachment parenting"; and maybe something from T. Berry Brazelton, who says weaning is a developmental process, like walking or talking. It happens when it happens. The child knows when he's ready.

Experts like those are fond of quoting the American Academy of Pediatrics, which recommends that mothers breast-feed for at least a year "and thereafter for as long as mutually desired." The pediatricians' group cites studies that breast milk jump-starts a baby's immune system, boosts his IQ and decreases his chances of suffering everything from ear infections to cancer.

The Illinois mom called on testimony from an expert who makes the pediatricians' recommendation seem halfhearted. Dr. Katherine Dettwyler, an associate professor of anthropology and nutrition at (of all places) Texas A&M, draws on cross-cultural and primate studies to argue that human children are designed to wean themselves somewhere between the ages of two and a half and seven. And in fact, she breast-fed one of her own kids until he weaned himself at age five.

It amuses me to think about Dettwyler nursing her boy: a maternal rebel, an insurgent nurturer, deep in the heart of Aggieland.


Not everyone, of course, is amused by the thought. "Yuck!" declared editorialist Naomi Lakritz in the Calgary Herald. Lakritz didn't buy Dettwyler's arguments for a second. "We think that six-year-olds ought to be lining up for Slurpees at the 7-Eleven," she harrumphed, "not unbuttoning their mothers' blouses for a big gulp."

So shoot me: I laughed at that line. I even feel twinges of Lakritz's dismay myself. Sometimes, around people I know well, I joke that weaning Ben will be a snap: All I'll have to do is send him to an out-of-state college. The humor lies, of course, in the joke's creepy absurdity, the way that a boundary is pushed way too far.

That boundary involves independence -- a child has to grow up -- but even more, it involves sex. Feminist academics such as Dettwyler bemoan the American fetishizing of women's breasts, but in fact, breasts are only the beginning of the boudoir/nursery blur. Lovers coo and call each other "baby." "Discipline" is a turn-on. And as novelist Jeanette Winterson points out, soft porn is constructed largely from words you'd expect to hear at a day care: "naughty," "girls," "suck," "tease," "spank," "cuddle" and "romp."

Maybe it shouldn't be surprising that adults associate sensuality with babyhood. Infants are pure, shameless id, little bundles of unregulated desires, oblivious to social prohibitions. They can't remember a past or imagine a future; they live completely in the here and now. Sometimes, when a baby nurses, her eyes roll back into her head and she drops into a smiling sleep, still attached to the breast. Milk bliss, a friend calls it. Sex, you figure, is adults' way of trying to regain that state.

Toddlers are more complicated than infants. They understand that the world is bound by rules: You pee in the potty; you don't hit your sister; you wear a hat on your head, not on your foot. The rules make the world navigable, safer, easier to understand.

Toddler humor is about flouting rules. "Soda!" is a joke because Ben knows good and well that my breasts dispense milk, not carbonated beverages. The humor lies in the absurdity. "Noooo," I say, because the rules of joking require me to respond that way. Satisfied, Ben declares, "I funny!"

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