Answering some questions about "extended" nursing, i.e. past the age of about a year, into toddlerhood and childhood. Questions lifted from Mayim Bialik's blog, with a few of my own added.

Didn't you eventually run out of milk?

No, I had milk the whole time. My body produced it in the amount that my baby was using it, so at the end I was producing less as she was nursing less. It didn't stop producing milk entirely until a few months after she nursed for the last time.

Did s/he really need breastmilk for nutrition?

Breastmilk is pretty dang nutritious, and bolsters the immune system as well. My children certainly deserved that for as long as they desired. But "need"? This question makes me think of Frank McCourt's book Angela's Ashes, in which he details his childhood of poverty in Ireland in the 1930s. I don't remember if his mother was unable to breastfeed due to malnourishment, or if it was discouraged, but whatever the case his siblings were fed primarily tea as infants, as they couldn't afford anything else. They were sickly, but most of them survived. This says to me that the human body is pretty resilient. So, define "need". Is it only that which is necessary for survival? Then, no, my children didn't "need" it. But it sure was good for them.

If s/he’s old enough to ask for it, isn’t s/he too old to have it?

Based on what logic? It cracks me up that people take this seriously, it's so arbitrary. Besides, my children were always old enough to ask for it, from the moment they were born. There's no special relationship between nursing and the switch from non-verbal cues to verbal cues.

Wasn’t it weird having a walking talking thinking LARGE child nursing?

No. Not a bit. I found that my perceptions of what constitutes appropriate mothering and childhood behavior changed when I was actually inside of it. I would have never had ideas to the contrary if I'd grown up in the kind of culture in which natural (non-managed and non-shamed) breastfeeding is the norm. But as it was, all it took for years of artificial conditioning to be undone was that I allow my human body to do exactly what it was designed to do.

Did you place any limits on this?

Yes. Past about the age of 2.5 or so we didn't nurse in public. Not because I thought there was a problem with it, but because other people definitely did and I didn't want to risk a visit from Child Protective Services. If there was a great need for it, I would take her to a quiet corner and turn away, shielding her with my body. Most times it was easy enough to agree to wait until we got home.

But you didn’t nurse her/him at night, did you???

I sure did. Children make it known that they have a need for physical closeness at night so we slept together, and babies do best nutritionally when they nurse during the night. As they got older the night nursing sessions naturally became less frequent, as their bodies' metabolisms changed and they began eating other foods during the day. Babies nurse for comfort as well, of course, so I tried not to wake them unnecessarily during the night. I snore (allergies!) so we made use of white noise and made the sleeping arrangements as spacious as possible.

At the time that they began to have the ability to reason and to understand me as a separate being with needs of my own, I started talking to them about how I would like more sleep and how it would be nicest for me if we could just snuggle back to sleep and nurse in the morning. I'd pat them on the back and murmur comfortingly and sometimes sing quietly. If not nursing was upsetting, we'd nurse. In that way we night-weaned in a gentle way over time. (Not that it was entirely without ramification. Ideally I'd have had the emotional and physical energy to not feel the need to night-wean at all.)

Didn't this make them spoiled?

Oh, what nonsense. Love, kindness, comfort, and a sense of security are the best things a parent can give a child. It's meanness and intentional deprivation (lack of a generous, loving spirit) that spoils people.

What did your husband think?

Well, he never said a thing about it, and he would look on lovingly as I'd nurse our children. I guess it felt normal and natural to him too.

When did you stop?

My first got to nurse until he was 3 1/2 years old. This was because he was too young to stop when I had our second, so I nursed them together. However when he was 3 1/2 I became pregnant with our third, and because I had found tandem nursing very difficult and challenging and crazy-making, I wasn't about to try it with three. So I weaned him and also my second-born, who was 2 at the time. The same thing happened when my third-born was 2 years old. It was too early for all of them. I regret weaning very much, but it was definitely the lesser of two evils. If I had it to do over, I would have made much more of an effort to delay the subsequent pregnancies so that each of them could have nursed exactly as long as they needed to. My fourth-born nursed until she was done, at age 5 1/2, and it was fantastic. I'm grateful that I got to experience it with her. It was an important part of our relationship, and a very, very good thing. I wish it could have been that way with all my children.

Did they nurse for comfort?

Of course. It was a really lovely thing to be able to comfort them in that way. Really, it was the best kind of comfort too; it was almost instantly calming. Which made parenting so much more enjoyable and easier. It felt good to have such a wonderful power!

What did your family/friends/the public at large think?


I live in a pretty nursing-friendly community. Once at a private party it was suggested that I nurse in a more private place. (I declined.) Other than that I was never bothered by anyone about it, and I've nursed a lot in public. My friends and family all acted like it was a non-issue. If they thought it strange, they kept their opinions to themselves. My mom did ask a few times, in a surprised tone, "Oh, is she still nursing?" But I never sensed any judgment attached to that. Of all our parenting decisions, this was one of the easiest for people to accept/tolerate.

Wasn't it inconvenient?

It was far more convenient than having to fix and serve and clean up a meal, or deal with a melt-down in any other way. And besides that, it was nice. Calming happy love hormones, ahhh. When you feel good, whether something is convenient or not becomes irrelevant.

Didn't you want your body back?

No. That to me is a nonsensical question. It's like asking, "don't I want my body back from my husband?" When it feels good to share your body in a mutually pleasing way with someone, you're not thinking about when you can finally be done with it. Rather, you miss it when it's gone.

Oh, c'mon. You paint breastfeeding as some kind of panacea and perfect thing, when we all know it's hard and a lot of work. Tell the truth, now.

Yes, there were times when I was stressed out by other things, and when a person is stressed out it makes it hard to do anything else that takes care and time and energy. Sometimes the stressors can't be avoided, and sometimes we just don't know how to avoid them yet. For me there was a lot of the latter, as I'd grown up in a culture in which there are a lot of expectations about achievement. It took me some time to figure that out, and then some time to let go of the fear of what would become of me if I didn't toe the line.

Also, yes, it was hard to get started because I was not as healthy as I could've been, didn't know some things, and didn't have the right kind of support. It was excruciatingly painful. I wept with each feeding. I would absolutely have stopped if my baby would have taken a bottle, but I couldn't let him starve, so I kept at it. Eventually I learned some important stuff about how to take care of my body so that it could do its job without suffering, and from there on out it was smooth sailing.

But the breastfeeding relationship itself? Magical. Holy. The sweetest thing I've ever known. If I'd known then what I do now, I would have been deeply grieved not to have been able to do it.

Let labor begin on its own.

For me there was never any talk of induction. In my first pregnancy I had transferred to a midwife's care about halfway through and she never said one word about it. Pre-internet and almost entirely dependent on my care provider for information, with my only other source of information being What To Expect When You're Expecting (aka "Don't Worry Your Pretty Little Head About Anything, the Doctor Will Take Care Of It") it didn't come to my attention and therefore I didn't think about it.

With that pregnancy I went to 41 weeks, and I know very well now that had I been in the care of a physician following his employer's protocol (I say "he" because, strangely, most primary birth dictators attendants in our culture are men) I would have been pressured to induce. 41 weeks is considered "late", though in her book The Thinking Woman's Guide to a Better Birth, which is stuffed full of studies and statistical information, Henci Goer points out that in fact the average beginning of spontaneous labor in first-time mothers is 41 weeks. (Technically 39 weeks gestation, but those wacky OBs like to count from last menstrual period, two weeks before the baby is actually conceived, which has become convention.)

Induction of labor carries the risk of a slew of complications. Depending on the method, it may require that the mother be prone which in itself creates a climate for complications to arise: movement and being vertical are important for proper positioning of the baby, signaling to the brain to send chemicals that contract the fundus down and soften the cervix, and pain management. If the baby can't move down easily and have the space to maneuver into an ideal position, it compromises the baby's safety and invites interventions like the use of forceps, vacuum extractor, and surgical opening of the vagina or abdomen.

It also makes the labor longer and harder, which makes the use of pain medication more likely, which brings its own risks: the mother unable to push normally resulting in damage to her body, drugs in the baby's system and affecting its ability to breathe, separation of baby and mother at birth - affecting bonding - with possibly painful tests done in the NICU.

Again, depending on the method, it can interfere with the mother's ability to produce her own hormones which can have serious ramifications not only for the progress of labor but for third stage (hemorrhage) and bonding. If the body is not ready to give birth induction can result in "failure to progress" and from there cesarean section. There is also an increased risk with induction that the baby will be born prematurely (with attendant medical issues,) and increased risk of placental abruption, where the placenta separates from the uterus before the birth is complete.

That's the short list of what I avoided, not because I'd done any research of my own, but by lucky accident of having innocently chosen a care provider that didn't practice that way. She did however have her own ideas about what sort of situation would justify intervention. In my case it was not that my pregnancy was taking "too long" but that (according to her) my labor was. I was doing well, in good spirits and energy despite not having slept much, but she was impatient to get things moving along faster. So she suggested that I augment the labor with a natural substance that stimulates the uterus: castor oil.

Now, this woman was licensed to practice by the state, she had attended by her estimate over 1500 births, she was trained as a nurse, and she was well regarded in the community. I assumed (replacing the "doctor as god" mentality with "midwife as god" mentality) that she knew what she was doing. Why on earth else would I hire a professional? Consider too that all those studies show the safety and superior care of midwifery; of course she must know what she was talking about.

Further, this method of induction or augmentation is supported in the natural birth literature, and there are doctors who prescribe it as well. Surely it would be safer than injecting the body with artificial hormones? I had not educated myself at all about birth (reading the aforementioned piece of crap book and taking a completely useless childbirth class at the hospital don't count,) so I felt completely dependent on her to tell me what to do -- the situation that most patients find themselves in, and which most care providers encourage. And I was indeed a "patient" at that point.

So she mixed up a concoction for me consisting of the castor oil, some kind of alcohol, and orange juice, according to the Susun Weed recipe in the book Wise Woman Herbal for the Childbearing Year. (Susun Weed, too, is well-known and highly respected.)

I had a vague idea that the castor oil would increase the frequency of contractions. It also made me feel like I was going to die. (I later found that there are risks to the baby as well.) I have never experienced such severe intestinal cramping in my life and can't imagine it possibly being worse. I spent the next hour on the toilet spurting diarrhea, weeping and moaning in agony, trying desperately to escape my body, with people gathered around me "supporting" me with words like "you're doing great," etc. (Why is it that in labor things that normally demand privacy suddenly are regarded as public events?)

The midwife chose this time to explain to me that I had been emotionally resisting the labor (!) and that this illness was going to force me to "let go". I was and am offended by this armchair psychoanalysis. Who was she to say why my labor was progressing the way it was and that there was something wrong with it? I was doing just fine until she got involved. Now angry and resentful and having lost trust in her, the labor became difficult and stressful, neither of which made it a safer situation for the baby.

Not that I'd have been better off with hospital management: pitocin (a synthetic form of oxytocin, the hormone that stimulates uterine contractions, among other things) would have been used instead, and it  would have been started long before 48 hours of labor. It's commonly used and can be, as many women have attested to, a horrific experience, making the labor unbearable, so that pain medication becomes necessary. It increases risk of placental abruption and fetal distress and more.

It's good that people are questioning induction, but it's really only part of a larger issue, that of whether labor should be allowed to follow its own timetable from beginning to end, assuming that the mother and baby are both fine. (It should.)

My next three births weren't interfered with. None of them went as long gestation-wise, but one was another long labor. Unlike the first, it was allowed to progress as my body needed it to. With my first labor, the intervention caused hours of agony, emotional trauma, physical injury, and a sense of disconnection from my baby. With the long labor that was allowed to progress undisturbed by outside intervention, there was a relatively easy and lovely emergence with no harm done to the baby or me or us as a mother-baby unit.
For the past couple of years I've been working toward living a more sustainable lifestyle. My friend Wendy's efforts to deal with the plastic bag issue have really gotten me taking environmental concerns even more seriously than I had been. There's this real live person, that I actually know, caring about the same things that I do; the community aspect of it amplifies the energy that I have for it. In a movie I just watched, No Impact Man, it's observed that our disconnection with the harm we are causing has happened because of our loss of sense of community, so that none of us feels very accountable as individuals; the people that our choices affect are nameless, faceless, don't even really exist for us -- out of sight, out of mind.

That's been very true for me. For most of my life I consumed thoughtlessly. I spent years living in Eugene, Oregon, which is a stronghold for the environmentally aware, and I would see people with their reusable jars full of bulk goods on their kitchen shelves, and have no idea why they were doing that. It didn't even occur to me that there might be a reason that I could inquire about. To me, it was just part of the hippie landscape like patchouli and tie-dye. It's only been recently, as I've been challenged by outside sources, that I've started to think about it. This highlights the importance of outreach and education. It can't be assumed that people will just get it on their own. They need information.

So there is ignorance that needs to be dealt with, and this is why it matters so much for people to talk about what they're doing and why. Not to make others feel guilty, but to give them access to information that they may have had no idea was even there and would appreciate having. But ignorance is only one part of the equation: we have also greed, complacency, and a sense of hopelessness. Greed: No, I do not make money off of planned obsolescence, plastics, white paper, and garbage, etc., but the desiring and demanding of convenience at the expense of others is certainly greed. Complacency: Because I'm comfortable enough that it's easy to not spend my mental and emotional energy worrying about these things. Hopelessness: It doesn't matter what I do because I'm only one person and nobody else cares (or, at least, the people with the power to change things will not,) so why bother putting myself out for it?

Here's the process that started changing my perspective:

One: Experience being affected by non-sustainable, polluting practices. When my husband and I moved to the country, I assumed that we'd be breathing cleaner air. I made this assumption because I had never thought about how agricultural and paper products get to me, the consumer. Unbeknownst to me, these processes were happening where people live (of course they are, how could I have been so dense,) and I was soon to be one of those people who live where it's happening. Pesticides, sulfuric compounds, smoke, and dust from chaff and dry soil being churned up all combine in a murky haze that makes it hard for my children and I to breathe, and who knows what the chemicals are doing to us. Before? Completely unconcerned. Now? So angry I'd be more than happy to put these people out of business if I had the power to.

Two: Realizing the personal benefits. The alternatives to exploitation of people for wealth, planned obsolescence, abused animals, toxic chemicals in the soil, air, our bodies, etc.: are nicer for me. They taste better, feel better, look better, wear better.

Three: Ethics logic. I may not be able to stop the mugging of a person, but that doesn't mean it's fine and dandy for me to join in. I'd be horrified if someone even suggested it. So why is it that the same thing doesn't apply on a larger scale? I don't think it's right the way things are, yet every day I live in a way that looks an awful lot like I love it, because the money I spend supports it. That is just completely nuts. It doesn't matter if I don't have the power to change it on a large scale, for everybody; it's still completely nuts.

The challenge is how not to live this way when it's all I've ever known and when the system is set up to make any other way inconvenient and difficult.

"I know what to do"

One of the things I love most about my daugher is her devotion to certain motifs and themes in her singing. For years now she has been singing when playing with dolls, digging in the dirt, in the bathtub, sitting on the toilet, and riding in the back of the car. And while she is greatly inventive she also has favorite words and melodies that she uses over and over, and these have become dear to me. One commonly used phrase of hers is "I know what to do." Of course it touches my heart when she sings "I love my mommmyyyyy" with rising crescendo, but it is utterly fantastic to me to hear her own the words I know what to do.

These are words that have never left my own mouth. I grew up in school, where I learned to respond automatically and efficiently to the ring of a bell, did what what I was told even when it was useless and unpleasant, was taught to wait to be told what to do. My own passions and reasoning process were deemed silly and irrelevant, and I was taught to believe that external judgments are real and important. Going along with this got me the status of 'good girl, likely to succeed'. The implication of all this was that the notion that I know what to do is conceited. What incredible audacity it would be to claim such a thing!

Apparently not everyone learns this. My suspicion is that a few people get past it for the following reasons: because their social life outside of school is absolutely supportive of their person-hood, perhaps even viewing school authority as an irrelevancy; or because they aren't quite as skilled at following the rules and "fall through the cracks," rendering the authority of the school useless to them; or because they are neurologically inclined to be oblivious to these lessons. But my brain and environment were perfectly geared for this programming to take. The result was that I graduated and didn't have any idea what to do. This is because I assumed, as the whole structure of school had taught me from day one, that there was something that I should do that is outside of my own desires or inclinations, and without someone to tell me what that was I flailed around miserably for quite a while looking for it, assuming it must be there. You know that book "Are You My Mother?" Looking back, it was exactly that pathetic. Is this what I'm supposed to be doing? Is this? Is that? It was extremely anxiety-producing and eventually led to a nervous breakdown. Hardly anyone knows that this is what happened, because I was so good at keeping a smile on my face and keeping quiet about what was really going on. So I imagine it didn't make any sense to anyone when, after a five-year intensive professional program, I abandoned my career track entirely.

Thus began my recovery. But it's not something that you just get over, because life-long brainwashing is something you don't just get over. Intellectually accepting a more authentic paradigm is one thing, acting on it is another: that takes trust and courage.

Naturally I wanted to spare my own kids all this nonsense, so I didn't put them in school. I want all my kids to keep singing "I know what to do," in their own way, their whole lives. A common criticism of unschooling is, "But they can't just do whatever they want!" To the contrary, their survival as authentic, well, whole human beings depends on it.

The best kids ever.

Yesterday afternoon the kids shooed me out of the living room and said I couldn't look. They put up a barrier of chairs and my yoga mat just to be on the safe side. Once I heard "Noooo! That's mama's good scissors!!!" Another time they asked me to get them some tape and string and a yellow marker and hand them to them eyes closed. Other than that all four of them were quietly occupied for a couple of hours.

That evening their papa and I were watching a movie and they came in and told us to close our eyes. When we opened them this is what we saw:


Willow, as she came zooming up to me on her bike.

Mama!

Yes?

Have I told you how much I love being alive? And how great human beings are? And all the things they invent? Like houses, cars, lights... it's awesome!

Dream.

River, narrow but deep, clear blue water, the current moving me. I am carrying something, a small highly conscious being, like a small child but more the size of a tiny monkey, that I have saved, or rather it has saved itself by attaching itself to me. Before, I was watching the being save itself by grabbing onto this human, now I am this human.

We are being followed, by people who do not mean us well. On our left is a high bank of smooth rock with round outcroppings but most of these are impossible to get a hold on. But I know where I can get up and I climb easily. I have no fear of the pursuers.

Now I am searching for a place to hide. They are coming. My people are gone, captured or escaped, I don't know which. I will it to appear, this scoop in the rock where I fit my body and that of the being. I fear for a moment that it won't be quiet enough, but it understands when I put my finger to my lips. I have glimpses of the intruders, but they do not see us. I feel safe here but know I cannot leave. I know they will post a lookout for some time, to wait for me to appear. We stay there, drinking water from my flask, for many days.

They are here again. I see them coming, barely in time for me to squeeze under a wooden platform, soft dirt beneath me. It is not a very good hiding place. Strangely, they have children with them, and one of them comes to play. The children are not my enemy. One looks under the platform, sees me, and I whisper urgently that she must not let them know that I am here. She agrees. She is not afraid of me. But then another child comes and sees me and calls to them. I leap out and run into the forest. I am too fast for them, and I know the forest better. They do not follow for long.

From And the skylark Sings With Me by David Albert:

Where we differ from some homeschooling families is that their main objectives appear to be to protect their children by narrowing the range of available experience. As parents, we too strive to protect our children, but frankly we never apprehended the school system as a threat to our children's innocence or understanding. If anything, we perceive the range of educational experience offered by schools -- starting with the segregation of children into age-bound classes -- as far, far too narrow.
[...]
Our vision of the perfect learning environment is a library, but like none we have ever encountered. The library would have books and videos and tapes and computer linkups, but that would be just the beginning. [...] There would be a vast exchange of skills, from basic mathematics to auton mechanics. There would be lending libraries of tools and materials, from carpenters' saws and hammers, to biologists' microscopes, to astronomers' telescopes. [...] There would be large gardens and orchards, staffed by botanists and farmers, where students could learn to grow fruits and vegetables, and home economists who could teach their preparation and storage. There would be apprenticeships for virtually every kind of employment the community requires.
Now that is something I would be happy to put my tax dollars toward. That is something useful: and what it is, simply, is opportunity. Rote learning of subject matter uninteresting and not relevant to the learner is not opportunity, it is a waste of time and resources, a monstrous one when it goes on year after year after year.

I disagree with him, however, when he says, "[...]all users, both children and adults, would be required to contribute time (not just tax dollars) to the library's success." That is where it would fail. Because once something becomes a duty, even more so if it's mandatory, an entirely different energy gets brought to it; it loses its vitality, its goodness, its truthfulness. I'm guessing it would not be unlike... school.

Last night I was at a gathering of unschoolers, and a young girl related to us how much she's always enjoyed writing, that it's easy for her and she's good at it. She said that the words just fly out of her. But recently she's been taking classes, to work toward her dream of a certain vocation that requires certification and therefore degrees, and in one of these classes she is being given writing assignments. She related, the dismay plain on her face, how suddenly writing had become unpleasant, difficult, and worst of all inauthentic.

Who hasn't had that experience? That something, good for its own sake, was robbed of its integrity because somebody said, "you have to"?

Two stories.

Over Christmas Rowan received a "craft kit" with lots of little pieces. As she started to open it up to get a closer look at everything, the person whose house we were at, and who I suspect didn't want lots of little pieces getting strewn around, said nervously, "You'd better ask your mom about that... ." Before I had a chance to reply, R said blithely but reasonably, "Oh, it's my present," as if the person was simply confused as to whom the present belonged. Because why else would someone act as if another person didn't have the right to do with her gift what she wished?

*

I've been organizing. R has a lot of clothing that she has grown out of or just won't wear, so I was asking her what we needed to weed out. She pointed to a couple of things that I love, and I said, "Oh, but these are so cute!" "No," she said, "they don't feel good, and besides they're too big." Cajoling, I said, "But maybe once you've grown into them you'll change your mind." She paused as if to consider whether I had a point, then said brightly, "Mama, you can have them!" She'd figured out that the issue was really that I was attached to the clothes, so clearly the solution should be that I should keep them for myself.

*

Both times her reaction delighted me. This is not the reaction of a person who has learned from past experience that she is supposed to indiscriminately regard older people as authority figures and to interpret their interactions with her as something to be defensive or annoyed about. I was delighted because I immediately had a vision of how she might have reacted instead, how I've reacted, how I've seen so many people act, and I was struck by the meaning in the difference. She is innocent of those things because her personhood has always been respected and protected. She didn't try (didn't feel the need) to fight, either time. She was simply reasonable. Such a simple, seemingly small thing. Yet it is exactly how a peaceful life is made, and what it is made up of.