Lying awake at some point between midnight and six this morning, breastfeeding my insatiable, teething son, a comment from a recent conversation snapped into my mind. A friend asked me at what point breastfeeding a child becomes sexual abuse. My initial reaction was a kind of horrified – ‘uh, never!’, especially keenly felt as I was breastfeeding at that moment.
To be fair to her – she’s an intelligent woman and in no way anti-breastfeeding – and to put this in context, we were in the midst of three concurrent discussions, one about this news item, one about when I might stop breastfeeding my eleven month old, and one which is one of my favourite topics to muse upon – the ‘thing’ that people choose as their cut-off point for breastfeeding. By people I mean any person, male or female, young or old, parent or not, with or without any experience of breastfeeding. Ask just about any person and they will tell you almost instantly what their ‘thing’ is. They are sometimes surprised they even have one, it can be that unconscious. A quick straw poll of the people around you can yield any of the following and more: ‘when the baby gets teeth’, ‘when they’re one’, ‘when they’re six months’, ‘when they can talk’, ‘when they can walk’, ‘when they want to [wean]’ and ‘when they know what they’re doing’. This last one is a personal favourite…presumably the baby is thinking ‘this is nice, just hanging out with mum, having a cuddle, lovely and warm here, feeling a bit like a snooze, holy sweet potatoes!! I’m breastfeeding!!’.
I digress. Much has been written about breasts, breastfeeding and sexuality. Elizabeth at Spilt Milk wrote a beautifully balanced post, ‘Sexing the Breast’, about womens’ bodily autonomy and how no woman should be attacked for how she feels about or utilises her breasts. Raising My Boychick and PhD in Parenting blogged compellingly in response to this provocative article that labelled breastfeeding ‘creepy’, both looking at personal and social expectations and experiences around breastfeeding and sexuality. My own feelings about breastfeeding and its where/when/why/how long/who have altered over time as I’ve shifted from my ‘boobs ahoy!’ teens and early twenties, into the midwifing and mothering of my present, but they’ve always been and continue to be positive. One question, however, I’ve been asked in many forms and pops up in my own mind now and then – when does breastfeeding stop being about the baby’s needs and start being about the mother’s?
For anyone who is about to flick to the bottom to find the correct answer to that question – don’t bother, I don’t have the answer and the question itself is far too simplistic. Breastfeeding is never just about one person’s needs, baby or mother. Mothers breastfeed for many reasons: they want to; they can; their partner told them to; their midwife told them to; they believe in it ideologically; they can’t afford formula; they think they should; the list goes on. Babies breastfeed for nourishment; comfort; pain relief; distraction; and so on. So maybe it’s like a scale – when do the mother’s needs start to outweigh the baby’s? Who gets precedence anyway? Why is it okay for a woman to not breastfeed because she wants to go back to work, but it’s not okay to keep breastfeeding a six year old even though she believes it’s still important or that her individual child benefits? Who gets to make the rules? Joan Salter, in The Incarnating Child, implies that it’s basically self-serving for women to persist with breastfeeding beyond the age of nine months. On the other hand, an excellent post (which has sadly been removed) at peaceful parenting was a window into the world of breastfeeding culture in Mongolia, where it is desirable to feed until five or six years of age, in order to grow strong children.
To return to the original question – although I acknowledge that there are people out there with less than honourable intentions – my idealistic self wants to believe that a woman continuing to breastfeed forcefully, for sexual pleasure, rather than to feed or comfort her child is unlikely, and to suggest that breastfeeding would ‘accidentally’ slip into the realm of sexual abuse does women a dreadful disservice.