The uproar over Time Magazine‘s latest cover – the one showing a nearly 4 years old boy nursing (admittedly unusual for the U.S.)- seems strange to me, primarily because nursing is natural, good for the child’s short-term and long-term health, and an intimately personal decision.
Perhaps it’s just the age of the boy. Yet I remember my mother talking about various “country” cousins who nursed until they were about 4 years old. The “standard” age of weaning undoubtedly varies greatly by country, generation, socioeconomic status, and family preference.
Listening to the hullabaloo reminded me that many of us who gave birth in the ’70s had to fight to have drug-free childbirth, to have our partners with us during labor and delivery, and to nurse our babies outside the privacy of our homes.
- The hospital where I delivered almost 33 years ago had only just stopped its practice of strapping the ankles and wrists of women delivering.
- One generation earlier women were routinely anesthetized; that was my mother’s experience delivering in the 1950s U.S.
- The generation or two before my mother, women in labor and delivery wore “modesty pants.” I’ve only seen pictures of them; “pants” is a bit of a misnomer as they are not secured around the waist or hips. They looked a bit like a sweater: the woman’s legs went in the arms, and what would be the span across the back of a sweater covered her genitalia. The baby would come out a large slit in the modesty pants just big enough for the baby but not so big the woman would be “exposed” to the hospital personnel, including the doctor and nurses. (No, I kid you not. Academics who do historical research stumble across the most unusual forgotten bits of history!)
I digress. When I was pregnant, I knit a short poncho so I could nurse in public but privately and without worrying about holding up the covering. It didn’t always work.
One day as I waited for the bus, my 8 month old baby in my arms, she started to fuss and tug at my shirt. As we boarded, I hoped she could wait until we got home. Nope. My attempts to distract her were futile, and so before she worked herself up to ear-splitting wails, I put her under the little knit poncho. She quieted down instantly as she started to nurse.
The bus was crowded but I had a window seat; my right arm supported her head and shoulders. On my right sat a young man; I could tell he was military. (There was a large naval base close by.) After about four minutes of quietly and happily nursing, my daughter decided she was done. As I looked out the window engrossed in watching the sailboats, with a quick jerk of her right hand she pushed the poncho out of her way and simultaneously, with her left, shoved my breast away from her mouth (pointing it past her head). I was exposed.
The milk, of course, kept on a’coming – spraying all over the bare left arm of the man next to me. Feeling the spurt of warm liquid on his arm, he looked down and – well, saw everything. Holding his arm out as if acid were burning into it, he started loudly moaning “No, no, no, no.” I quickly pulled out a cloth diaper and started patting his arm, trying to calm him down by murmuring, “Don’t worry. It’s just a bit of breast milk.”
By that point he was literally gagging. He jumped off his seat at the next stop and quickly ran out the door. Probably scarred him for life, poor guy. Despite my intentions to the contrary, I weaned my daughter before she was a year old.
Of course, 26 years later when my daughter announced she was pregnant, I immediately started knitting her a lovely “nursing shawl.” She was puzzled by it until I explained, and then she showed me the very nice shirts, blouses, covers, etc. designed for nursing mothers. (She used the shawl simply to keep warm, not modestly covered.)