When the woman shouted “How old is your baby?” across the sandpit, I braced myself.
You don’t get 17 months into motherhood – and yes, it’s been nearly a year and a half since I heaved our collection of genes into the cold morning air – without becoming wary of certain questions. When you’re sitting on the edge of a municipal sandpit, on a freezing spring day, breastfeeding a baby that is not only wearing shoes but can build a henge out of bark chips, you become wary of someone asking how old your baby is.
“Seventeen months?” I called back, with that strange specificity that only parents, employment contracts and pregnant people use. I waited. I waited for her to scrunch up her face in disgust, to roll her eyes, to turn away, to laugh. I waited to feel humiliated or guilty or perverse to be breastfeeding a good half a year later than other women I know who’ve gone back to work or put their child in nursery. I waited to defend myself, to start quoting advice from the World Health Organisation, to mark out my moral autonomy. “When are you going to stop?” She shouted. I looked down at my son’s cheek, his ear, the curl of blonde hair creeping up over his collar. As the wind created little dances of sand between us, like a wide shot from a 1970s western, I took a deep breath. So, this was a stand off. “I have absolutely no idea,” I hollered back, giving myself up to fate.
A smile broke out across her face. “My son is 18 months,” she shouted. “I’m going to keep going for as long as I can!”
It is these interactions – the small nods of support, the slow sidling up to you at the end of a playgroup, the breathless comparing of notes – that have supported my resolve. I know to some people, breastfeeding until 18 months is ridiculous, obscene even. I know for others, the matter of weaning isn’t even a question – it happens when it happens. I am caught somewhere in between. I never really expected to still be breastfeeding my son as he learned his first words and started drawing on the carpet with felt tips. But nor did I have a plan or deadline for stopping. My body is my body, his body is his body, so the decision is ours, I suppose.
But here’s some detail: I stopped breastfeeding in the night a little while after my son turned one; he was big enough and I was frankly tired enough to see if I could stop traipsing down the hallway in the dark, my joints stiffening in protest, to feed a baby who, just a few hours ago, had put away three fish fingers, a bowl of peas and some rice. I try not to breastfeed him to sleep or to do it just before mealtimes. I absolutely love having him lie still for a few minutes in an otherwise 14-hour long day of constant movement and responsibility.
When he is ill and refuses all solid food, hits his head on a low shelf, gets fractious after three hours on a train, starts looking tired after his bath or has been with someone else in a new place for a whole day, the fact that I have a source of nourishment and comfort literally flowing out of my body seems miraculous. To give it up simply because other people think it’s weird or embarrassing seems unnecessary.
I know people who didn’t breastfeed, people who did, people who have stopped and people who are still going: that is their decision and it’s not for me to judge. Nor would I want to.
Especially as I’m pretty sure I just heard him dropping my purse into the toilet.