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Touchy subject Part 2

May 7, 2008 - Betsy Bethel
The debate over appropriate and inappropriate touch mounts to a fever pitch on the subject of breastfeeding because of how our society has sexualized women's breasts. Breasts are a sexual part of the body, yes, but their primary purpose is for feeding children.

As you might guess, naturalist William Sears promotes extended breastfeeding, two years or more. In my search for breastfeeding information before I had Emma, I was surprised to learn the worldwide average age of weaning is 3 years old, according to the World Health Organization, which recommends babies be breastfed for AT LEAST two years.

Other popular modern parenting literature (such as the "What to Expect" series of books by Arlene Eisenberg, et al) give no credence to extended breastfeeding and strongly suggest babies be weaned soon after their first birthday, in order to "free" Mom from this unnecessary burden. While breastfeeding is considered the gold standard of care for infants, breastfeeding "too long" is considered unsavory by many.

In our culture, "anxiety about incest is at the core of the concern," Halley writes. "The extended breastfeeding relationship, in particular, triggers this incest anxiety, the anxiety that the mother is taking something -- something sexual -- from the infant." Anthropologist Katherine Dettwyler writes in a New York Times article that fairly often she hears about mothers of children as young as 18 months being accused of sexual abuse for nursing. "It's a logical outgrowth of our society's sexualization of the breast," she writes.

A new mother can become distraught trying to determine what's best for her baby. The hormonal roller coaster you are on doesn't help matters! If you decide to breastfeed, you become extremely protective of that right and even find the sight of bottles on baby announcements or other baby-related items offensive. On the other hand, if you don't breastfeed, you are put on the defensive by breastfeeding advocates, often made to feel like you're a "bad" or "selfish" mother for not breastfeeding.

Indeed, writes Halley, "Women believe they must 'poduce' a particular kind of child. Yet no matter what they do, mothers can't win. They are blamed for too much touching; they are condemned for too little."

As for me, I am comfortable with the vast majority of decisions I've made for my daughter. I am happy with the close physical relationship we enjoy and also with some of the boundaries I have established. She slept in my bed for the first four months of her life and then I moved her to a crib in her own room. I let her "cry it out" many a time, knowing I had little left to give her and that I would not be able to function for her the next day if she slept with me.

I also wore my baby often, and, alternatively, I used her infant carrier and bouncy chair quite a bit. I do wish I had worn her more.

I breastfed her until just a couple weeks ago. I stopped offering to nurse her before bed because she seemed to have lost interest. When she did ask to nurse after several days of not asking, I simply said, "All done." She put up a minor fuss, but she hasn't asked since.

While I strongly believe there are absolute moral rights and wrongs, and I will pass my beliefs on to my daughter, I've learned as a mother that in some situations there is no cut and dried, black and white, right or wrong. Once I discovered that gray is OK, I employed some tenets of both of the polar-opposite parenting approaches and also took varied bits of advice from friends and family.

Governed most by trial and error, I have done what I feel is right for Emma without neglecting what I need to do to stay healthy and sane. Some mothers thrive on order and feel secure following an ideology. There's nothing wrong with that, but I encourage more mothers not to feel guilty if they find that something from the opposite viewpoint works for them.

In the end, it boils down to motives. If your motives are pure, you have nothing to worry about.

Check back on Friday for Touchy subject Part 3 -- Hands off my baby!


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