National Post

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December 13, 2000

Why breast-feeding is such a touchy subject

Patricia Pearson
National Post

I had other things to do yesterday morning, like rustling up Rice Crispies for my three-year-old, replenishing the dog's kibble, and breaking my wrist trying to open a jar of pureed blueberries for the baby. But hold on one more minute, just a second everyone, while I sit at the table with the Post spread before me, riveted by the story of a breast-fed five-year-old in Champaign, Illinois.

The story went like this: Last July, a mother lost temporary possession of her son to child welfare authorities, after the boy's nanny called a Child Abuse Hotline. The boy, whom she cared for 10 hours a day, six days a week, was being made by his mother to suckle against his will, the nanny said. She'd tried talking to the mother, said the nanny, but the nursing carried on.

(Right away, I'm grappling with this fascinating jumble of images: The mother who's virtually never home -- yet who breast-feeds for five years; the child telling the nanny to tell his mommy to cut it out; the act of nursing transformed by time's impartial passage from the thing to do, to the thing not to do.)

After the nanny's complaint, authorities took the rather draconian measure of removing him to a foster home, where he remains. On Monday, Champaign County Circuit Judge Ann Einhorn held a hearing to determine whether breast-feeding a kindergartner actually warranted state intervention.

To do this, she had to find her way through a crowd of extreme and visceral viewpoints, most of them subconscious, on breasts and sexuality, mothers and sons, the emergence of eroticism and shame in children, the benefits of breast-feeding and what the hell application they have to five-year-olds, and the primacy that Americans place upon independence. Boys should not be nursing, or co-sleeping, when they're about to enter Grade 1. They shouldn't be Mama's Boys.

To bolster the mother's argument that she was merely practising "child-led weaning," anthropologist Katherine Dettwyler marched into the courtroom and announced that the "natural age" for human weaning was between the ages of two-and-a-half and seven years, a formula she devised by studying primates. She added that women who continue breast-feeding for years are usually "extremely educated," as if that meant something significant.

Not to suggest that there's anything self-serving in Dettwyler's calculations, given that she weaned her own son at five. But her point is not taken.

Monkeys don't commute to work and use breast pumps, they don't need weekends away to work on their marriages, they don't dress their babies in sleepers, which evolve into overalls and then more sophisticated outfits designed to conceal nudity, due to self-consciousness. They don't develop Oedipal complexes, they don't need rich, imaginative fairy tales to help them anchor their turbulent psyches. THEY'RE NOT HUMAN.

They have nothing to do with anything. Or, as Judge Einhorn put it, "this case is not about proving grand theories." Any woman who breast-feeds her son until elementary school because gibbons and baboons do is being absurd. She has no respect for the psychological complexity of modern children.

On the other hand, rather paranoically, lawyers for the state argued that what the Illinois mother was doing was sexually abusive, presumably because a child can see female breasts as food only for as long as that child maintains perfect innocence. Once he grows aware of gender difference, and the need to wear clothes, and the prospect of puppy love, the breast takes on more complicated meaning.

It does. But if the mother doesn't see her breasts as sexual, can she be called sexually abusive? I'm reminded of one mortifying night some months ago, when I had been feeding my baby in the car and forgot to redo my nursing bra and blouse before getting out at a gas station to ask for directions. I stood casually before a middle-aged man who was filling up his tank, chattering at him amiably and showing him my map, while my breasts flapped in the wind. There was not one hint of expression in this man's calm, polite face to make me aware of my state of undress.

Imagine my face-grabbing horror as I returned to my car and glanced down. But my lack of concern must have been the overall message he got, so that he didn't read me as being sexually suggestive so much as either maternal or insane.

The problem, Judge Einhorn observed, was not sexual abuse, but emotional disregard. The boy didn't want to breast-feed. Whether it made him feel infantilized, or physically intruded upon, or erotically ashamed isn't clear. But he didn't want to, and I have no trouble whatever imagining his reluctance, since my three-year-old daughter won't even eat Arrowroot biscuits on the grounds that they're "baby food."

Children want to grow up. It frightens them, but it also enthralls them, and every step they take toward independence, from weaning to potty-training to entering nursery school, fills them with a measure of pride. A mother's job is to nurture the continuous, subtle balance between maturity and insecurity without pushing her child too far either way -- without losing her head in La Leche League ideology, or any other child-rearing doctrine.

"If this child were in agreement with his mother," Judge Einhorn noted, "there would be no problem. But we've had enough credible evidence that this child no longer felt comfortable ... and his needs were being ignored. Instead of helping him mature emotionally, [his mother] continued to put her own parental needs first."

That's a fair perception. Now somebody please return the little guy to his mom and let them talk about alternatives, because it is equally fair to perceive the reaction of Illinois authorities as out of whack with one boy's need to get on with growing up.