Slate posted a “Dear Prudence” advice column on Monday that had a woman writing to ask what to do about the fact that her new sister-in-law breastfed her 5-year-old (who has severe allergies) at the dinner table. Some people were probably still picking up their jaws as soon as they read “5-year-old” and “breastfed” in the same sentence, and as soon as they did they promptly began making contorted faces and sounds mimicking a cat trying to expel a hair ball to convey their disapproval. Other people (no doubt often called names like “the breastfeeding police”) were jumping on the person writing the question and on the answer Prudence supplied, and taking to the internet to spread the word about the awfulness of Prudence.
I am a breastfeeding advocate. As many people have rightly pointed out, anthropological and biological study show us that a natural weaning age around the world is typically between 3 and 7 years, severe allergies or not. So while I may not wish to breastfeed a child of 5 years, I cannot say that it is “wrong,” as so many people did. I am not going to say “I’m all for breastfeeding. . . . a BABY.” I’m actually more interested in the *tone* of Prudence’s response than the actual advice. Because if you distill the actual advice down to about one or two factual sentences, it would be this: “Tell your brother, ‘we were all really uncomfortable that your wife breastfed her son at the dinner table, especially considering it was the first time we met her. I understand he has allergies, but would you ask her if she can step away from the dinner table if she needs to breastfeed him again at a family gathering?'”
When you say this matter-of-factly, it doesn’t sound too bad to me. I know that some people feel that the mom should breastfeed her son whenever and wherever she wishes, and I can respect that opinion. If the son in question were an infant or toddler, I’d be more inclined to agree. But breastfeeding a 5-year-old, even if anthropologically and biologically normal is not typical in our culture. Add in the fact that this was done in front of people you’ve never met (even if they are now your family, by marriage), and I am ok with suggesting that a more private location is a better choice.
But the tone of the response is mocking, condescending, and derisive. It suggests that because the mother breastfeeds her 5-year-old son (you know the child that she carried to term and birthed), that she is going to gleefully attempt to serve her unsuspecting guests her breast milk in lieu of cream for their coffee (which probably comes from cows, but yet that’s not weird?). She mocks La Leche League and then makes a completely unscientific declaration that 5 years old is too old to “still be at mommy’s breast.” When, she says, your kid can tell you to lay off the garlic, then it’s time to throw away the nursing bra (to which I say, hey, if it still fits, wear that sucker, because does she know how hard it is to find a good bra and those things are expensive and why, yes, I’m wearing a nursing bra even though my youngest hasn’t nursed for 2+ years). This sounds pretty much like the oft-heard “if they can ask for it, they’re too old.” What does “ask for it” mean anyway? “Nee-nees, pease?!” coming from a 18-month-old is asking for it. Is a 10-month-old who can sign “milk,” asking for it? Sorry, but when you get down to it, rooting, a behavior that is exhibited minutes out of the womb, is “asking for it.” The instinct to breastfeed is just that–instinctual and distinctions that have to do with the method of communication to express that human need and what they have to say about breastfeeding’s appropriateness are completely arbitrary. Then Prudence suggests that if the husband won’t ask his wife to nurse the son in a more private setting that the other family members run out of the room while doing their best imitation of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” rather than suggesting that the writer just say calmly and politely to her sister-in-law, “Can I ask you to give your son breast milk in the other room, we feel awkward having you do so at the table?” I mean, you can have a discussion about whether or not that is fair to ask of her, but it’s a heck of a lot less hysterical than the juvenile responses Prudence suggests. The woman could even suggest pumping milk for her son before coming to a family gathering. I know that this may not be an option; some women cannot get much, if any, milk by pump, but only by nursing. And yes, it’s way less convenient. But politely suggesting a different location or a pump is a lot less offensive than the attitude displayed in the column.
Prudence closes by praying that this woman find her son a milk substitute (by which, to clarify, she means a substitute for the cow’s milk that most people drink, which is a substitute for the milk of our own species, since the woman’s son is allergic to cow’s milk), because “[i]t would be bad for him socially if she had to come and give him nourishment to get him through his SATs.” We all know that no child has ever had his mother have to breastfeed him through his college entrance exams, but hey why miss one more opportunity to marginalize the parent outside the norm of the culture as a crazy, possibly pathological, child-ruining monster? I suppose that reasoned, practical advice isn’t what advice columns are for anymore.