I am reading Emma Donoghue’s Room at the moment. It is one of those novels that everyone is suddenly talking about. Narrated by a five year old, it is about he and his mother’s very isolated life. The book has an extraordinary premise, which I won’t give away here, but there is another element to the story that everyone can’t help but seem to notice and unpick and that is that the five-year old is still being breastfed.
Which brings up the one part I struggled with a bit. Very early on, we see that Ma breast-feeds her son. The book opens on his birthday, and she tries, halfheartedly, to wean him, but he loves this intimate connection to his mother’s body as much as he loves all the walls and objects and routines of Room. There’s a flicker of unease in the reader here — and it’s a good and interesting flicker. Room is a sanctuary for Jack, but where are the lines, the boundaries between mother and son? When does security go too far?
I am breastfeeding a toddler, myself, for the second time in my life. I weaned Lauca when she was almost two. But Cormac, whom I am currently breastfeeding is a year and a half old, and to be honest, I don’t see us stopping any time soon. For the most part I enjoy breastfeeding. Apparently once you breastfeed past twelve months you are practicing ‘extended breastfeeding’ and if you persist past another point, precisely where I am not exactly certain, you start practicing ‘extreme breastfeeding’. I am pretty sure breastfeeding five-year olds, as happens in Room is considered extreme breastfeeding. (Incidentally, The Slap is the only other novel where I can recall references to extreme breastfeeding, can you think of others?). I am not an earth mother. If anything you would probably stereotype me as a career woman, though I am not that either. I wear pencil skirts, high heels and stockings to work. I can’t sew. I don’t usually make things myself, I buy them. I fantasize about modernist furniture and architecture. I don’t do world music festivals (or women singers harmonising together, either). But I am very content breastfeeding a toddler.
I try to remember what it was like when I was squeamish about this. I was never the sort of person to tell a woman off for breastfeeding in public. I never felt offended by it. But I may have felt uncomfortable sitting with someone while she breastfed in a restaurant. I may even have later, behind her back, agreed with other friends that breastfeeding her toddler was kinda ‘weird’. I can remember being that person, I know the thoughts that ran through my head but I can’t recall now how it felt to think that way. Somehow I have crossed a divide since motherhood.
If you’re perturbed by my extended breastfeeding you might just as well be telling me that you think the toddler is too old for me to be wiping his bottom, that you find it vaguely sexual or somehow too intimate for a child his age. I would nod slowly, showing you that I listened and thought about what you said, and then I would walk away thinking you poor fool with your ridiculous hang-ups.