In America today, every parenting decision is fraught with tension, with mothers and fathers inadvertently forced into taking a stance in the skirmishes of the "Mommy Wars" almost every day. For mothers of infants, the decision to breastfeed or not is a new parent's first stance taken in the Wars. If a mother chooses to breastfeed, thus continuing past societal norms and avoiding some of the judgment that is often aimed at new mothers who don't, she is still likely to face criticism over how long she elects to nurse. Many mothers (and their children) face criticism for the decision to partake in "extended breastfeeding," beyond the first year.
The latest story to spark a firestorm is a profile of a mother in the UK who is still breastfeeding her six-year-old child. Sociologists interviewed by NPR claim this age range is acceptable according to the biological norms of mammals and also within the span of human history. This, like every other decision taken by parents in the Mommy Wars, should be a case of "to each her own." But unfortunately, we can't simply agree to disagree anymore without calling in the state to act as an arbiter, with our children's lives on the line.
While defending the practice of “extended breastfeeding” with convincing evidence, NPR had this warning attached to anyone considering breastfeeding their child past the age of three or four, quoting anthropologist Katherine Dettwyler:
“But mothers are well advised to be quiet about this in a culture where they can be accused of sexual abuse and have their kids removed by child protective services, or lose them in custody battles. Both things have happened. I do encourage people to shout it from the rooftops once their kids are grown. That's why I am not shy about telling people that my daughter nursed until she was 4 years of age, and my younger son until he was 5.5 years of age.”
Of this shocking statement, NPR expresses no pushback, fear, or disgust. One hopes NPR's readers and listeners were appalled at what they heard, however. This overreach of the state’s power into individual parenting decisions is a frightening result of the nanny-state culture which has become pervasive in American life. For big-government liberals, this may be an inconvenient truth, but it is a truth nonetheless. If you choose extended breastfeeding, shout it from the rooftops. And if you choose to use formula from day one, shout that from the rooftops too. We should not live in fear of a knock on the door from Child Protective Services, nor look to the state to inform our most basic parenting decisions.