A variation goes something like this: "After a baby is (six months, one year, 18 months) it's just about what the mother wants, not what's good for the baby." Sometimes we even say it to ourselves: "I just can't bring myself to wean her. I guess I'm being selfish because I can't let go."
I've been thinking about this idea a lot recently, prompted by some of the discussion on weaning spurred by this post on weaning.
I've been thinking about where this idea comes from. Here are my ideas:
1) The misconception that a mother can choose to breastfeed a child who doesn't want to. I can say from experience that if a baby doesn't want to nurse, you simply cannot force it to. Any of you who have had babies with "breast refusal" will know exactly what I mean.
2) The misconception that formula is as good as breastmilk. Of course you know that this isn't true, but as a result of some effective marketing, the percentage of mothers who say that it is has increased by 50% between 1999 and 2003. So, if there's no real difference between the two, the mother must be breastfeeding for herself. Diana West did a good job of pointing this out in a podcast interview I did with her.
3) The misconception that, at a certain point - one year, or 18 months - breastmilk declines in quality. This assumption, which mothers sometimes hear even from doctors, can easily lead you to the conclusion that a mother who nurses beyond that point is doing it for herself. The facts are that breastmilk continues to provide important nutrition and immunological protection, and that some immunologically important components of breastmilk actually increase as the amount of breastmilk the child gets decreases. Nature is no dummy.
4) The view that a mother could be breastfeeding solely for her own health. Until a reader left a comment reflecting that idea, it had never occurred to me that the research showing benefits like a reduced rate of cancer and faster weight loss could be turned around to blame women for wanting to nurse. As for the concept of a mother making a child nurse, see #1.
5) Discomfort with "extended" breastfeeding. Extended breastfeeding, which is really the historically normal course of breastfeeding, is so uncommon in this country that the idea of a nursing two year old just doesn't compute. It can only be explained by the mother's desires.
Mothers nurse their babies for all kinds of reasons - for good health, for financial reasons, for environmental reasons, among them. And yes, being successful at breastfeeding, however one defines it, can make a mother feel good about herself. But to accuse mothers of breastfeeding solely "for themselves," especially when so many mothers struggle valiantly to do it, and if anything put aside their own needs to be able to breastfeed, is just misguided and even cruel, in my view. I'd love to hear what you think.