We were breast-fed really late

My mother continued to let us touch her for years after feeding stopped, and now it feels creepy and revolting

Published May 21, 2012 12:00AM (EDT)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Cary,

I don't know how to put this any way but bluntly, so here goes. My mom let me and my brother breast-feed really, really late-- until we were 4 or 5. She let us touch and play with her breasts for years after that. She never told us what sex was, and later when I found out for myself, my body changing on its own, I felt revulsion at the all-too-recent memories of how I touched, and wanted to touch, my own mother. I hated that she hadn't stopped me.

Now I'm 18 and have a little sister. Just like with me and my older brother, Mom breast-fed her really late, and now at 9 years old, my sister still likes to feel my mother's breasts. My sister is my mom's last child, and so in several areas Mom persists in regarding her as a baby.

I try to understand my mom. I realize the idea of her last kid growing up must be scary and depressing. But this behavior is disgusting to watch or even to know it is going on when you're not there. Additionally, it's delusional and perverse to excuse, and even encourage, such behavior in a growing young woman on the grounds that she's an infant. Who knows why I wanted, and now my sister wants, to touch my mother's breasts at age 9? Certainly not because we wanted to breast-feed. But Mom's so convinced of my sister's innocence that she refuses to consider she could be encouraging inappropriate impulses that my sister is too unaware to understand.

I know those impulses are there. It happened to me. But for obvious reasons, I can't tell my mother that.

What I do tell her? That I'm grossed out and that my sister is too old? Mom won't listen. My sister, of course, listens to Mom over me and gets mad at me for saying anything. So I'm at a loss for what to do, and I don't want my sister to turn out with the revulsion of her own memories and the confusion of her feelings that I suffered.

I'm so disgusted it's keeping me up at night. I'm angry and stressed.

What should I do?


Dear Revolted,

I want you to consult with a psychotherapist. Look for someone who has helped others with experiences similar to yours.

You could read and study about this. It wouldn't hurt to get a basic understanding of child development and how such experiences can later affect us in troubling and unexpected ways. But knowledge alone will not be enough to avoid the later effects of this early experience.

The best thing you can do for yourself now is to find a therapist who can respond to you in a clear, responsible and nonjudgmental way and sit with you, week after week, as you tell your story. That would also be the best person to advise you on how to talk with your mom and your sister should you choose to do so at some point.

You are in a great situation right now. You know what happened, and it is still fresh. You have not distorted what happened or rationalized it or put it out of your mind. So this is the time to act.

You will meet obstacles in your search for the right psychotherapist. So consider this a quest of monumental importance. It may be the most important thing you ever do -- more important than your education or your later occupation.

Feelings of guilt and self-hatred may arise. As such feelings come up, remind yourself that they are not helpful. They are, in fact, the direct result of this experience that has left you feeling troubled and conflicted.

You may also hear voices telling you that talking about it is taboo or will expose others to harm. That is why the confidential setting of a psychotherapist's office is the ideal space in which to tell your story. You will not be "outing" your mother or have to confront her; you will not be causing family conflict. All you will be doing in therapy is resuming, as a slightly older person, the course of development that was sidetracked at an early age by these unusual experiences.

You have the chance to live a happy, productive life, unburdened by this. Moreover, once you attain some understanding of this, you can be of use to others who have had similar experiences.

Now, I believe that a rich country like ours ought to provide for its people in certain basic ways. One of these ways is in medical care. Psychotherapy is a kind of medical care. So I believe that high-quality psychotherapy and psychiatric care ought to be readily available to people of all income levels.

This is not currently the case in America. Instead, we  must be creative, energetic and insistent to get the care we need. This is cruelly paradoxical, because it is precisely at moments when we are most burdened that we are called upon to be entrepreneurial and creative in our search for care.

You will need strength and resilience as you search for the right therapist. To keep on your quest you may need to repeat to yourself that this is indeed a life-or-death matter. People who have such experiences can later fall into depression, suicide and addiction. We don't want that to happen to you.

Some people are uncomfortable with this topic, so they snicker and make childish jokes. Beware of shaming remarks. It would be great if they could just slide off your back, but the truth is that such remarks often do sting. Do not pretend that such remarks are not hurtful. Instead, feel the sting and wait for it to subside, like the sting of a bee. Accept that the world has many cruel and ignorant people in it, but you can survive and live a happy life.

Don't listen to anyone who says to just get over it. We humans don't often just "get over" stuff like this. Not without help. So get help.

You can find the help you need, and you deserve it. It's not your fault what happened when you were just a kid.

By Cary Tennis

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Breastfeeding Parenting Psychology Psychotherapy Since You Asked