The only sketch in Little Britain that ever made me laugh is the one where a posh young man is visiting his parents' country pile and turns to his mother whining, "Bitty, Mummy, bitty." To the horror of the assembled company, his tweedy mother whips out her breast and the adult son starts suckling on it.
The joke perfectly skewers three stock characteristics of the British aristocracy: eccentricity verging on insanity, emotional repression, and a propensity for kinkiness. But the sketch really works because it recognises the social alarm that most Brits feel when faced by a well-spoken woman who's breastfeeding a child above three years of age - even someone as grown-up, well-adjusted and nursing-bra literate as myself.
I have never forgotten taking the poet Fiona Pitt-Kethley out for lunch in a London club when her little boy was around three and a half, and how she whipped a tit out from under her jumper as she stood talking to me, bending over so her son could get his top-up. The antiquarian coin dealers in the corner spluttered into their soup. A common reaction, I suspect, to Channel 4's Extraordinary Breastfeeding screened on Wednesday night, which took a look at the phenomenon of the late-weaning mother.
My husband's nerve broke early on when the programme turned its focus to über-earth-mother Veronika and her daughter Eliza, who was nearly eight but still diving for the nipple on a regular basis. Older sister Bethany, who had been weaned at five, was pea-green with jealousy.
Anyway, my husband (posh, repressed, propensity for making model battleships) took one look at Eliza suckling away on a vast bosom while Veronika pontificated on the benefits of such nurture and went, "This is making my flesh crawl," before leaving to make a calming cup of green tea.
So who was being unnatural? Veronika or my husband? Actually, I better not shift all the harrumphing old-fart blame on to him. I could just about cope with Spanish-born Dolores lactating for four-year-old Tristan, but when Veronika and family appeared, I too began feeling like a reactionary colonel. The "anything goes" part of me longed to be able to say, "Well, if it makes them happy, why not?" as I would about any adult or Liberal Democrat who chose to participate in some recherché activity behind closed doors.
I know from my own experience of motherhood how overwhelming the desire to be an all-providing Madonna can be. When my son gave up on my bosom (he was born with a tongue-tie - a slight malformation of the tongue which roots it to the floor of the mouth - meaning breastfeeding was always a struggle), I realised that it was my loss I was really mourning. My son flourished and my husband gained hugely from being joint nurturer. Even so, every time I took out a bottle I felt I should be wearing a sandwich board proclaiming: "Not selfish boob-job bitch - tried to lactate but was rejected." Or maybe the more direct: "None of your business."
Veronika clearly thrived on becoming the living embodiment of a pagan earth goddess, ruling her family through her dynamic personality and equally imposing bosom (even husband Paul took a swig occasionally), but she always explained her prolonged lactation in terms of her girls' needs, rather than her own. But any mother who has breastfed knows the comfort and emotion involved is hardly a one-way process.
I phoned a couple of friends in the mental health game to see what they made of it. "It's child abuse," said one female shrink, "The mother is refusing to accept that her child is separate from her." "The children will be in therapy for the rest of their lives," said another. Neither wanted their quotes attributed because mothering is such an incendiary topic at the moment.
I realise my life is now in danger of an imminent milk-bombing by the "breast is best" lobby. So I should make it clear that I am resolutely pro-breastfeeding, have spent several useful hours being tutored in the art by the La Leche League. I think it's utterly dismal that Britain has one of the lowest rates of breastfeeding in the world and that women are still often prevented from suckling their babies in public. Nevertheless, I'm not ready to see women breastfeeding their seven-year-olds in the V&A.
I can't help thinking it infantilises the child while the mother basks in the milky, sensual glow of her own self-anointed beatification. I also fear there's something bullying about the new breastfeeding orthodoxy which doesn't allow other creeds of mothering to be of value. Breast may be best, but bottle - to hell with rhymes - is a useful tool in helping your child achieve a happy, stable, separate identity. Oh, and you can get a full night's kip while your husband feeds the little blighter.Reuse content