“I keep saying, it’s not like he’s 7 or 8 — he’s still a baby,” she says, as the 30-month-old pushes away his lunch of pasta, and reaches for her breast to nurse during a PEOPLE photoshoot at her home in Detroit this summer. (She practices babyled weaning where Harper eats at his own pace: “It doesn’t force children to eat — it allows them to discover it and gradually wean at their pace.”)
“Every single day I have to weather criticism about how my child is too old to breastfeed,” she says. “But when he weans, it’s going to be his decision. I truly believe it’s the child’s choice.”
It’s a choice the star of DIY Network’s long-running show, Rehab Addict, has been forced to defend publicly, as it emerged as a point of contention in a two-year custody battle with her ex, Shane Maguire, 54.
When Maguire first asserted his parental rights, when Harper was 6 months old, he was awarded visitation two days a week. Although Harper had been exclusively breastfed till that point, Curtis, 41, suddenly found herself needing to make other arrangements.
“He had never had a bottle before, and then all of a sudden that was his only option while he was with his dad. I had no idea that a judge could say, ‘You’re court ordered to not feed your exclusively breastfed child,” Curtis says. “It’s important that children have both of their parents. But [preventing] me from breastfeeding my child just so he can see the dad is not right.”
In court, Maguire accused Curtis of continuing to breastfeed the now-toddler as a way to prevent him from getting time with his son. An attorney for Maguire, Jerry Cavellier, tells PEOPLE that the baby took formula via a bottle at 6 months.
To read more about Curtis’ story, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.
(Pediatricians advise that infants under the age of 1 year consume either breast milk or formula, with many studies showing several distinct advantages to breast milk; after 12 months, breast milk is not considered nutritionally necessary and parents can introduce cow’s milk.)
For her part, Curtis denies trying to interfere with Maguire’s visitations, and maintains that her ex refused to inform her of how he was feeding Harper. (Maguire’s attorney denies that he withheld information.)
She also says the court-ordered arrangement jeopardized her milk supply, because she was unable to produce milk from a pump.
“I had to pay an outside licensed lactation specialist to witness me pump without results,” she says. “I sat in my living room with my shirt off, hooked up in front of a stranger to document that my body did not produce enough.” (After she presented this information to the court, Curtis was granted access to the infant once a day during Maguire’s visitations in order to breastfeed.)
“I’ve always been a fighter. If something’s not right, I’m the first person to stand up,” she says. “And I don’t believe that my child should have to wean because of our situation.”
In recent months, Curtis and Maguire have gotten closer to a détente.
“We’re working on it,” she says. “We’re just trying to take the temperature down a lot. It’s still not perfect or even close, but it’s better.”
But Curtis remains steadfastly committed to nursing her son. On days Harper is with Maguire, “I’m still carrying around an electric breast pump trying to keep my breast milk supply up,” she says, adding that the small amount she collects, “sadly gets dumped” since Harper doesn’t like a bottle.
As for her own future, Curtis says she still hopes to find love but is singularly focused on raising both of her boys (she is also mom to Ethan, 19). “I’ll never give up on love,” she says. “But for me, you could take everything that I have away. I just want my kids to have peace, and I want them to be happy and safe.”