For all that is written on the subject of beginning that ultimate bonding relationship with your baby known as breastfeeding, I feel like precious little space is devoted to detailing what happens when you (or your baby) decides to end that relationship. Perhaps it is in part because, like so many maternal adventures, the experience can vary so wildly from person to person.
I, for example, could regale you with two completely different tales of weaning, one for each of my babies. My first story is the fairytale variety. It is a pleasant account of a mommy and baby who enjoyed a fruitful and mutually enjoyable breastfeeding experience until they both agreed that all good things must come to an end and happily parted ways. My second story is more like those penned by the Brothers Grimm in nature. It starts off pleasantly enough but ends with a mommy in tears and a baby wondering where his trusty friend the booby (not talkin’ about the bird, people) went. And because everyone knows that stories with a little bit of unresolved conflict are far more interesting than those that end in “happily ever after,” I’m going to share with you today my second weaning story – one that is still, in my mind anyway, being written.
Weaning my son has been one of the most unexpectedly difficult and emotional experiences I have ever endured. To some degree, it is the circumstance surrounding the decision to wean that hurts as it is one for which I alone am responsible. I agreed at the beginning of the summer to take a week-long trip with my husband in early September. I carefully considered the future status of my nursing relationship with my son as I evaluated whether I should go, and I concluded that surely my son would be fully – or at least mostly – weaned by the time the trip rolled around.
“After all,” I reasoned, “My daughter was happily weaned (baby led) before her first birthday, and since absolutely everything about my experience with my son and daughter up until this point has been exactly identical (please detect my abundant sarcasm here), why should the weaning process be any different?”
After my son’s first birthday came and went on August 12, it became clear to me that in agreeing to go on the September trip I had made Serious Error in Judgment #6,742. Much to my conflicted delight, my precious one year old son was not showing any signs of disinterest in breastfeeding. Perhaps even more tellingly, I was continuing to cherish every facet of our nursing relationship. Our mutual desire to continue along this path took me by surprise because a) conventional wisdom suggests that the average time to stop breastfeeding generally coincides with a child’s first birthday and b) with my firstborn, I had already liberated myself from what I had grown to consider the “shackles” of breastfeeding well in advance of her one year birthday.
Whether it’s because my son has been such a needy baby – so desperately attached to me since the moment he was born, or because I fear that he could be my last child, or because I just sensed he wasn’t ready to wean, I absolutely dreaded beginning the arduous process of gradually replacing each of our nursing sessions with a bottle feeding.
I have vivid memories of the last nursing session for each of our four feedings, mainly because I was very intentional in making them. I first eliminated the afternoon nap feeding several weeks before the trip. It was the easiest for me to rationalize away since I felt like I didn’t have much to offer anymore (in terms of milk availability) for that session anyway. Then came the morning nap session which I couldn’t bring myself to drop until a week before we left. I cried a little during the feeding, but it was minimal in comparison to the silent, soul-shaking sobbing that accompanied our final night session. Let me pause here for a moment to relive what exactly I will miss about nursing my son to sleep at night. I will miss the way he almost instantly closed his eyes in unmistakable satisfaction and comfort once he latched on to my breast. I will miss the game of peekaboo he’d initiate with his trusty blanket after he was finished with one breast and ready for me to switch him to the other one. I will miss removing his sweet little head from my breast and holding him, limp with sleep, on my shoulder for a few treasured and lingering moments before gently placing him in his crib.
When I nursed him the morning of our departure (knowing that it would be the last time that I ever nursed my precious baby and perhaps ever nursed a child period) Lord have mercy. The floodgates opened, and though they have subsided, the tears haven’t stopped since. To say that I was distraught is simply not doing the intensity of my emotional state justice. In that moment, I deeply regretted making the decision to take the trip. As foolish as it may sound, I felt like my tenure as a mom was coming to an end. Sure, my son would need me in the future just as my daughter does now, but he would never again need me that completely. My body was no longer of use to him, and it was impossible for me to ignore the real and terrifying prospect that it may never be of use to another baby ever again. I felt hollow, used up, and above all, very alone. So there I sat – about to embark on a journey that I should have been excited to take, a trip that was supposed to be celebratory and liberating – nursing my child for the last time and wishing like crazy there was a way I could just stop everything and make the world stand still.*
Looking back, I wish I could say I delighted in every moment of all of my son’s feedings, but of course I can’t. I spent many, many nursing hours either trying to redirect my daughter’s boundless energy towards something less perilous than making a swan dive off the back of the couch or with my phone in hand distracted by the likes of Frozen merchandise sales on Zulily or ice bucket challenge videos on Facebook. Although I wish I could turn back time and savor every moment I enjoyed with my son, I know that to do so would be neither practical nor possible.
Even so, I feel compelled to encourage you nursing moms out there – on behalf of those of us who would trade places with you in a heartbeat – please enjoy those seemingly endless hours spent breastfeeding your baby. What everyone says is actually true: in the grand scheme of things, those hours really are fleeting, and there will come a time when you will want every one of them back (ok – well, you’ll want a lot of them back). And if your baby is approaching the year mark and everyone is asking when you are going to quit breastfeeding, but you don’t feel in your heart that you or your baby is ready, then listen to that heart of yours. It’s a big, powerful heart, and chances are, it’s right.
Since time travel is apparently not an option for me, I am trying to focus on the positives of not nursing anymore. I can, for example, now wear an attractive, well-fitting bra that not only supports the girls but actually hoists them up to my chin. (And that, my friends, is a marvel of modern engineering.) I can drink as many pumpkin spice lattes as I want at any time of day without worrying if I will soon be unintentionally exposing my precious little man to too much caffeine. Ditto that for red wine, margaritas, Coke, and junk food in all its various shapes and iterations! I can even erase all the crying and stress my two little blessings have caused me via aesthetic treatments galore (I’m lookin’ at you, Botox) because let’s face it, having babies takes a toll on your lady business, but the fun doesn’t stop there. Even so, today – in this moment, I would joyfully trade my miracle bra wearin’, illicit beverage swiggin’, Botoxed and chemically peeled self for just a little more time to nurse that sweet little baby boy of mine.
*As a means of explanation to those why I didn’t just spare myself the heartache and take a pump along, I will confess that my pump broke on our last trip in an unfortunate transformer/adapter incident, and I didn’t get it fixed/replaced thinking that we simply wouldn’t take another trip until after my son was weaned. I obviously could have borrowed a pump or bought a new one to take along with us once I realized how I felt about ending our breastfeeding relationship, but I didn’t. This was largely because I didn’t believe my milk supply would have survived a week of pumping (I now believe it would have – total heartbreak), in part because I didn’t want to deal with the hassle of bringing the pump along and trying to fit regular pumping into our active itinerary, and in part because I believed I would have made my peace with weaning once we were knee-deep into our vacation (wrong again). As for my son, he has adapted to bottle feedings without incident. It’s just mommy who continues to have issues with the weaning process.