Yes, now we get down to business. This honest post, I feel, has been coming for a while, but if the subject makes you nervous, you are no doubt staring at my blog like two men once stared at me in a restaurant as I fumbled with my shirt, a blanket and a baby, their expressions clearly crying foul: She's not going to do that right by us - surely not? Is she? Over breakfast? Where do we look? What do we do? Please, no. Nooooooo!
Yes, I'm going to do it, and, hopefully, not as clumsily or nervously as I tried to over that greasy breakfast. I'm going to talk about breastfeeding at long last because of THIS POST by Alison Lee from Writing, Wishing. I think her article is very insightful, and I agree with much of it. Nursing is a very convenient way to comfort, nourish and connect with your child.
As a new mother I held a strange belief that babies should be nursed to a year and no further. That was the magic number. Ha! I learned, as any parent eventually does, that when it comes to raising children, there is no magic number and there is no yellow brick road of enlightenment. With my firstborn, my son Berto, I did indeed wean close to a year - but because I was already expecting my first daughter.
His last nurse was a quick good-bye at 13 months. He nursed, then popped off to stare at my breast with a confused, reproving expression. He got back on, realized quickly nothing was forthcoming, gave the breast a last puzzled look, and turned his back on it permanently. The spigot was broken; there was no more milk or what little milk there was tasted funny. He was over it and not heartbroken at all.
Then came my little girl into this world, my little bronze-skinned angel. She loved her nurses, but she never got all plump and rolly-polly like other infants. When I ran to the church nursery after her baptism to feed my very cranky and hungry daughter, I felt I was being judged by my relatives for continuing to nurse a one-year-old. My sister-in-law's words - "Once a baby starts walking and talking, that's when you have to cut them off!" - were playing in my head.
I had already stared cutting out feedings at about nine or 10 months, scheduling one every week or two to remove from the offerings. But my mother, after all the crowds of relatives had dispersed home, was sitting with our Ana, and she said very wisely, "Hillary, she's not ready to be weaned. I wouldn't wean her just yet if I were you."
Ana was nestled against her grandmother's side and was making tiny, self-comforting sucking motions with her mouth.
"But I already started....I can't go back now," I protested.
I wish I had listened to my mom. I caused my Ana and myself such heartache, because I didn't. I stubbornly persisted in weaning, and I don't know what I was doing wrong, but there was something. My breasts would still get engorged with milk between the feedings. And then at night, I would stand outside my daughter's door as my husband tried to comfort her to sleep without breasts, and my heart would bleed until sometimes I couldn't stand it and gave in, incurring my husband's wrath for wasting his efforts as I rushed to pick her up.
I would do it all differently now. I would listen to my wise mother. Ana's last nurse still haunts me - and, yes, I mean that. I want to cry just thinking about it. Technically, she was already weaned, but my breasts were so swollen one day when I came out of the shower that I drew her onto my lap just to gain relief from the pressure. The little look on her face was so surprised, so relieved, and so grateful. She nursed eagerly that last time at 14 months, but it shouldn't have been her last feeding.
For months after Ana was weaned, she made self-consoling sucking motions with her mouth whenever she sat by me or even another woman. She lost weight, because she still hadn't transitioned completely to solid foods - something which is completely my fault and makes me angry with myself and remorseful when I remember it. Sometimes she would only take cow's milk for breakfast, and when we showed up to her 15 month appointment with the pediatrician, the nurse practitioner was very concerned about her weight, and so I felt I was an absolutely horrible mother for not ensuring my daughter was getting all she needed.
Ana was sad and not eating properly. And I was sad, depressed.
Somehow in weaning Ana, I think I must have caused an imbalance in my hormones, because I went through a period of serious depression where I felt quite bad about myself as a mother, wife, person. This was acerbated by the fact that I realized my breasts were utterly altered by nursing. I was a full two sizes smaller (less than an A, I was considering buying training bras) and droopy after just two little ones, so my body-image suffered badly, vain creature that I am! Not only that, but my body chemistry seemed completely haywire as well. Only later did I discover that post-partum depression can sometimes occur after weaning your nursing infant. It certainly explains the emotional upheaval I experienced.
But regardless of miniscule breasts and post-partum depression, my biggest regret by far was not nursing my daughter longer for HER emotional and physical well-being. One day, years later when my daughter had entered elementary school, I cried to one of my dearest friends about Ana's experience of weaning and about the fact that I didn't just continue to nurse her until she was closer to two. I felt I had cheated her and could never make it right. That may seem silly to some that I could still have raw emotions about the traumatic weaning of my daughter so long after, but I suspect many mothers have their own memories, their own regrets that make them equally emotional when they recall them.
I did learn from that experience, at least. With my next two babies, I had no pre-conceived timetable. My Ella and my Danny Sam both nursed until they were around two years old, and I don't regret it. It was a blessing for them and for myself not to struggle with expectations but to just go with the flow.
In the end my advice to my daughters someday or to any new mothers now would be to listen to your needs and those of you children when nursing your little ones. It is a compromise, a balance of their well-being and yours. Reject pre-conceived ideas of your own and ignore the interfering opinions of others - especially if they have no children themselves. Nursing is not simply about nutrition. It is about the essential bonding between mother and child. I used to have people accuse my baby of using me as a pacifier. Well, and so what? I was made to comfort my child in a unique and very effective way. I do not believe you can spoil a child with love, attention, by holding them too much or nursing them too often and on demand. On the contrary, too many toys and a lack of discipline are how we spoil our children. I think the more love you show, the more attention you give, the more you hold them and the longer you nurse them, the happier, more confident and healthier they will likely be. Every family's story is different, and I understand nursing is not possible for everyone. But do your best with what you've got, and don't plan ahead too rigidly. The life of a parent is full of surprises.
And, sadly, some regret.