December 16, 2013

Weaned: A Reluctant Requiem for Breastfeeding.

The trigger appears in the most mundane, domestic way: I’m standing in the kitchen, still wearing my clothes from my morning run as I clean out the cabinets.

Doing the boring, repetitive things that adults need to do. The chop wood, carry water of a grown-up life.

As I sweep a few petrified almonds from the corner of the cabinet near the tea, I see it: a salmon-hued box of Mother’s Milk Tea.

My eyes fill with tears.

It’s been seven months since I finished breastfeeding my daughter. After five years of being continuously pregnant of breastfeeding, I wanted my body back.

Weaning my daughter was surprisingly simple, almost casual. Slowly, we cut back on nursing sessions until just her bedtime feeding remained. One night, I was out and my husband put her to bed, so she went to sleep without nursing. The following night, we had a busy day with no nap, and she passed out in the car in the early evening and transferred successfully to her crib.

I felt ready to continue the experiment, so the following night, I held her on my shoulder instead of at my breast, and I sang the same song I sang to her every night while I had nursed her.

Mother carry me/your child I will always be/Mother carry me/ down to the sea.

The song had always calmed her, and it felt ancient and profound in its simplicity.

She let out a few small, puppy-like whimpers to protest the change in routine, then promptly sunk into sleep on my shoulder.

Just like that, we were done.

Weaning my son two and a half years earlier had been much more difficult. He nursed until he was 26 months old, and each dropped feeding session was a battle. “Milt!” he’d demand over and over again, hollering like a tiny George Costanza. I tried to distract him with toys, cow’s milk and Elmo movies.

Slowly, with tears (his) and guilt (mine), we were done. The moment he surrendered to his fate and stopped yelling, “Milt!!!” I found out I was pregnant.

Breastfeeding was a mixed bag for me. I was amazed that my body could do it—the body I had battled with for so long, had loathed and distrusted. But there it was, making food! For another creature! For my creatures!

In the beginning, breastfeeding was painful and messy. The chafed nipples, the dribbles of sticky leaking milk, the heavy ache of engorgement. The lazy uterine contractions, reminders of the torture of birth.

In the early months of near-constant growth spurts, my babies both cluster-fed for hours in the evenings. Stuck to my chair and my baby, I was a human life support system. Nursing was exhausting.

Over time, as I learned to nurse my babies in restaurants and on park benches, it was awkward. Fumbling with the straps of my nursing tank and trying to latch my baby onto my breast, I gazed around to see if anyone was watching. I was half daring someone to be disgusted, which only happened once. And I was half praying someone would offer me an encouraging smile.

Sometimes, I wondered if anyone noticed at all.

Later, nursing was stealthy¸ as my baby and I both learned the art of discreet breastfeeding; the quiet click of my nursing tank strap, a quick shuffle of fabric, and we were latched.

Other times during nursing, I felt the slight hint of arousal. A dark cloud of shame settled in my belly. How could I feel sexual feelings while nursing my children? What was wrong with me? Thanks to Google, I learned that while most people don’t talk about this aspect of breastfeeding, I was not, in fact, alone.

And then there were the sweet times. The way my babies would utterly surrender in my arms, my milk an opiate. Their faces slack and sated. Their chins smelling of my milk. In the evenings, I always sent out hushed prayers over them as they nursed: Keep them safe. Let them love well, let them be loved well. Let them outlive us.

Each of those phases and stages, like so many other in parenting, seemed like they would last forever.

And now, with so little fanfare, breastfeeding is over.

I’m an easily overwhelmed 39-year-old. Most days, I feel like I’m barely keeping my head above water with parenting two young children, keeping our home from becoming a biohazard, maintaining a marriage and growing a career. I don’t want another child. My family feels complete, in a way it didn’t before my daughter was born. It feels full and right. Brimming.

But seeing that box of tea, and knowing I wouldn’t need it again, ever, made me weepy. It isn’t so much that I miss nursing; breastfeeding was something I did, the same way I clean out those kitchen cupboards—because it’s good for my family. Because it was something I could do.

The sadness stemmed from the realization that an era was over.

The era of baby cheeks. Baby lips and baby eyelashes. The feather-light press of little bodies on my shoulder. Of being able to send them off to sleep on a river of milk, wrapped in wishes.

The era of mothering from my body. Not just my arms and my heart, but with my milk, with my breasts.

And it was done, without any rituals to mark these endings.

I barely took a single breath to celebrate and mourn, to hold the passing of this amazing, frustrating, sweet, exhausting time. I didn’t hold a weaning party, serving breast cupcakes with areola sprinkles. I didn’t even hash over the transition at length with my husband.

The other day, my son, now almost five, said, “Remember when I used to drink formula from a bottle?”

“Maxie, you didn’t drink formula. You drank Mama milk. A lot of it,” I added, jarred. Not only were all those hours spent in my arms, milk pouring from me to him, forgotten, he didn’t even realize that was how he was fed.

There will be a million other eras.

Already, we’re in the middle of the effing fours with our son. Our daughter adds O’s to the end of all of our names: Mommy-o. Daddy-o. Maxie-o. My husband and I are trying to close the gap between us that widened when our twosome bloomed into a family of four. My writing has been flowing, which started, perhaps not coincidentally, at the very same time as my milk dried up. We are out of one era and into the next, full throttle.

But I need to make some space. To break the quietness of these transitions. I need to talk about energy morphing from milk to words. About babies who stretch into toddlers, then children.

To say thank you, body. For growing and feeding my babies, who are no longer babies. For all of these milestones they won’t remember, but that remain imprinted on them, small slivers of their story. Of our story.

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Editor: Catherine Monkman

Photo: Courtesy of Author

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