First a note: I meant to get this post out last week, for World Breastfeeding Week. This post is a reflection on my breastfeeding experience so far and includes photos of breastfeeding and personal details about my breasts. If any of that makes you uncomfortable don’t read it; click away and come back tomorrow. 🙂
Today is August 8, 2011, which means we are less than one month away from Nora’s second birthday. It’s a little bit unfathomable. Not only does it mean that I’ve been a parent for 23 months, but also that I’ve been giving myself nearly completely over to another human being for 33 months.
Nora snuggled comfortably, safe and nourished, within my body for 42 weeks; on a beautiful September afternoon she moved a little bit further away as the umbilical cord was cut, but only as far as my breast. For six months more, I continued to provide her sole sustenance from my body, heart, and soul. The day we gave her a first taste of solid food was a bittersweet moment for me as a mother. We all want to see our children grow up and become more independent, but there is nothing more magical than knowing she and I were still one in many ways. Watching her lose that complete reliance on me was a little bit heart-wrenching, just as it was exciting to see her grow.
In the 14 months since her first taste of beets, Nora has grown into a beautiful little girl. She sleeps in her own bed now. She brushes her teeth. She does art projects. She knows the ABCs and a handful of other songs. She’s done away with daytime diapers. She speaks in full sentences, and she loves to eat just about any food — including beets. But through it all one thing has remained consistent: nursing.
Today is the 700th day that I have felt a warm little body snuggled tight against mine before the sun’s first rays peeked over the horizon. That I felt deep, relaxed breath on my bare skin, and arms and legs draped across me in a cuddle known only to breastfeeding mothers. It is the 700th day that I have been able to offer instant comfort after a fall or quick refueling for a hungry belly in a way no one else can. It is the 700th day that I celebrated being a mother to Eleanor Margarete through the ultimate expression of nurturing and mothering.
Last week, as I was preparing for my breastfeeding class, I spent a lot of time reflecting on our breastfeeding relationship. I thought about the information and advice that was helpful to me (or unhelpful) as I was preparing to meet the mysterious creature in my womb. I thought about the initial struggles I had with flat nipples and poor latch. There was immense, toe curling pain. Nipple cracks and bleeding. Plugged ducts and engorgement that, at times, would have made me a good candidate for Playmate of the Year. There was the five-hour job interview I went on when Nora was just 15 days old (having only pumped four ounces), and, just as we were starting to figure breastfeeding out, there was my financially-necessary return to work when she was just eight weeks old. There was initial nervousness over nursing in public, then later nursing everywhere, including all-faculty meetings at work. There were business trips to California, days spent in New York City and Albany and other cities hours away from the babysitter’s house. There was pumping under my jacket on the train, pumping in the passenger seat of the car while a coworker drove (and my male boss sat in the back seat), pumping on conference calls, pumping in bathrooms, borrowed offices, and boardrooms. There was one horrendous day in the city with only a hand pump. There was leaking, and there was (literally) crying over spilled milk. And yet despite all that we made it work…I made it work.
Before Nora was born I said I would nurse for a year. We needed the financial savings of not buying formula, and I was becoming more and more aware of the incredible health benefits of human milk. When I returned to work, I realized there was something else, too. I needed to know that I was still playing an important part in Nora’s day regardless of having to spend most of it away from her. I needed to know that, despite spending more waking hours in the arms of another woman than in mine, Nora knew I was her mother and the source of her life. Handing dutifully expressed bottles of milk to the babysitter each morning was how I maintained my motherhood in defiance of our lost time together. And besides that, sitting at my desk pumping required me a few moments pause to think about Nora, when I might have otherwise stayed lost in mountains of work. Because I never sent a lunch-time bottle, I was out the door everyday at 12:30 for the most peaceful lunch hour I could imagine; if I stayed late at the office, it was after picking her up at the sitter. That extra time with Nora could have easily lost out to work responsibilities, if the sitter had bottles waiting and if my aching breasts weren’t calling out for my baby.
When my dream of staying home with Nora was finally and miraculously realized after seven torturous working months, I was glad to ditch the pump and spend blissful days connected to Nora, nursing on cue. About this time, we transitioned her out of our bed and she quickly started sleeping through the night. It was also in her ninth month that she learned her first few signs and discovered that she could sign “milk” and actually get what she was asking for; she started asking all the time, sometimes nursing as frequently as every hour. I didn’t mind. I got to sleep through the night for the first time since her birth and I didn’t have to hand her over to someone else during the days.
By Nora’s first birthday, the newness of the “milk” sign had worn off and she only used it when she really wanted to nurse. She was exploring more and more food and loving it — some days she only nursed three or four times, but she ate and ate and ate. She had teeth as early as four months and had a mouthful by a year, so she was able to eat almost anything I ate. But at a year, Nora was still so much a baby. She wasn’t yet walking (though it didn’t take long) and she was a teeny-tiny little thing. She couldn’t nap without nursing and definitely couldn’t wake up without nursing. Things were going so well and I couldn’t see any reason to change things, so I changed my expectations instead. At a year, I decided to nurse her until she was ready to stop.
One of the best things I’ve ever heard at a La Leche League meeting is that no one just wakes up one morning nursing a toddler. It may seem odd to think about Nora nursing, but that’s because they don’t see her as Chris and I do, as the little baby she once was and the slow gradual changes (which are often impossible to pinpoint to a specific day or time) that made her into the little girl she is now. Sometimes I look at Nora and I can imagine nursing her for another year or more. I see how much she still needs her “mop” (as she calls it) and am in no rush to push her even further out of babyhood. I think what a useful tool it is for me as I spend 80-90% of the time caring for her alone, and how tandem nursing her and a future baby could be wonderful for avoiding jealousy and promoting sibling bonding, not to mention engorgement. I am aware of the science that shows continued health benefits well after a year, the two-plus year recommendation, and the worldwide natural age of weaning. Other times, I look down at her and I see what others see – the girl who seems older than her years, who not only asks for it by name in full sentences, but specifies a location and which breast, and often wants to share with her stuffed animals – and I wonder how long I can continue.
Right now, I have a love/hate relationship with nursing. There are moments when it’s the best most amazing thing in the world and there are moments when I just want her to stop asking to nurse and leave me alone. In those moments I take a deep breath and think about why she is asking to nurse and why I don’t want to. Is she bored, tired, hungry, or hurt? Can I offer her something else? Can I let her nurse only as long as it takes me to sing the ABCs? Can I refuse completely and explain why? Or can I pause what I’m doing and spend time curled up in our living room chair with her, legs tucked together over blue ticking, arms wrapped together for the moment of closeness she needs to adjust herself to what’s happening in the world around her?
Chris and I have talked a lot about nursing and our family lately. We’ve talked a lot about this “all important” second birthday. About the increasing amounts of criticism that that I’ve been getting from my family for continuing to meet Nora’s needs; that I’ve been asked to leave rooms and been told straight up that they think she is too old. We’ve talked about the fact that I sometimes feel burnt out on nursing because it seems like her default request when I’m busy doing something and can’t stop to play with her (like cooking dinner), and then she sometimes throws temper tantrums when I tell her no. We’ve talked about our second attempt at switching her to a toddler bed (currently underway) and how I have zero interest in letting her nurse at night again even if the switch doesn’t go well. We’ve talked about how losing nursing would most likely mean losing nap time. We’ve talked about how nursing is like Nora’s cup of coffee in the morning and after nap. We’ve talked about cutting back, practicing “don’t offer, don’t refuse” or just staying the course. We aren’t yet talking about weaning. I’m not ready for that. Nora’s not ready for that.
I am so incredibly lucky to have a husband supportive of breastfeeding (many women don’t). Without Chris’ help and encouragement, there is no way I would have made it as far as I did. It helps that he grew up seeing his mom and aunts nurse; he even had a cousin who nursed until four so he’s not shocked by extended nursing. It also helps that nursing benefits him: the very few nights when Nora has awakened and I was nursed out, he quickly learned what life would be like if Nora was weaned — more work and less sleep for him too, not just me.
It’s funny how as one thing gets easier, another gets more complicated. Nursing went from incredibly hard and emotional to easy and mindless joy to weighted and full of things that beg to be considered and mulled over. As I planned my class, I decided I would say this: I never would have imagined I’d still be nursing a two year old, let alone marching through the streets proudly proclaiming it and teaching others how to do it. I never thought I would pump in front of another person or not feel weird lifting up my shirt to nurse in front of my dad or strangers. But here I am, proud of myself and every moment of this nursing relationship and grateful that I stuck it out when the going got tough, when it would have been so much easier to reach for a can of formula. I’m not sure where nursing will take us: whether I’ll find the patience in me to keep nursing at request or if I’ll eventually build set nursing times into our days; whether I’ll let Nora lead the way or nudge her towards a faster ending. I don’t know when the last nursing will be, I just know that it won’t be tomorrow or next week or even next month.