Breastfeeding break-up (and no, it was not mutual)
See how peaceful and relaxed I look nursing my baby here? A veritable Madonna-like picture of maternal bliss and bounty? That was a hard-won victory.
Despite the fact that I've done it three times, breastfeeding, at least in the beginning, was never easy. Even with Terza, those first few weeks were grueling -- nothing like the Armaggedon situation that developed when I nursed newborn Primo -- but tough. Nipples bleed no matter how proactive you are about your latch. Ducts clog. Breasts engorge into rock-hard orbs like something from a sci fi movie. And it hurts like a mofo. I mean, I'm sure that's not the way it is for everyone, but it definitely was for me, three times. Which is why, once the babies and I iron out the kinks and get into our nursing groove, well, I'm loath to stop. For starters, I keep thinking about how much effort went into teaching the creature how to breastfeed in the first place. Then, too, I think about how much effort will go into teaching them to stop.
I have heard of babies who naturally wean themselves at a certain age, and I bet that comes with it's own problems and heartache. But my babies, once they nailed nursing, did not go gently into that good weaning. I still remember Primo writhing around, jonesing for mamma milk at 14 months when I pulled the plug, and I remember Seconda clawing at my shirt front desperately trying to get her hands on my goods, at about the same age.
When Terza neared 14 months, the age at which I was fully ready to wean the other kids, I considered whether or not I should stop nursing and there was really nothing to consider. No way. Both the baby and I were still full-on loving the nursing, I still felt that crazy profound sense of peace and well-being when she fed, though I'm sure there wasn't much oxytocin left circulating. At the same time, I still ended up nursing every morning between 4 and 6 am and that just sucked balls, frankly. Plus, I craved having my body back to myself fully and completely, to do with whatever I saw fit. It's not that I'd do anything differently. I've never been a terribly conservative nurser -- I'd have a glass of wine or two, and take an antihistamine when the need arose, and if I wanted, there was always the option to pump and dump -- and I've also never been a terribly wild non-nurser, never really drink more than a glass or two of wine or take anything harder than an antihistamine anyway. The fact that my habits would likely remain exactly the same made no difference however: what I craved was the choice, the freedom to glut myself and get violently sick with an infection for which the only remedy was medication not approved for nursing mothers. How swell that would be. I wanted to spend a night away from the kids and leave my ball and chain of a pump at home and not have to worry about a milk eruption without it. Still, at 14 months, the pleasure I took nursing though, was greater than my quiet yearning for freedom.
At 17 months, for no apparent reason except the passage of time, the balance tipped. Most likely it was just those 90 extra times I woke at 5 am to nurse when everyone else was sleeping. Maybe it was because I got a cold and just wanted to binge myself on Sudafed. Either way, at 17 months, I wanted freedom more than I wanted the baby to stay a baby forever.
Just around that time, David and I were taking a overnight trip to Philadelphia, which would mean the baby would miss her usual morning and evening anyway, and I figured it was a good enough time as any to end things. That's what it felt like -- a break-up, an exceedingly non-mutual break-up. My breasts were dumping Terza. I knew she'd be devastated, that she'd keep coming around trying to get my breasts to change their mind. She'd paw at them plaintively, as if to say this time, things would be different, she'd give them the space they needed, they could even wear non-nursing bras if they wanted. But my breasts would say no, the love affair had run its course, and now it was time to move on, find someone else, a pacifier, maybe. There would be tears on both sides, and a not insignificant amount of leaking too but it had to be done.
And that is pretty much how it panned out, except that my breasts caved. The morning after we returned from Philly, I went to the baby when she woke and was surprised to find that she wasn't happy to see me. Or, perhaps it would be more accurate to say, she was happy to see me, but her happiness was buried beneath a force far greater -- her extreme, primal need. No smiles or clapped hands which might communicated "Oh goody! Mommy's back!" Instead she moaned "Mamamamamamama," and dove headfirst into my bosom in a deranged state of either starvation or addition or both. I made it approximately 10 seconds before I relented and lifted my shirt.
"We're not ready," I told David, "I'll start by cutting out the morning feed and then, in a few weeks, we'll get rid of the bedtime one."
I secretly feared that my caving meant I'd never wean, that Terza would just keep putting up a fight and I'd keep relenting until one day, I'd find myself suckling a tween. But the plan turned out to be a wise one for both parties -- my turbo-powered milk machines had a chance to slow production gradually and the baby got to slowly say her goodbyes.
Two weeks after my initial attempt at weaning, I spent the night at my grandmother's so I wouldn't be around for bedtime. Terza fussed a bit but finally, she took her milk cup, which she'd never done when the breast was on offer.
It still felt like a break-up, and not a mutual one either, but not the kind of break-up that would scar you for life, full of animosity and guilt and court dates. It felt like a hard but necessary step, and two or three days later, I was able to experience some relief at having taken it.
To celebrate, I had a glass of wine and an antihistamine. Freedom is sweet, all right.
Nicole is a parenting writer who contributes essays and articles for magazines like Parenting, Parents, American Baby and Babble. She lives in Brooklyn with three children, one husband and a morbidly obese goldfish.