Ah, the magic of breastfeeding. If you're a nursing mother, and you're anything like me, you probably read a whole bunch about breastfeeding before your first kiddo was born. I knew I wanted to breastfeed, and I knew I needed information, support, and encouragement.
I read, I talked with friends, I even grilled my own mother about her breastfeeding experience. All of that, especially talking to fellow breastfeeders, was incredibly helpful. From early issues of difficult latches to oversupply to teething and biting and eventually, the hilarious reality of nursing a giant toddler.
I always felt like I had the info that I needed. But there was one area that my breastfeeding education was sorely lacking: weaning. I mean, I knew that all children do, in fact, stop breastfeeding eventually. But I was incredibly hazy on the details, and I was woefully ill-prepared.
When my son surprised me and weaned himself, at about a year-and-a-half, I suddenly realized that there was this massive gap in my knowledge. I had decided, when he was a little under a year old, that I wasn't in any rush to be done breastfeeding. I sort of vaguely intended to let him wean whenever he was ready, but I imagined that left to his own devices, that wouldn't be for ages.
When my toddler quit the boob, I was left remembering the wistful look I had seen in other mothers' eyes when they said, “oh yeah, my oldest stopped nursing before I was ready." I naively imagined that they were describing some kind of vague regret, but plunged into the world of weaning, I found it was much much bigger than that. Weaning isn't merely the cessation of breastfeeding, it's a major shift in a complicated parent-child relationship. For me, it literally changed everything.
With all of the information out there, discussion of weaning is still surprisingly sparse. Maybe some parents want to keep their experiences private, (fair!). Maybe the folks who think weaning should happen by a certain age, and the folks who think weaning should be up to the child, are too busy promoting their own ideologies to talk about what weaning actually is. Whatever the reason, I think mothers who choose to breastfeed could probably use more information about weaning. I sure would have benefited from it.
Here's what I wish I was told about weaning:
Weaning can happen really suddenly, even though that isn't the norm.
When my son stopped nursing, I did what any reasonable millennial mother would do, I Googled it. Based on the circumstances, it was clear to me that my baby was on what is called a nursing strike. He was sick, and he was temporarily refusing to nurse, but I had every reason to believe he would return to his usual nursing routine very soon. Everything that I read was clear on the subject—weaning almost always happens very gradually, and therefore any time a kid suddenly stops nursing, it's a strike.
Almost always means something different than always.
Not wanting to wean my child before he was ready, I did everything in my power to end the strike, but the longer he went without nursing, the more okay he seemed. Eventually, I realized, if the strike went on forever, it wasn't exactly a strike anymore, was it?
When he hadn't nursed in about a week, I noticed that he no longer even seemed sad about it, he just wanted to play with his toy trucks and he didn't want me and my boobs in his way. I had imagined that either I would decide to wean him or I would have plenty of warning before he weaned himself. Sudden self-weaning might not be the norm, but just because something isn't the norm is no guarantee that it won't happen.
It can be both emotionally and physically hard on the mother.
Fortunately, a friend tipped me off that post-weaning depression is a thing that can happen. I knew that I might get seriously down. I also knew that, as a mom who had suffered from postpartum depression, my odds of getting post-weaning depression were higher.
What I didn't know, however, were the potential physical aspects of weaning. I had imagined that I would likely enter some kind of depressive period around weaning, but I thought it would all take place in my brain. The cessation of breastfeeding was, for me, a whole-body experience. The hormonal change not only gave me a serious case of the blues, it also caused severe exhaustion, nausea, and even dizziness. Oh, and my boobs tingled and felt like pins and needles.
I felt gross all over. I found myself saying “I just have to lay down for a few minutes" several times a day. When I finally talked to other parents who were weaning, I confirmed that I wasn't alone. Other people also felt so bad that they wondered if they were getting sick.
Sometimes you might feel rejected, and no amount of logic can help.
Idealistically, I believe that the point of parenting is raising children to become happy, healthy, confident adults, and therefore I am thrilled to witness my child become more independent and self-sufficient. That's what my brain thinks about parenting. What the brain thinks and what the heart thinks are often very different things.
When my son no longer wanted to nurse I felt heartbroken. I felt useless and completely rejected. I worried that my place in my family was suddenly gone. If I wasn't the nursing mama, who was I?
Logically, I knew that I was still his mom and that we still had a special bond. Just because he was done with this one particular activity didn't mean he was done with me. Logic couldn't reach me when he was refusing to hug me. Logic didn't help when he pushed me away, shouting, “no no no no!" Logic wasn't comforting when he only wanted to see his other parent at night and completely freaked out if I so much as walked into his room. Logic was useless to me.
The one thing that did help, though, was a friend who, while I was still clinging to hope that he might nurse again, offered me these somewhat pessimistic words of wisdom: “If it is the end, just think of it as the first time of many that he'll break your heart."
That's the thing. Kids grow up. They stop needing us as much as they did before. It feels like rejection, and it sucks. Sometimes you can't reason your way out of those feelings, you just have to accept that those feelings are part of the package you signed up for when you took on parenting.
It can be hard to find the support you need, but it's not impossible.
For whatever reason, people just seem to talk about weaning less than they do other aspects of breastfeeding. It was easy to find support as a nursing parent. If I wanted to talk about milk supply, or night feedings, or nursing in public, or pumping, it seemed like there was always a community of like-minded parents ready to share with me.
It was wonderful. The social spaces in which I accessed breastfeeding support were, by definition, pro-breastfeeding. Once I was no longer breastfeeding, I wasn't sure where to turn. For the first time, I found myself feeling totally and completely alone. I was overwhelmed by the physical and emotional changes taking place, and I thought I had no one to talk to.
I did eventually find support. It just required me being willing to initiate those conversations. People didn't freely offer up information and stories about weaning the same way they had with their breastfeeding. Once I made a point to put myself out there, however, it got easier.
In some ways, weaning can feel like getting back to normal.
The end of breastfeeding was extremely difficult for me, but there was an unexpected silver lining. After a couple of weeks, I realized I had started to feel.. different. The feeling was oddly familiar, and then it hit me, I was starting to feel more like I did before I was pregnant.
I don't feel exactly like I did pre-pregnancy and baby, becoming a mom has changed me in many ways. The realities of breastfeeding changed my life more than I realized. With its absence, I found myself slipping into older patterns. In a way, it feels like waking up from a long trance. There's no denying that the hormonal balance in my body and brain is different now. My days are no longer segmented into breastfeeding sessions. I have more time.
When I was nursing, there was constant physical touch. As an introvert, that was a lot to handle, even though it was also very snuggly and nice. Now that I'm the parent of an independent toddler, I no longer feel constantly “touched-out." I can enjoy things like holding hands and cuddling again.
The end of the breastfeeding relationship can be bittersweet for many. It certainly was for me. In the end, I wish that I had talked about it more, and more frankly. I'm grateful for the people who were open with me about their own weaning experiences. I hope I can pay a little of that forward, and make it a little easier for someone else.