This winter I achieved something that felt impossible--I weaned my son and his brother after 5 and a half years of nursing. Looking back over that journey, here are a few things I learned along the way.
1. Expectations and goals change…and that’s ok.
If you had told me when my son was born that I would be nursing him till he was 5 and a half, I would have said you had me mixed up with another mom. I planned on breastfeeding my baby, but did not identify myself as the ‘earthy-crunchy-type mother’ who I imagined extended breastfeeding past infancy. In the beginning, like so many new mothers, breastfeeding did not come easily. I was in pain, exhausted and overwhelmed. One night, in the wee hours of the morning, as I cried from my bleeding, scabbed nipples I decided to simplify my expectations and take things one day at a time. Understanding that feeding a baby can be a full-time job helped me overcome the intense feelings of inadequacy that made me want to quit. Had I known then that there is no shame in asking for help, I could have received much needed support in the in the form of a CLC or IBCLC consultation, La Leche League meeting or breastfeeding mothers group. Even without intervention though, nursing eventually got easier for both me and my baby, becoming second nature, and my 6-month goal came and went.
2. I changed.
I never set out to be the gal nursing the 50-pound kindergartner. Like so many ideas I had about parenthood, I ended up keeping what worked for me and discarding the rest. I imagined that my baby would naturally lose interest in nursing. I thought I would need to create a firm ending time for breastfeeding. When neither one of those things happened, I realized my thoughts around weaning had nothing to do with me and my kids’ welfare and more about wanting to conform to cultural norms. My notions about how long a ‘good’ breastfeeding relationship should last changed and I decided to just reevaluate me and my sons’ interest in nursing as time passed. I started to understand that stereotypes of different styles of mothering were a fallacy and boundaries and identities were much more fluid than I originally thought. It wasn’t only so-called ‘earthy crunchy moms’ who pursued extended nursing, it was me too. As I began to shed my notions about what “type” of mother I was and I wanted to be, I became much more flexible. I understood that my choices don’t have to confine me and I can change my mind without having an existential crisis.
3. I don’t need to explain my choices to others.
Though my family members supported my decision to continue breastfeeding till toddler hood and beyond, some seemed visibly shaken when it happened in their presence. I tried to be understanding when my sister launched into an awkward public conversation about how uncomfortable she is seeing children who have teeth breastfeeding. At first, I was happy to provide an educational angle on nursing, an anthropological analysis and statistics in response to people’s probing questions or uneducated comments. I graduated to sarcastic remarks and jokes to alleviate their distress. Finally, I stopped explaining. People’s discomfort, I realized, has very little to do with my decisions. Breastfeeding is one topic in an extensive list of issues related to our bodies about which we, as women, are taught to feel shame. I realized that I had a choice to not internalize other people’s uneasiness--I owed no one an explanation on decisions I deemed best for me or my child. This realization helped me in many parenting arenas where we are taught to tear each other down for our decisions and helped me foster a ‘live and let live’ philosophy that serves me to this day.
4. It’s okay to hate nursing sometimes.
Did I love seeing my kids and my nursing bond develop over time? Yes! Did I get sick of doing it every day and night? Absolutely! The feeling of being on a roller coaster was magnified after I gave birth to and began also nursing my second son 3 years later. One minute, I would be tearing up at the boys stroking each other’s faces or holding hands while they tandem nursed. The next moment I would be praying they would stop so I could finally put a shirt on. My relationship with my own body during the postpartum period was already complicated, and adding other human’s needs into it made it even more complex. Doing anything for 5+ years is going to be difficult at times, but doing something that requires presence and loving attention sometimes felt like an impossible undertaking.
5. Embracing the boob nickname is ok.
Mine were ‘nas’. My friends’ were ‘nu-nus’ and ‘ba-bas.’ After a while, I forgot my chest ever had another identity. For us, the name has stuck. Just the other day my son measured himself against me and declared he was ‘as tall as the nas.’ Wow, he is getting tall.
6. I was sad AND happy when it was over.
When I pictured my kids and I deciding mutually to end breastfeeding, the scene is emotional, poignant and ends with me journaling over a glass of pinot. As with most of my fantasies around parenthood, the reality of how it went down was messier and much more sober. I decided to wean on a December day, in the harsh fluorescent lights of a Rite Aid as I filled a prescription for antibiotics for my second round of strep throat. As I pondered the potential side effects for my (also sick) boys, I decided to wean them rather than chance giving them gastric troubles from their exposure. After being sick for weeks, I was at my absolute maximum. It became a decidedly unemotional decision. That night I put some Band-Aids on my nipples and began explaining the sad news--just like us, the ‘na’s’ were sick.
The boys accepted the change, but the transition was the opposite of what I had wanted. It was abrupt and lacked consensus of us as a family. My heart broke a little every time they tried to help heal my boobs with get-well cards and snuggles. After mourning my idealized weaning experience, I know I made the decision for me and my sanity. If there is one thing I know, it is that a sane mom is the best mom. My sons and I still have a lot of touching and physical closeness and they remember nursing fondly. Weaning, like nursing, was just one more shift in our ever-evolving journey through their childhoods. I was lucky and privileged to have breastfed for that long. I know the developments and challenges; twists and turns are the nature of my journey as a woman and as a mother. As long as I stay adaptable and open to change, I know it is all okay.
Written by Christine Powers.