My son and I began the process of weaning from breastfeeding months ago. He turned one in December, at which point I retired my pump and he began drinking whole milk with his meals. I felt ready to have my body back, and I wanted to wear clothes that didn't necessarily offer unfettered access to my chest.
But the habit of nursing—the way he might stop for a sip after an active hour of play, its place in our bedtime ritual, the comfort he sometimes sought from me and me alone—was hard to break. Almost every day, I'd set a new deadline: 2020. January 5th. 15th. 18th. 31st.
Each day my willpower cratered, I felt guilty and anxious and desperate, even though part of me simply wasn't ready. Around the same time, we were watching developments of the novel coronavirus like it was a slow-moving train careening toward us—first abroad, then on the West Coast, then right here in Chicago, which had become a hotspot.
Suddenly, weaning was no longer our priority. Instead, our accidentally-and-then-on-purpose extended breastfeeding has proved to be a gift for both of us.
Human breast milk is something of a biological marvel. (That said, many of its most dramatic benefits aren't well researched enough to prove causation; formula, too, is its own modern miracle, and those who can't or don't wish to breastfeed are not disadvantaging their children.) For one, it is not a static substance. Its composition changes over time—from golden colostrum to skim-milk-like to fatty and in-between. And perhaps most compelling in this time of coronavirus, it is rich in antibodies. Some studies (as well as anecdotal evidence) suggest these antibodies help activate the immune system or protect against some illnesses, especially in newborns.
So in a time of heightened anxiety about illness of any kind—like many people, worries over coronavirus have been attended by a deep-seated paranoia, and a desire to avoid the doctor as much as we can—I am grateful for any balm.
I do not know how much or whether our breastfeeding actually contributes to my son's health, or whether it is a mere placebo, but I believe in its effects all the same. Put another way: Breastfeeding has been good for me.
Anxiety has become a constant backdrop to my days amid the pandemic, so I have made a conscious effort to reduce stress where I can. Continually setting and breaking deadlines was more than I could bear. Breastfeeding also works by triggering the feel-good hormone, oxytocin, in the mother to cause milk to let down, and during a time of heightened global anxiety, when good news is scarce and new worries surround society's reopening, I need more good hormones to counteract the potent cocktail of adrenaline and cortisol.
I never would have predicted we'd be in this position.
In the beginning, I wasn't sure we'd be able to breastfeed at all—though not for lack of trying. When a lactation consultant came to my home for the first time, just a few days after my son was born, we were struggling. He was mildly jaundiced, and I was convinced that, despite the injuries my breasts had sustained in the act of nursing, he wasn't getting any milk. The first thing the lactation consultant wanted to know was what my goals for breastfeeding were.
At that point, the chasm between what I'd imagined and our reality felt vast. I've never met a recommendation I didn't want to achieve, and I'd read all the literature. But motherhood wasn't as simple as setting a goal and achieving it; birth had already taught me that I needed to hold my goals a little looser, but only just so. So I told the lactation consultant six months, but that ultimately I just wanted it to work, for us to have a chance to really try it. It took six months for breastfeeding to come naturally to us, and so that goal turned to nine months, then, with some finality, 12.
I found breastfeeding strange, and strangely beautiful. In quiet moments late at night, when our baby was still new, my husband would look at us in awe and remind me of this primal miracle, that for our son's entire existence, it was I who nourished and grew him. That is no longer the case now, but nursing still has a place in our lives even though—or maybe because—our needs have evolved since then.
I was focused, when we first started to wean, on the superficial benefits of no longer breastfeeding, and the idea that I would one day be autonomous, that I wouldn't have to be the one my son insists on putting him in his crib at night. But amid this once-in-a-lifetime crisis, I'm grateful to snuggle a little longer.