Two months ago, one ordinary morning Rivers decided to wean himself. For the last few weeks we’d been down to one breastfeeding cuddle a day. The fact that it was only once daily made it quite painful for me physically. My body was regressing back to its former sensitivity, the pre-suckling baby sensitivity. He was 22 months at this point, so when he decided to skip his “bop bop” breakfast, I really didn’t mind. Maybe I was a bit relieved even.
The next morning he skipped again, instead following Daddy straight into the kitchen for oatmeal. He never requested our time together later in the day, and I never insisted. This went on for a couple weeks, then suddenly it was as if he remembered I was there, or really that my “bop bops” were there. But by then my breasts had shrunk. I was dry and my breasts far too sensitive to oblige. I could only hold him close, a winter sweater between the space that once held his head to my chest. Our relationship had evolved and we could not reverse time. We both cried a little, because change is tough.
My journey as a mother would not be complete without my breastfeeding experience and it’s absolutely not because of the actual act. The act itself did not complete me. In actuality I never felt the bursts of bliss that some mothers express. The experience for me was a lesson in trust. I had to trust the tiny person who knew more about breastfeeding than his new mother. I had to give him time to find his way, allow him to be fussy (to do the on again, off again dance), to hang on me All. Day. Long. during teething periods or growth spurts, and eventually allow him to do gymnastics on my face when he still requested breastmilk even after he was on a steady diet of solids. I had to trust my body. I had to trust that I was giving “enough,” because the moment I became anxious about it, my flow would begin to diminish. I never gave extra, but I trusted myself and I always had just enough for my single baby bird.
Before his arrival I had set a flexible goal of breastfeeding for one year, but by the time the first month passed I was in such pain that I had to exclusively pump for two days while Jonathan bottle fed. The first time I bottle fed Rivers, I wept terribly because he was so fussy, determined to wiggle his head into my fuzzy robe and get at the real thing. I kept thinking, if I make it to month three and this is still painful, I’ll quit. Month three was fine, but the pain crept back by month four, then disappeared again for good until recently when our days slowly dwindled. I had to trust that, like any physical exercise, my body would adjust and my nipples would toughen. They did.
As we neared a year, and Rivers became more physically active, he seemed to nurse less and less. I almost thought our days were over, but my instincts told me otherwise. If he refused me, I pumped. Nothing worth keeping ever came out of the sessions, but I kept up the activity to keep the milk glands active just in case. I trusted my instincts and sure enough he was back to nursing like clockwork.
Sometime after Rivers’ first year, a female farmer at the greenmarket unabashedly asked if I was still breastfeeding. It turned out that she had practiced extended breastfeeding with her son through his early toddler years and swore he never went through the terrible twos because of the practice. Her produce partner teased, “Oh yeah, did he skip the terrible threes? What about the terrible fours, or terrible fives? Are you just going to breastfeed him till he goes through puberty?” Though he seemed to be doing this in a friendly manner I couldn’t help but remember a time when I reacted similarly (internally, thank goodness) when a coworker told me she’d been breastfed until the age of three and even had memories of it. When my mother in-law first told me she’d breastfed both her children at least two years my eyes bulged a little. My mother breastfed, but extended breastfeeding was definitely a new term for me. I learned much more about it when I realized our journey was not over on Rivers’ first birthday. I talked to and read stories from other mothers and trusted that they were not crazy or smothering, but simply balancing the needs and wants of their child with their own instincts and boundaries.
After the first year of breastfeeding, the second came easily. We were practiced at the dance, and quite a dance it could be with a toddler! I could envy the farmer who took care of her son’s “terrible twos” by shaking her breasts. I wouldn’t mind doing the same as Rivers enters that stage of his life, but if I hadn’t learned to trust that we would both know when our time was truly over, then I wouldn’t have learned anything at all.