(Written late September 2015, with a later postscript)
If I had known the last time you nursed would be the last time, I would have held you longer after you fell asleep. I might have tried to take a picture.
Babies never self-wean before a year of age. Knowing that, and knowing that my grace period for nursing and pumping would be difficult to extend past a year, I had been planning ahead on how to ease away from breastfeeding for that magic one-year mark. I knew I would have to slowly ease away from the pump, dropping a session at a time. I figured that we could still nurse occasionally, if you asked for it, but that I would be free of pumping baggage by that one-year birthday and hopefully down to just one nursing session a day, if you needed it, and easing our way to being fully weaned.
You’re a heartbreaker, though, and you’re as independent as your parents. At just over 8 months old, you decided that you’re not a baby anymore and that it was time for you to move on from nursing.
It felt sudden at the time, but like most relationships that end, the signs were there before I could see them. Your nursing sessions were shorter, and your attention to nursing was easily broken. Daddy couldn’t even be in the room when we nursed most of the time. Instead of your usual 20 to 30 minutes or more of nursing, we were lucky to get 5 to 10 minutes. I blamed your age, with its distractibility, and my work schedule that kept us apart for many nursing sessions, including my favorite morning ones.
And then you got sick. With a fever of 103 degrees or higher for three days, you again sought comfort at the breast. As your fever broke and a rash broke out to replace it, you still were not yourself, and you clung to me and nursed more. My nipples were raw from accumulated pump damage, but I gritted my teeth and let you have as much time as you needed, never showing you that soothing you was painful to me.
When you felt better, you literally hit the ground running, up on your feet and holding our hands to explore and expand your world. I love watching you find something new, and your sense of adventure reminds me of my own. Like a switch, when you felt better, you simply were not interested in nursing. You turned away from the breast, arching or twisting your back, and whining or crying as I tried to coax you to take nourishment. I handed you to your daddy to give a bottle, while I left the room and cried so that you wouldn’t see me.
The less you nursed, the more I cried. I can’t remember the last time I was so emotional, so devastated by a loss. I simply wasn’t ready. I thought we had more time. I thought I had some choice in the timeline. I hadn’t realized how important our nursing time had become to me until that need was no longer fulfilled.
Your nursing strike went from days to weeks. I consulted lactation experts and other breastfeeding moms in every venue I could find — Facebook groups, La Leche League meetings, calls to the certified lactation consultants. They suggested everything from changing positions to holding you near the breast while feeding a bottle to making you uncomfortable during a bottle. We spun in a chair and we bathed together, both of which were great fun to you but did not draw you back to the breast.
The last time I nursed you was on a Friday evening, September 25, when you were 38.5 weeks old. My girlfriends were visiting, and Daddy was out of town, so I was giving the evening bottle. A lactation consultant had suggested slipping you from bottle to breast as you were falling asleep at the end of that evening feeding, and I did. For about a minute, you latched and nursed yourself the rest of the way to sleep. In your sleep, you held on about a minute more. Two minutes. I held you close, not wanting to end the moment, afraid I would burst into tears and wake you up. At the time, those were tears of relief that you might be ending your strike. It turns out that you were saying goodbye.
Nobody writes songs or poems about this kind of heartbreak. Few mommy bloggers talk about baby-driven self-weaning. Nursing moms avoid talking about early self-weaning like they avoid contagious baby-kissers, as though acknowledging it could curse them into living it. I get it; breastfeeding is hard enough without dwelling on all that can go wrong. It would be reassuring, at least a little, to know that there are other mothers who have felt this way, other babies asserting their independence ahead of schedule.
Your pediatrician and our last lactation consultant both suggested what I feared and dreaded — that you were not the usual baby on a usual timeline. You were a toddler in a baby’s body, ready to eat solid foods and run on your unsteady feet, ready to be done with baby things like breastfeeding and tummy time.
I haven’t given up trying to entice you to the breast, but I have given up hoping that you will return and certain that you will spend enough time there to draw your nourishment. It is a necessary step for me, so that I can move past the grief stages and into our next phase. I imagine that I’ll continue to offer the breast as long as I’m pumping and lactating, because I know the milk is there if you want it. It does make me wonder if you’ll forget how to nurse. When does that muscle memory fade for you?
I feel cheated and robbed. Our last few breastfeeding months were stolen from me, taken without warning. Instead of seeing your bright blue eyes and smiling mouth, I now stare down at the cold plastic pump that will help me nourish you for another few months. I grieve the loss of our nursing relationship like no other loss I’ve felt before.
Nine months ago, I had to learn how to hold you to my breast to feed you life, to nurture you, to share affection. Now, I have to learn all over again how to feed and nurture and love you without nursing you. I’m lost, but I suspect you’ll help me find a way.
— Postscript —
Sometimes, wishes are granted, even if it happens in the smallest of ways. I continued to try to coax you back to the breast into October, never pushing, but always offering. If I was giving you a bottle, I had a breast out. If I was rocking you to sleep, I kept you nuzzled to my chest. On the evening of October 13, you were a little fussier than usual. I placed you in your favorite nursing position, got out the shield, and offered one more time. And you took it. This time, however, I was prepared. I took pictures and deep breaths, while trying to move as little as possible and being present in the moment as much as I could. You nursed for five minutes, and then we let go.
This time, in my heart, I knew it was the last. I offered less and less, and you never took the breast again (except for one vicious new-teeth chomp somewhere around 11 months old, but that hardly counts as nursing!). You couldn’t give me back our nursing relationship, but you gave me a chance to say good bye and have closure with it. You gave me what you could, and with all my heart, I accepted your gift.
Baby boy, I will cherish that five minutes forever.
The abrupt weaning taught me some valuable lessons that I hope I never forget as you grow older: to be present and in the moment, to enjoy and find the best in each phase because it might pass us by soon, and to let go and let you grow when you are ready to move up a stage.