World Breastfeeding Week, which takes place during the first week in August each year, is almost over—I managed to make it 6 days without blogging, organizing an event, or otherwise going all out to promote breastfeeding during this very special week. I’m an IBCLC. I’m supposed to be all over this week, right?
I became an IBCLC in 2009, but my breastfeeding story started in December of 2002. I began my breastfeeding journey with one flat and one inverted nipple, a baby who became severely jaundiced by her 18th hour of life due to ABO incompatibility and the Coombs antibody, and hospital practices that were less than supportive of getting breastfeeding off to the best start. When my first baby and I were discharged from the hospital on her 7th day, I had enough pumped milk with us to last several weeks; yet, the nurse’s words (which were no doubt meant to encourage me) “lots of mothers just pump and bottle-feed, it’s no big deal,” upset me tremendously. I was determined to get this breastfeeding thing right. No one else in my family had successfully breastfed, but my little girl seemed to know she belonged at my breasts—every time I picked her up to hold her, she bobbed her tiny little head against my chest. I was going to get this right.
I was fortunate to get some skilled, compassionate help and when my baby finally latched onto me on her 8th day, we never looked back. She breastfed until a few weeks before she started her 2nd year of preschool; she was almost 4. This meant that I had been tandem nursing her and her younger brother for nearly two years—he was born before her 2nd birthday. About 7 months after his big sister weaned, my son again shared his “uns,” this time with my 3rd baby, who was growing inside of me. I would tandem nurse them until just before my son’s 4th birthday, as well.
I had been in something of a hurry to encourage—albeit gently—my first two children to wean, since I didn’t love tandem nursing. Oh, I wouldn’t have done anything different if given the chance for a do-over, but breastfeeding a baby and a toddler, or a toddler and a preschooler as they got older, was a lot for me. I’m thankful I had support and the ability to allow both of them to wean more or less on their own schedules, but frequent conversations and a special “weaning lunch” out with me helped bring those two breastfeeding relationships to a close.
Things were different with “baby number last,” though. I don’t know if knowing she was the last one or appreciating the significance of breastfeeding as a parenting tool made me want to linger with her more than I did with the older two. Maybe it was because she took such obvious comfort in nursing, or, due to the fact that she was an avid thumb-sucker, she never really lost her ability to nurse properly—the other two got lazy latches and stopped transferring milk when they neared the end of their time breastfeeding, but my youngest didn’t.
I was relieved when her 4th birthday came and went and she hadn’t weaned, because we were preparing for a major surgery. I was truly surprised last summer when, at 4-1/2, she went to visit her grandparents for a week without me and came back wanting to nurse. The leaves began falling off the trees and I started wondering which nursing session would be our last—the end had to be near, didn’t it? Her 5th birthday passed, and I asked her, “do you think you’re going to wean, soon?” Even if it had been a few days since her last nursing, she would always nurse sometime that day if I asked her about weaning, letting me know that she was decidedly against the idea.
During her 2nd half of kindergarten, I had little or no milk left. Gabriella rarely asked to nurse anymore, and my body knew that winter had arrived—there would be no more new life in my breasts once they went dormant. This was an entirely new experience for me, since I had never really gone through a weaning on my end before. I wondered if I’d lose weight? Gain weight? Would my bras fit anymore? I had heard so many stories of the physical changes mothers experienced. I didn’t know which ones might apply to me, having breastfed continuously for over a decade. Some colleagues told me I would be able to express drops of milk “maybe forever,” but this didn’t seem to be the case for me. Gabriella would latch on once every few weeks this past spring, just for a few seconds. “Is there any milk in there?” I’d ask her. “No, but I still like the taste of your boobie,” she’d say with a giggle and a smile.
I wasn’t really sure what she was getting from those 15-second latches once or twice a month, and I also didn’t actually know what to say when anyone asked me if I was still breastfeeding (though these inquiries had become very, very infrequent because few people—including myself—imagined I’d still be nursing a kindergartener!). We were in an unfamiliar gray area. During a morning snuggle, I asked Gabriella “did you wean?” She answered “no, but I don’t nurse in the mornings anymore.” A few weeks later, I asked her again, during a bedtime snuggle. “Did you wean?” “Ummm, no,” she explained. “I don’t nurse at night anymore. But I’m not weaned.”
About a month ago, after I finished grad school and we were enjoying a rare (OK, the first) phase of downtime in our family life, I snuggled up with Gabriella on our “milk chair,” a rocker/recliner where a lot of breastfeeding had taken place over the years. Even at 5-1/2, she’s still so affectionate and snuggly. She tells me I’m the most beautiful mommy on the whole earth. I want to know why she doesn’t want to say she’s weaned. She tells me, in a tone of voice that sounds downright scholarly, “I just haven’t made that decision yet.” I stress to her, and to myself I think, that we can always be close, even when we’re not nursing. I remind her that I haven’t had milk in months, and that she doesn’t nurse in mornings or nights anymore. Isn’t this weaning? Haven’t we weaned?
That night, as if on cue, Gabriella sighs “I wish I could nurse” while I’m tucking her into her bed for the night. “You can if you want,” I reply, and she is happy. She latches on to my empty breast for a few seconds, pops off, and tells me “I’m done. I don’t need the other one.”
I find I’ve gotten tired of wondering whether the last nursing session has passed or is yet to come. I’ve accepted that I’m no longer lactating, and with my first baby preparing to enter the 6th grade in a few weeks, I’m not worried about whether I know how to connect with a weaned child—I know I do. With or without Gabriella’s consent, I think I’ve closed the “breastfeeding mother” chapter of my life, content instead to serve other breastfeeding mothers the best I know how. This is a big shift for me, since I’ve never approached breastfeeding support other than from the perspective of a mother who is also “walking the walk.” Am I “over” breastfeeding? The truth is, today, I’m ambivalent about it. My celebration of World Breastfeeding Week will always be welcome—I will never not be a supporter or an advocate, but a decade is a long time to do something, to do anything. A decade is a long time to be a breastfeeding mother; to not be one anymore, without ceremony or the closure that a more formal ending might offer, leaves me a bit unsettled.
Then it occurs to me: just as my children have each weaned with the assurance and safety that I would still be their home base—our relationship would be strong on the foundation breastfeeding established for us—I, too, could assuredly move into the next chapter of motherhood, and of breastfeeding support. I no longer have milk to offer, but after nearly 11 years of mothering, I have so much more to offer my children … and the mothers I support. This World Breastfeeding Week has been a bittersweet one for me, a commencement of sorts; I proudly move away from the behavior I joyfully allowed to define who I was as a mother, and I embrace the confidence and wisdom I gained through breastfeeding my children, knowing I’m ready for whatever is next for us.