Two weeks after her 4th birthday, Gabriella underwent a 3-hour craniofacial surgery to resolve a rare birth defect. Two pediatric neurosurgeons and a pediatric plastic surgeon cut open my little girl’s head in an incision that wrapped from ear to ear. They pulled her scalp and most of her face down, and scraped dermoid tissue from the bone between her beautiful eyes, reaching into the suture line to ensure my baby does not have to deal with the invasion of foreign tissue into her brain later in her life.
It took her a long time to wake up. She ran a little fever in response to the anesthesia and the incredible shock to her system from having her face taken off. Gabriella was so, so brave and compliant, letting the nurses adjust the tubes and probes that were all over her in the recovery room, content to rest if I held her hand.
We were admitted to her room later in the afternoon, after the recovery nurses felt comfortable letting her go. Gabriella was starting to wake up, and was so happy to see her brother and sister when they came to visit the children’s hospital. She was excited to show them the big fire truck to play on and the rooms filled with toys and activities. With 5 days until Christmas, Santa Claus found some time to bring presents to the children in the hospital, and Gabriella was delighted.
But the morphine made her sick. She was hungry and thirsty, but even ice chips made her throw up. “I don’t want to throw up again, mamma,” she told me in her tiny, weak voice. “I think nursies will help me. Can I nurse?”
I had anticipated this moment for the months leading up to Gabriella’s surgery. Her siblings had each weaned before their 4th birthdays, and I expected that Gabriella would do the same. I half-hoped I would have breastfeeding as a tool to help my little girl through her most difficult life experience to date, but the rest of me worried that she might not wean and I would find myself on the defensive.
You see, we live in a time and place where we would rather see a magazine teeming with images of scantly-clad women on a beach than a mother breastfeeding her child on a bench. A toddler who climbs into his mother’s lap to breastfeed is viewed as stunted and spoiled; his mother is accused of being a slave, or, worse, being a pedophile.
I worried that even the healthcare professionals charged with my daughter’s healing would strike me down if I comforted her at my breast. I thought about how I might carry Gabriella, in her little hospital gown with happy tigers romping around on it and her IV line, into the not-so-clean, poorly lit bathroom in her room and let her nurse, with the door closed, while I sat on the toilet. I considered whether I might just nurse her in her bed and receive any confrontations that came our way, praying none of the staff were so ignorant of normal human biology as to call Child Protective Services in to investigate us. This anxiety came on top of the worry that we hadn’t taken care of everything through our insurance, that my job might place unreasonable demands on me when my child needed me the most, that, maybe, something unexpected would happen during the surgery and my joyful little girl would emerge from it changed … or not emerge at all.
We arranged her IV line so that neither of us would be on top of it. We laughed when the automatic movement in the mattress, intended to change the position of the patient to prevent bedsores, surprised us as we got settled in to nurse. Her eyes were puffy with fluid that was draining downward from her head, but I could see the relief in them. It didn’t matter that we were on a plastic sheet on a noisy hospital ward with narcotic-induced nausea (hers) and utter exhaustion (mine). She latched on, and we were home, safe, and together. Gabriella nursed to sleep, and I drifted off, too, for the first time in days.
The shift nurse came in to check Gabriella’s vitals when she was still attached to me. She smiled and asked “she’s holding that down OK, I take it?” I made a joke about there not being much there anymore, but added “she doesn’t seem to mind.” The nurse didn’t challenge me or attack. She didn’t accuse me of molesting my sweet girl.
Yesterday, though, when TIME Magazine released its controversial cover photo of a mother and her preschooler, awkwardly and unnaturally posed with him standing on a chair with her nipple in his mouth and her staring vacantly at the camera, the accusations flew. America called me “a feedbag for a bratty child,” wondered “how the hell is the kid going to survive kindergarten if he can’t go without boob at every meal?” I was called “a slave to my kid” and told I am not teaching my children how to respect me, or anyone else, for that matter, by “indulging them.” My children were called “overly dependent,” “unable to ever solve problems for themselves,” and “they’re gonna expect everything handed to them on a silver platter when they’re adults.” I was directed to “cut the freaking cord, already” and to “stop getting your jollies off your kid sucking on your tit.”
I am thankful my children, at 9, 7-1/2, and 4, are unaware of what the society around them supposes about their lives. They all remember breastfeeding; they still seek comfort in me, their mother. The foundation is there for an enduring, loving relationship.
Being Old Enough to Ask for It doesn’t forbid a child from receiving comfort from his mother – however that mother chooses to comfort her child. The older child isn’t breastfeeding all day or to meet nutritional needs, he’s nursing a few times a week because he still needs that “home base” connection to his mother, and breastfeeding has provided that basis since the moment he was born. The preschooler who still breastfeeds goes to school with your children, but she doesn’t talk about nursing or cry for nursies at rest time – she behaves in age-appropriate, developmentally normal ways (and if she doesn’t, breastfeeding isn’t exacerbating whatever the issue is, rest assured of that). Breastfeeding my 4-year old, postoperative child wasn’t disgusting, it was normal. Nursing her back to sleep a few nights ago when she woke up in the middle of the night wasn’t indulging her, it was loving her the way she has come to expect to feel love and comfort from me, her mother.
Gabriella looks back on her time at “the hospital hotel” with smiles. The hair that was shaved to allow the “boo-boo” is shorter than the rest of her hair and a little hard to control at 5 months post-op, but she puts on a headband and gets on her way. She experienced no emotional trauma and has no lingering fears or worries about visiting doctors or being subject to tests (she spent nearly two hours AWAKE in the noisy tube for a full spinal MRI just a few months ago, in fact). Might Gabriella be so confident and stable, even in the face of tremendous adversity, if she wasn’t still breastfeeding? Perhaps she would be … but I’m thankful she and I know what’s best for her today, and I’m committed to ensuring families are not deprived of accurate information about the normality of breastfeeding an older child.