Neither Deaglan nor I knew what we were doing that first week or two. The aftercare nurses on the maternity floor tried to teach me. It definitely didn’t come naturally to me or him. Once my milk came in I felt relieved. But still the baby was at my breast for up to an hour at a time. How was I going to get a break this way, I wondered? He eats every two hours or so and at each feeding he eats for an hour. Was this right?
I was exhausted and afraid of doing everything wrong. It was one of the midwife team members who asked me the right questions. How is breast feeding going? How long is he drinking for? That’s too long; show me what you’re doing. Okay I see what the problem is. Here’s how you do it – bring the baby to the breast not the breast to the baby. Keep at it. It won’t feel natural at first but by about week six you’ll be in sync with each other.
And it did feel odd every time for the first couple of months. What a strange sensation to have this tiny human feeding from one of my body parts.
But the midwife knew what she was talking about because by the second month we were in tune with each other and the odd feeling faded. I know that breastfeeding doesn’t work out for everybody; several people I know, who had babies around the same time as me, couldn’t do it for one reason or another. I felt fortunate that the little effort I put in created a successful experience for me. It was so convenient and inexpensive. And the time we’ve spent together has been some of the greatest gifts of my life.
During my pregnancy, I had read that a baby should be breast fed for at least six months. So that was originally how long I planned to do it for. But once the six month marker came and went, I couldn’t even imagine stopping. I did start introducing solids but as a complement to breast milk. My next goal became to stop by 10 or 11 months so that he could be independent when daycare started. But even then I didn’t feel either of us was ready to completely stop. So I weaned him during the day and was able to nurse him from 5pm on. This worked out really well for the first few months of going back to work.
Work was difficult in the beginning. The separation was unbearable. But that’s another story for another time. Suffice it to say that I felt like I was doing something wrong in being away from him. It took several weeks for me to feel relaxed at work.
I knew that I had to think about weaning but none of the reasons seemed very compelling. I loved the time we still spent together while he was nursing. He is such a happy kid. I’d read articles after articles which championed toddler breastfeeding. Studies show that North America is one of the few places that stop so early. Many countries in the world continue until children are four years old. The benefits to the children beyond some well known health benefits such as fewer and less severe infections, decreased risk of some childhood cancers, are an increased sense of security in their own independence, increased sense of pleasure which leads to happiness for both the mother and child.
But too often, mothers who have had a trouble-free go at breastfeeding and who have enjoyed it, feel pressure to stop after a year. There is a sense of being judged or disapproved of if you continue to breastfeed past one year. Yet UNICEF has always encouraged breastfeeding for two years or longer.
My goal was to wean him completely by the end of April. I tried not to think about my own feelings about it, only the technical aspects. He can’t depend on me forever I seemed to be arguing for the proponents of stopping. And I will go back to a normal breast size. But the part of me I was consciously shutting out wanted to scream. I reasoned with myself that our relationship would not change. He would still love me the same, need me the same, want to hug and kiss me the same. But that part I refused to hear threatened to scream even louder.
On the surface a large part of me was ashamed to still be breastfeeding at 16 months old. Was this some kind of a weakness in me? Was I encouraging dependence? The questions and answers swirled around in the back of my mind day and night.
Then I read Catherine Connor’s post one day and finally wept. I cried because she had written about this experience as I had been experiencing it. I cried because the thought of this experience ending for us made me irrepressibly sad.
I read and re-read articles. At the beginning of his life it was so that I could understand him, why wasn’t he sleeping through the night, was he getting enough to eat? Now I wanted to find reasons to continue. I wanted scientific evidence that would give me permission to continue nursing. And all of the articles supported breastfeeding well into the toddler years. So why did I feel this pressure to stop? Who was making me feel this way? Shaune had never said anything to suggest that time was up. And so far I hadn’t discussed it with even my closest people for fear of being judged.
So in keeping with my plan, on April 30th I tried to stop. I was sad all day long at work, more sad than I’ve been in a long time. I cried. Deep sad crying, like when you lose someone. Grief consumed my body; the rationalizations no longer a help.
I called Shaune at work. Sobbing, I told him that I wasn’t ready yet.
“No one is telling you to stop nursing him. I’m okay with it. It’s nobody’s business how long you want to breastfeed for.”
I got off the phone and let relief fill me up. I had someone’s permission to keep going. Why did I need it? It was my body wasn't it?