by Kasey Stacey
I always knew this day would come. For a long time, I dreaded it. I wasn’t sure how to be a mother without breastfeeding and the need to learn how to raise my son without nursing left me feeling uncertain and intimidated.
For a long time, breastfeeding was everything to me. In those first days after Vinny was born, I thought I saw my ability to breastfeed slipping away from me, and I was devastated at the prospect of not having that connection with him. A few months in, when we had finally gotten into a groove, I was convinced that I’d never give it up. Breastfeeding was my greatest triumph and my greatest joy. I was so in love with nursing and with my son, and I wanted to maintain that for as long as I could. I nursed him at every opportunity, providing his nutrition, his comfort, his safe home-base as he became more aware of the world around him, all at my breast.
The days came when breastfeeding was hard again, when it was no longer joyful, when it no longer inspired feelings of love and closeness for me. I endured breastfeeding Vinny through aversion and post partum depression because by that point, I could see that he loved it so much that it would break both of our hearts to have to let it go so soon. On some of my darker days, nursing Vinny was literally the only tool I had to foster any sense of security for him. I knew that if I put him to my breast, he’d know that I love him, that I was there for him, that I could still help him feel stable during his tumultuous days as a toddler and my tumultuous days as a mother of two. Even though I am convinced that nursing aversion was a principal catalyst for PPD, I was grateful to still have nursing, even while feeling sad that breastfeeding Vinny wasn’t ever going to be as magical as it was during his infancy.
The aversion abated, and I tandem nursed Vinny and Brigid for 16 months. I am entering the second trimester of my third pregnancy, and although Brigid is still going strong, my milk has all but dried up and Vinny has weaned. I could see it coming and I prepared myself. In June, even before I became pregnant, Vinny began going entire days without nursing. A day here, two days there. Then he skipped four days. I texted Katie: “I don’t know if we’re going to make it the full three years. I think he’s almost done.” He picked back up for a week or two, but when I became pregnant in early July, he started going longer and longer stretches again without nursing—up to a week, at one point. I started taking pictures and trying to remember what he was wearing at each nursing session, acknowledging that this one might be the last. At one of these sessions, I stared into his eyes and was able to capture a hint of that original nursing magic, a moment I will treasure as long as I can. We made it to his third birthday—barely—and while I didn’t set a goal to nurse for three years, it still seemed a momentous milestone. I wondered if I would make it to the Big Latch On in August, just 11 days after his birthday.
On the day of the event, we got there early to set up, but as more people arrived, Vinny began feeling overwhelmed. He’s intensely introverted, so I knew he’d be sticking close to me. He asked to nurse, though he only stayed on for a moment. Then, sitting on the floor of the 12+ months section during the official Latch, I put both children to my breast simultaneously for the first time in months. Vinny nursed very briefly, then ran off to see what my husband was doing. (Brigid stayed put much longer. She is even more of a boob fanatic than Vinny was at her age.)
The next morning, a Sunday, the family woke up to get ready for church. Before getting out of bed, Vinny asked to nurse. It had been a long time since he had wanted to nurse first thing in the morning, so I let him. It only lasted a few seconds. He was wearing his green “’Inja Turtle” pajamas. (He doesn’t even know who the Ninja Turtles are, but he loves these pajamas.) Then he jumped out of bed and ran to the play room, and that was that. It was the last time he’d ever nurse. I didn’t get a picture.
He went two full weeks without asking again. By the time we reached the two-week mark, I knew that I’d say no if he asked again. The first time he asked, I said, “Hon, we’re about to have dinner. Let’s go to the kitchen.” He cried for a minute, but he quickly recovered. He has asked sporadically since then, and at first I would distract him or say, “Not right now.” At the one-month mark, I sat him down and told him, “Vinny, you’ve become such a big boy. It’s been a long time since you’ve had mama milk. You know that there’s a baby in Mama’s tummy and when the baby comes out, he or she is going to need my milk. What do you think? Can we leave Mama’s milk for the babies to have?”
“But I’m going to want it,” he said, pouting for a few seconds. I tried to reassure him, but then he just skipped out of the room and went back to his toys as if the conversation never happened.
He’s asked a few more times since then, but they don’t seem to be serious requests. He isn’t upset when I decline his requests, and he easily accepts a hug instead. I’ve gotten weepier over the matter than he has, though, truthfully, I haven’t been as upset as I once thought I’d be. We were both ready.
From very early into this journey, my goal has been to let my children wean themselves when they are ready, to let them nurse until they no longer need it. I can say with confidence that Vinny and I made it. He has outgrown his need to nurse, and we have weaned with grace. I no longer mother Vinny at my breast, and I have only been tempted to offer him the quick fix of the boob once in the time since he weaned. The benefit to weaning a highly verbal three-year-old is that other tools in my parenting toolbox have come more naturally than I expected. Although I have many moments when this doesn’t seem to be the case, he is actually quite reasonable (for a three-year-old) and fairly well able to regulate his emotions when given the proper support. I attribute this primarily to our lengthy breastfeeding relationship, which has lain the foundation for the emotional intelligence he will need as he progresses through life. My challenge now is to continue building this skill with him in new ways without losing composure myself. It would be much quicker to stuff a boob in his mouth to help him calm down, but he has grown beyond the point of that being a useful parenting technique. I’ve grown, too. Mothering Vinny off the breast doesn’t instill a sense of fear anymore. I know that I am capable of meeting his needs in other ways (if only I can maintain patience long enough to do it!).
So, I’m calling my first breastfeeding experience, now officially over, a major success. Through it, I’ve learned valuable lessons about how to be a mother and I have seen many good fruits of my labor. But stay tuned. I am gearing up for another round of tandem nursing, and although the nursing aversion hasn’t reared its ugly head (yet), I know I have other challenges to face. My sweet, cheerful, spirited Brigid is a jealous little thing, and I do not think that she will share me as generously as Vinny always did. I wonder what lessons this next breastfeeding adventure has in store for me.