by Kasey Stacey
This time two years ago, my life looked rather similar to today: I had an active toddler who loved to nurse and had more energy than I could manage as I was nearing the end of another pregnancy. I didn’t think any toddler loved nursing as much as Vinny did, though he was more or less down to two nursing sessions a day during my third trimester.
Now, two years later, Vinny is probably more accurately classified as a preschooler and as Brigid nears her second birthday, she’s my wild toddler who loves nursing. But this time, nursing a toddler through a pregnancy has also looked much different.
I started my third pregnancy still tandem nursing, though Vinny weaned himself shortly after his third birthday, early enough into the pregnancy that I wasn’t telling many people that I was again expecting. It happened exactly as I hoped it would, with the breastfeeding phase of our relationship drawing to a natural conclusion. I had every confidence, too, that Brigid would keep right along nursing as she always had. Slow to eat solids and relying heavily on breastfeeding for both sustenance and comfort, Brigid has been even more deeply attached to nursing than Vinny. Vinny thought more affectionately about it, I think, first calling it “num-a-num” and then “mama milk.” Brigid is more practical. Her first word for it was simply “milk” and now she just asks to “please nurse!” But, in a way that lets me think she really gets the value of breastfeeding, she also makes me wet nurse all of her dolls, stuffed animals, and favorite pictures in her books, often prefacing a request to nurse with a demand for her beloved Winnie the Pooh to have first dibs. “If she nurses Pooh Bear,” Brigid must be thinking, “she can’t possibly say no to me!”
The whole experience feels much different this time. The pregnancy with Brigid was a nightmare from conception to birth. I was sick for 36 weeks, only to discover at that point that Brigid was breech. An external cephalic version flipped her, thankfully, because two-and-a-half hours after my contractions began at just over 41 weeks, Brigid was in my arms. I never would have made it all the way down to Christiana Hospital and into the OR for a section. Despite being at The Birth Center, the birth was physically traumatic and the recovery difficult. Brigid was a high-needs infant (and remains a high-needs toddler), slow to gain weight at times but also uninterested in solid foods until my milk supply diminished with pregnancy, and parenting her overall has been quite a different experience than parenting Vinny has been. Tandem nursing, nursing aversion, and a bout of PPD that arose around the time my husband began law school complicated life in ways unanticipated, and, frankly, some days I am still shocked that I’ve managed to pull myself together.
In total contrast, this third pregnancy has been a dream. Physically and emotionally my easiest thus far, my second baby boy has me hoping that, as with Brigid, the pregnancy foreshadows the child’s personality. If this baby, whom we’ve decided to call Walter Jude, is as easygoing as this pregnancy has been, my second go with tandem nursing should be no problem. Being more experienced this time, I’ve been able to avoid a lot of the aversion triggers that set me off when I was nursing Vinny through a pregnancy. Mostly, I have almost no problem setting limits with Brigid. I haven’t had to night wean her because she has more or less night weaned herself. When I feel the aversion kicking in at any time of day, I start counting to ten, and she voluntarily unlatches almost every time before I finish counting. Sometimes she hasn’t even gotten to nurse for a full 30 seconds, but she happily moves on to another activity. I think she just needs to know that nursing is there “just in case,” but she knows she doesn’t need to suckle constantly for her comfort. When Vinny was in Brigid’s position, I acted from a fear that he would wean before I was ready, so I gave him almost free range to nurse at my own expense. I don’t carry this fear with Brigid. I doubt very much that she will wean between now and Walter’s birth, but if she did, I think I’d be okay with it. If I truly value child-led weaning, then I need to be willing to accept that I might one day have a nursling who weans entirely on her terms, without considering her poor mother’s desires. Further, I am much less attached to the idea of tandem nursing than I was last time, which has helped me to take better care of myself and my children. Tandem nursing is no longer a goal, not quite the badge of honor it once was to me. Now it’s just a thing that I do, a way that I parent if that’s what my kids need, an experience that I value, but not one that I crave.
I think being pregnant with a boy is helping, too. I am convinced (with absolutely no medical evidence to back me up, so take this for what it’s worth) that the difference in hormones during the pregnancy with Brigid caused a lot of my emotional distress. My pregnancies with Vinny and Walter have felt much better than my pregnancy with Brigid felt. I do have some irrational guilt about this. Nursing Vinny through the pregnancy with Brigid dramatically altered our relationship in ways that are still tangible to me today. I know that Brigid didn’t cause this—it’s not her fault that she’s a girl or that she happened to be the resident of my womb when I was experiencing such emotional tumult—but Brigid’s arrival into our family made waves that I never would have expected, and Vinny suffered the consequences. Brigid, on the other hand, is having a much easier time being the toddler nursling (and I am having a much easier time letting her), and I imagine that tandem nursing won’t cause nearly the upheaval of our family’s life that it did the first time. I still feel as though I wasn’t really fair to Vinny, and I even feel guilty that the one who kind-of-but-not-really caused the aversion last time hasn’t had to experience any of the same challenges that he did. Like Vinny, I am the oldest child in my family, and I know the pain of being “the experiment,” the kid whom the parents inevitably use to work out the kinks in their parenting. “It’s not fair!” I remember shouting many times during my childhood. “You never let me do the things you let her do!” Oh, the melodramatic angst! I know that, in a way, this is part of who Vinny is, how his identity will develop, and the role he takes as part of our family, but I still long to have the experience I have with the younger ones as a benefit to him, too.
I’ve spent some time contemplating the discrepancies in my two nursing-through-pregnancy experiences. Is it the hormones that have really been making the difference? The fact that I am more experienced and have a firmer grasp of the reality of tandem nursing? Differences, perhaps, between Vinny’s personality and Brigid’s? It’s some combination of these, I’m sure. Regardless, Walter is coming very soon, and tandem nursing is again on my horizon. I still worry that the challenges I faced last time will arise again, but I take comfort in knowing that I have resources at my disposal and perspective that I sorely lacked two years ago. What’s more, I’m not going into this experience nearly as physically and emotionally spent as I did with my older two children, and I have a better handle on how to take care of myself in addition to taking care of everyone else. Instead of all the physical preparations I was so focused on with my first two babies, I know that this time I need to concentrate more on being mentally prepared to welcome the changes that a new little life brings to the family and to let go of my desire for control.