by Lara Deloza
I wrote the following at the very end of January, when I knew the nursing relationship I’d fought so hard to have with my likely one and only child was nearing its end.
“The hard part is that you don’t always know when something will happen for the last time,” she said. She told me about the day she realized her son had stopped holding her hand. She couldn’t remember when, exactly—just that it was something he used to do but no longer did.
I’ve been thinking about this story a lot lately, in relation to my breastfeeding journey with my son Jackson. We’d overcome so many obstacles to establish our nursing relationship in the first place, including my initially barely there supply that I somehow managed to boost through what at times felt like sheer force of will.
As a working mother, this meant pumping five to six times a day just to make enough for his day care bottles: once in the morning before work, three to four times during the work day, and once before bed. Some days I still didn’t hit the 12-ounce mark, but I managed to make up the difference by pumping a few times on the weekends as well.
I hated pumping. I mean, I really hated it. If you had to pump as much as I did, you’d probably hate it, too. I was an exclusive pumper the first nine weeks of Jackson’s life, when I couldn’t get him to latch and he developed a wicked case of nipple confusion. It was, as any EP’er will tell you, exhausting.
When I first started tracking my pumping, Jackson was only five days old and I was getting around an ounce. That’s not from each breast or even each pump—that was one day’s total.
I spent a lot of time on Pinterest researching ways to increase my milk production. I spent a lot of money on supplements, gear, and a rented hospital-grade breast pump we nicknamed “Big Poppa.” Within a week, I’d increased my yield to a total of 10 ounces. A month after that, I was predictably producing 23 to 25 ounces each day.
This is where I was when I started working with Katie. You can read all about that here, but the tl;dr version is that she got Jackson to latch with a nipple shield during our first session and to nurse on bare boob seven weeks after that.
So there are the first four months. Obstacle after obstacle. Herculean efforts on my part. Constantly fielding questions from people who encouraged me to stop torturing myself and make the switch to formula. Well-meaning people who loved me but didn’t understand this primal need I had to make breastfeeding work.
And then, when we finally got it to work (and by “we” I don’t just mean Jackson and Katie and me but also my husband, Joe, who stood by me every step of the way), there was this euphoric sense of HOLY SHIT, WE DID IT! Not to mention pride. I was so incredibly proud of what I’d managed to accomplish.
[Let me pause for a second to acknowledge the many advantages I was fortunate enough to have: Excellent health care coverage. A crazy-talented International Board Certified Lactation Consultant. An incredible support group. A sweet, pre-tax Flexible Spending Account. A budget that allowed for things like nutritional supplements. Not everyone is lucky enough to have those things—and without them, I don’t know if would have been able to achieve my goals. /interlude]
Breastfeeding was one of the hardest challenges I’ve ever faced, and that includes my 4+ year battle with infertility. So of course I talked about it a lot. I also wrote about it, because that is how I process. (Just ask Katie about the volume of e-mail I’ve sent in the past year.) I participated in secret Birth Center Facebook groups, offering encouragement to women who were struggling as I had and continuing to ask questions of and seek advice from those who came before me.
My point is this: Breastfeeding became an enormous part of who I was, not only as a mother but also as a woman. I felt lucky to have that bond with my son. I treasured it. I also learned to hate my body a little less. To appreciate my strength and determination a little more.
Whenever I had to ramp up on pumping to boost my supply, I remembered the mantra Katie gave me early on: “I pump to protect my nursing relationship.” I never learned to love the pump, but I certainly made peace with it.
Still, as Jackson’s first birthday neared, and the app I used to track my milk production let me know that I had enough in my freezer stash to reach my one-year goal, I made the decision to ease up on pumping. My hope was that I could eventually dump the pump altogether but maintain a morning/evening nursing schedule. I wanted Jackson to have the opportunity to choose when to wean, although I secretly hoped we could make it to year two.
At first, things didn’t change all that much. I was still making a decent amount of milk. I threw in a cow’s milk bottle here and there to test the waters. Jackson accepted it and didn’t exhibit any signs of dairy intolerance. Win-win all around.
Roughly two weeks after Jackson turned one, I returned the Medela Symphony I’d rented. Big Poppa had been with me an entire year. He was strong, powerful, and so quiet that I could do conference calls while pumping and no one knew I was half naked. The night I drove Big Poppa back to Babies R Us was weirdly sad. I felt like I might start crying at any minute. I actually did cry on the drive home.
I think part of me knew that losing Big Poppa would signify the beginning of the end. The insurance-issued Medela Pump in Style Advanced just wasn’t as powerful. My boobs didn’t respond to it in the same way. I never got as big a yield with it as I did the larger machine.
Sure enough, my supply slowly began to drop. There were other factors in place, of course. Fewer pumps per day. My second postpartum menstrual cycle and all of the raging hormones that came with it. Near-constant colds and an abridged version of what seemed like the flu (thanks, day care germs!). Never enough sleep.
I started to dip into my 147-ounce freezer stash. I added more whole milk bottles. These things didn’t make me all that sad, though, because Jackson’s face still lit up every morning when asked if he wanted milkies. His eyes still rolled back in his head when the first stream hit his mouth.
He started dropping the before-bed feeding. Not every night, but enough that it felt like a pattern. It was okay, I told myself. I still had our morning and post-day care sessions.
Next, he started rejecting my left boob. That’s the the one I nicknamed Smalls because it never produced much milk—typically a quarter to a third of what I got from my right boob (Biggie).
I stopped tracking my pumping output, because the numbers were making me depressed. I used to produce about an ounce per hour. Now, I was lucky to get two ounces every five hours—and that number got lower every day.
I could have started pumping more. I could have gone back on the fenugreek and blessed thistle and the other rando assortment of supplements I had taken in hopes of increasing my production. But honestly, I didn’t want to. I’d earned my pumping stripes and was ready to move on.
I knew these decisions would have repercussions. I just didn’t like them.
I continued to pump two to three times a day, but as Jackson nursed less frequently, and for shorter lengths of time, I saw my supply drop even more. When I took a brief vacation away from him (my first ever, and three days that were way harder than I could have imagined), I noticed I was only getting around an ounce total per pump. It didn’t matter when I pumped, either. Mornings = 1 ounce. Afternoons = 1 ounce. Before bed? You guessed it: 1 ounce.
As January came to a close, I wrestled with the options. Should I give up pumping and, most likely, my nursing relationship with Jackson? Should I keep pumping a couple of times a day and hope my supply held out until Jackson was ready to wean? Or should I just pick a date to wean, so I could at least prepare myself ahead of time?
That third option felt the most appealing to me. Every time we nursed, I feared it could be the last. I would try to burn the memory of it onto the hard drive of my brain, always recalling the story my friend told me about realizing her son had stopped holding her hand.
My supply dropped even lower during this time of indecision. Jackson still went for the morning milkies, but his face no longer lit up. When he nursed at night, it was for a few minutes before bed, but even that wasn’t a given.
It started to feel like he was going through the motions more for me than himself. I didn’t like how that felt.
The last day in January, I pumped for 25 minutes and got half an ounce total. TOTAL.
I walked over to my husband, who was also working from home but in another room, and told him I just pumped for the last time.
I e-mailed the same thing to two mom friends I’d met in the Friday support group and had grown close to.
Then I got in the car and drove to a meeting at my office, crying on and off the whole way there.
It’s only a matter of time until Jackson weans. I know this. I’m trying to prepare myself for this. But it still makes me sad as fuck. So much of my first year as Jackson’s mom was tied up in this breastfeeding thing. It’s almost like I don’t know who I am without it.
This morning, I took my son to day care. He’s walking now, but in that drunk toddler kind of way. He walked in the room by himself but wanted me to carry him over to the communal table so he could get to his breakfast faster. I didn’t give in. Instead, I offered him my hand.
He looked up at me with his big eyes—eyes framed in the longest lashes you’ve ever seen—put his chubby little hand in mine, and started walking. It was the first time we’d done this side by side.
Then we crossed the room together, him holding my hand every step of the way.
Jackson continued to nurse for almost a full week before stopping. A couple of days later, he had a rough night of sleep. His dad was out of town on business and, desperate to get a little more shut eye, I pulled him into bed with me. He is not a co-sleeping kind of kid, but eventually he went down for a bit.
When he woke up, he tugged at my shirt, which surprised me. Because he asked, I obliged. He sat cradled in my lap and nursed for a good five minutes or so. When he finished, he looked up at me, smiled, and then indicated he wanted off the bed.
So that is the last of the last times, and it was so sweet and unexpected that I will never forget it. I am grateful for the memory. It felt like a fitting end to such an epic journey.
It took a few weeks for the sting of weaning to wear off. Jackson asked to nurse a couple of times, and I’d wince as I’d tell him the milk was all gone. Even so, I’m sure I was more upset about it than he was.
And then one day I had the realization that for the first time in literally years, I wasn’t preparing to get pregnant, I wasn’t growing a baby, and I wasn’t sustaining a human life. My body was mine. I could wear scented lotion again if I wanted! I could have cocktails without performing complicated “how long will it take for this alcohol to leave my body?” math! Peppermint tea was back on the table!
So this is where I am today—delighting in my 17-month-old toddler and reclaiming the body that brought him into this world.
I wouldn’t have it any other way.
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