Edie is 22 months old and, since the day she was born, I have breastfed her. I don’t *still* breastfeed her – as in no apologies for nursing a toddler. I know the idea of a breastfeeding toddler makes some people uncomfortable. While I’ve found without looking for it that it is just incredibly natural, I am not blind to my minority status. Alas, to the dissenters, we are mammals, and there is no shortage of proof in all walks of science that humans were meant to consume breast milk well past infancy. Moreover, there is surely no shortage of examples of ways women have used their free wills and bodies that have (or continue) to disgust some, though history has unveiled much of it as fear and oppression. For all of that, though, this cold-hearted feminist must admit that I do it for love and not politics.
For me, I can’t say I ever thought about when I’d stop nursing Edie. I knew I wanted to start out of principle. Her health, my health, the “right” way. The bonding part sounded fine, but it wasn’t something I could begin to appreciate until I was in the thick of it. Oh man was it hard at first. It made birth seem like the first (albeit massive) hurdle instead of a finish line. I wasn’t overcome with joy, I was overcome with pain and exhaustion. And frustration verging on anger that I couldn’t just do it better so I wasn’t in all this agony. But as the weeks went on, my persistence and her primal need to be at my side turned me into a mom. Looking back, I can see that I was depressed after Edie was born and I wish I’d been brave enough to ask for help with that. But breastfeeding her was something I did that brought her peace and sustenance, even when I had no emotional reserves for my poor daughter. That it was immensely difficult forced me to face the decision that could only be answered one way but still had to be answered: do I continue fight this new existence where there is no more “me,” where my education, personality and talents mean nothing, or do I drop my guard – and absolutely everything else I was trying to carry – and let this kid in? Because I nursed her I never got a break at the beginning, and for me, that relentlessness was what I needed to get it through my thick skull: this is real. You are a mom.
What is it like to nurse a toddler? It’s not the base need of the newborn, squirmy and desperate for milk. It’s now a conversation between mom and kiddo, full of love and limits and changes, just like the rest of their lives. For Edie, it’s a bedtime ritual. It gave her something to hold onto when we pulled the rug out from under her and moved across the world a few months ago. It reconnects us when we are out of sync and gives her a moment to relax when she needs a break from her fast-paced toddler world. It fills her with smiles and recognition when she sees a mom nursing her baby, and she’s even taken to pretending to breastfeed her dolls (and occasionally plastic dinosaurs) before putting them in their dolly beds.
So if that’s all so great, why is my heart breaking? Because I can feel we are coming to the end. I don’t want to lament this. My milk is mostly gone at this point in part because that’s just what happens as your nursling gets older but mostly because it’s a side effect of pregnancy. I want to roll with this. To have faith that things happen as they need to. But I feel guilty that my body has chosen a new child over her and it guts me that she is giving up without a fight. I should be so lucky to have a kid that is ready to wean before I am, really. The other way is a lot tougher on mother and especially child. But here I am shedding more tears, wanting my baby back. I can’t ever make up for those first months when I didn’t love her like she deserved to be loved. But I can’t seem to stop wanting to make up for them either, and losing our nursing relationship closes this chapter somehow.
A few weeks ago, Edie got pretty sick. As sick as she’s ever been and though she pulled through just fine and never needed any hospitalization, it was rough and even scary at a few moments. Her doctor thinks it was likely pertussis, a disease on the upswing in the last few years in spite of vaccination rates holding strong. Edie coughed and coughed like I have never heard my baby girl before. Coughed till she vomited or gagged, till you could see the desperation for an inhale in her eyes. I was up many hours with her over those three weeks, and for the worst of it, which was at the beginning, she wanted to nurse every time she woke up. It calmed her down, soothed her throat that was so raw that she whimpered in pain in between coughing fits, and got her back to sleep every time. Even though my milk supply had been decreasing, for those few days something in me rallied and I know that I was able to keep her much more hydrated and nourished than could have been accomplished otherwise. After a few days, the fits were still frequent, but less frightening, and she would wake up and want me, but not my breast. She just wanted to fall asleep in my arms, and I was happy to oblige. Maybe that’s our final nursing story together, and if I can be so bold as to pretend that a sick baby had a message for her needy mom – maybe there is still room for needing me even when the milk is gone.
Tonight as I cradled her in our rocking chair for our good-night-nurse, she popped on for less than a second and then looked at me and said “Bed, mamma?” I asked her if she would like to sit with me for awhile and I could sing her a song. She said “yeah.” When the second song ended, she said again, softly but I swear with a little more insistence “Bed, mamma.” Well, it might not be instant, but eventually I do take a hint. So I brought her to her bed and kissed her brow. After I closed her door, she sang to herself for a few minutes and then drifted off. Good night, little one. Just holler if you change your mind. Because I’ll be here.