I never meant to breastfeed each child over a year and, what's more, for over three years each. I never even thought about it very much until I weaned my son in a time out, knowing, with heart heavy, tears in my eyes, we were done. That moment was filled with relief and yet anguish over closing the book forever on one of the most precious, reliable, loving exchanges we shared. Breastfeeding made everyone in my home feel safe and loved. It was our first act of trust and met a need beyond nourishment.
Our first was born four weeks early, at 3 lbs. 10 oz. He looked like the most handsome, skinny, wrinkled old man I ever met. He was also an excellent nurser. That's all he and I did the fourteen days he was in the NICU, until he weighed enough to go home.
Before he was born, Erich and I planned to try and nurse him. No pressure. There was always formula as a back up. We saw a video in our childbirth class showing a baby crawl his way up to the breast, unassisted, to nurse for the first time and I wanted us to try. Erich was 150% behind me.
The little guy knew right away what he was doing and, miraculously, so did my breasts. He knew what he wanted and what he needed to do to get his milk and my breasts accommodated. He cried. They soothed. I was soothed too.
He cried all the time unless I nursed him every twenty minutes. I got to either push myself into overdrive, with cleaning my home while nursing, or settle down with him and rest. He wet enough diapers, so I knew he wasn't hungry, but he had no qualms expressing himself. He also knew how to gaze into my eyes and hypnotize me. The hormones were also in his favor. And so, that's what we did.
Perhaps because of his low birth weight, something changed in me. Formula as a back up became a last resort. This kid was clear on what he wanted from me. He wanted his "susu" and all the time. He made life painful otherwise. My heart would tear in two, hearing him wail for milk and to be held. He would repair that broken heart as soon as he latched back on. I was in heaven over meeting his need on demand and, of course, the hormones continued to help me do this little love's bidding. Nature had it all worked out for this pair of newbies.
I knew I had something he needed and searched for that no one else could give him. That reinforced my confidence as a mother like nothing else did. It convinced me and my husband we could quit a lifestyle we thought we wanted, live out of a box if needed, as long as I could keep nursing him on demand.
Something inside me changed forever. I really cared nothing for traveling the world, living in a McMansion, or ever getting my Land Rover one day. I was even convinced, if we lived in our 700 square foot cottage forever, and even lost it, we were as rich as kings, as long as he got his milk.
Maybe nursing him those first few desperate days fulfilled my need to know I was doing okay as a mother. And that reassurance was addictive because Mommy guilt, and the fear I was doing everything wrong, always lurked around the corner. I even remember crying my head off when we first found out we were pregnant. I can still see myself desperately telling my husband I simply wasn't equipped to raise a child. I added sincerely, I barely meant to even get married, with the divorce rate at 50%, and being a divorcee kid myself.
But this little someone kept coming back to me as if I was doing something right those first few weeks, months, years... He helped me grow my confidence like no other words of assurance from my husband, pediatrician or mother could. Without words, just his simple insistence and happy suckling, breastfeeding was the gateway to a different world forever.
We nursed anytime and everywhere. I would nurse him when he woke, needed cuddles and to sleep. I nursed him at family gatherings, horrifying my brothers and wives, and amusing myself at that. I nursed him, despite misinformed concerns from caring folks that I could bruise and get breast cancer.
When I found myself in a circle of non-nursing moms unfriendly towards it, instead of shrinking away in embarrassment, I bowed out gracefully from the group and found a nursing circle. This nurser made me bold. My child had me convinced I wasn't crazy to nurse him on demand and was just meeting his needs. La Leche League was a Godsend and a lifeline. While many former co-workers looked at them with suspicion, I reached out to them, found out for myself whether or not we were a good fit, and never regretted it. There was something about nursing in numbers that normalized what we did, after a while.
Didn't everyone fall asleep at 8 p.m. at their own dinner party because they had to step out of the room to nurse their child to sleep? I thought everyone kneeled and nursed in the back seat of a moving car, hubby driving, me nursing while baby was still in his car seat. All this so we didn't have to pull over a fifth time and get the 'tisk tisk' at the family reunion for being that late again.
I thought everyone nursed her baby in a sling everywhere so she could not miss a beat in her working and social life. I left the corporate world to teach prenatal and baby and me and, inadvertently, a whole slew of mothers how to nurse while in pigeon, tailor and all the warrior poses.
I nursed while doing dishes, shaving my legs in the shower, taking the dog for a walk. What didn't we do while nursing? I am convinced it was what made teething a dream rather than a nightmare and what kept us out of the pediatrician's office, regardless what nasty bug was going around at our short lived daycare stint and everywhere else.
It wasn't a big production either. He was small. My breasts were small enough for discretion. He was easy to tow. My breasts already came attached and always the perfect temperature. I didn't have to sterilize or plug them into an outlet to warm their contents. All I had to do was lift up my shirt a bit, he would attach himself, and we expertly looked like a mother with sleeping baby in her arms. Those rude enough to get too close got a peek of what was really going on and, embarrassed as they were, got what they deserved.
As he grew, it comforted him when he got a boo boo, helped him to nap, to calm down and regroup after a long day and, even to feel loved, as I nursed his baby brother. He wasn't jealous but learned to share with his brother what he knew was a good thing. Sometimes he insisted on nursing first or getting this breast rather than that one and that was really weird and unamusing. What can I say? Without a mental thought over how long we were going to do this, this was our normal and then he was three! We just were, and that is how.
While he was a ten minute nurser and twenty minute napper, it helped that I didn't know other children nursed differently. I thought they all nursed this way. That made things easier on me mentally. I had no expectations from the beginning and my initial goal was to, "Get through the next feeding." That was it. "As long as it keeps working for both of us, we will let it happen."
I was very fortunate my new vocation allowed for us to nurse throughout it. I started my own business and nursed in the attorney's office, as I signed the papers. I took jobs and assured them we came as a pair and he came with the package. I expected no disrespect from anyone and that that the general public was educated enough to know nursing was normal. I had my kid, my body and those ever convincing hormones and supportive-of-breastfeeding husband and mom friends to prove it.
Nursing kept my baby and then toddler quiet and happy. It was immediate with him. Nursing was food and also hours of cuddling. He is almost nine and when he is upset these days, nothing can complete his calm down process like being held. He can live without it. He simply prefers it. He also remembers how special nursing was to us both. I attribute extra cuddly children, and deep rooted warm fuzzy memories from the experience, as an extension of the nursing gift. My arms are still the safety, the warm place, that connects our hearts back to peace.
Our second nursed much differently. By contrast, I doubted I was any good at nursing at all when he arrived, those first couple of weeks. He was more interested in sleeping than in eating. Not knowing what to do was very distressing as well as humbling. He nursed every five hours but only because our midwives insisted we wake him and feed him to keep his blood sugar levels up. He was barely past five pounds himself.
It was difficult and painful to have to wake him from his deep sleep with cold wash cloths and all kinds of other ways that would make him uncomfortable enough to wake up and nurse. However, the midwives insisted and we did what we had to do to wake him. He spent more time using me as a pacifier than as a meal, as he grew older, but, like his brother, he is still a giant cuddle monster at six. He also still loves his sleep. He would cry, "I need a nap!" and nursing was the only way that would bring him, me and his brother napping next to us, that sleep.
Again, we nursed everywhere. I didn't really consider it made others uncomfortable. Those reassuring hormones my body produced each time I nursed, whether indoors or out and about, still kept us confident and bold. Nursing made the world around us disappear and I was able to feel so good and cozy, it was easy to ignore the rest of the planet.
Every time we nursed, we got closer and closer. I felt our love for each other literally grow exponentially each time. I had no idea this was one of the benefits but I surely experienced the difference when I nursed vs. bottle fed them my milk. I didn't love them any less when I gave them the bottle, but, with nursing, there is a magic I can't explain.
Was it ever difficult? Yes. It was difficult around some family who would become uncomfortable or make comments about the dangers for my children not getting enough food, etc... and even for me. There were times the hormones malfunctioned, as no one is perfect, and I doubted myself as a mother anyway because only the few rebellious in my parents' generation nursed and, those who didn't, wouldn't hear of the benefits of nursing now vs. what they were told back then.
It wan't always rosy colored glasses throughout. There are times I truly envied non-nursing mothers who could put their children to bed way earlier than we ever could and keep them there. My sister in law even got to go to a concert when her baby was ten weeks old. I wondered what it might be like to get just a few hours of evening time with my hubby. Or, how freeing it must be to get out a long stretch with the girls and not have to hand express my breast milk into the sink in the public bathroom, because they ached from being away from baby for too long.
I lamented what it might be like to get the night out with my husband without worrying my frequent night nursing baby would wake up crying for me. I wondered what it might feel like to have a body completely free of a child attached to it more for often than less often. Nursing on demand, the way I saw it then, required me to leave my corporate job. While that was not a nightmare for me, this would not make every woman happy. All in all, there were difficult moments a non-nursing mother would never miss.
That is why it is important, as women, to respect all of our different walks, decision making and experiences and to gravitate towards those who parent similarly. And it is natural that this will happen. You will first find other women with children and then, as you self define your parenting preferences more clearly, secure your tribe.
I hung with the crunchies. I didn't mean to, but, apparently, I am one by today's standards. Nursing lead to producing milk as the main priority in our lives, to co-sleeping, to using a sling. It lead to everything "au naturel" including the pursuit of the very earthy and warm Waldorf education, the early years we could still afford it.
Having witnessed the magical wonders of breast milk and its health benefits, we 'pooh pooh-ed' medicine as a first resort, sought out holistic practitioners and naturopaths to balance out the allopathic medical practitioner's advice. We found it didn't always take into account a nursing child's health history, and would jump too quickly towards prescribing an anti-biotic as the first line of defense.
The nursing experience for my family was truly one of the most powerful and influential experiences in our life together. I always joke, what a contrast from having woken up to cigarettes and eating Doritos in my younger years. Nursing made me worry about every item that went into my child's mouth, eyes and ears.
Everything more natural was priority and simple and home made was better. We cloth diapered, made our own baby wipes and household cleaners. We shopped for organic foods, learned about and joined a CSA and grew our own garden. When we could no longer afford Waldorf, we became acquainted with homeschoolers and became homeschoolers ourselves. It seemed being our children's first teacher only lent itself to remaining their primary teachers moving forward.
If we were home more often and I were more talented at kitchen duty, rather than setting the fire alarm off at least once a week, we'd be making jams and jellies by the ton. If I were just a little bit more gifted at it, I would be knitting next year's Christmas gifts all year.
Really, what a change in me. This is the same woman who wore $400 Barami power suits and stockings to work in a high rise luxury hotel, above Grand Central Station and thought she owned a piece of the bridge and tunnel NYC nightlife in her former life.
This drastic change in priorities and lifestyle is neither one I planned nor the path of every nursing woman. Nursing mothers are still individuals and not all of us love it in the same way or, at times, even at all. We can all nurse our babies for a variety of different reasons and don't always do so without looking at the clock. Nursing for me was sometimes a mission and a war cry, "I know what I am doing! I can make choices that may not line up with the vast majority of you, but I know what my family needs because I have managed the impossible, meeting my kids' needs!"
Contrary to what you might think, I don't think nursing, and especially long term nursing, is for every mother and child. While often too quickly and misleadingly diagnosed, there are true circumstances in which nature doesn't always allow it. Sometimes babies themselves refuse to nurse before mothers are ready to wean them. Some mothers wouldn't be their best selves, had they and their partners made the same decisions we did about this and anything else for that matter. These families have their own unique and precious rituals that will stand out in their lives. They are no more, no less, a tight-knit loving family than ours, because they didn't nurse.
I am simply grateful that breastfeeding was in our cards. It was an unexpected gift our family has been fortunate to have unwrapped together. It made all of us overall very happy and, the memories that remain, will always be precious to us. Aging also enhances the good memories more profoundly and makes the challenges all the more too easy to forget. And so there it is. Breastfeeding was a wonderful part of the story we as a family have written together, will remember, find a sense of humor over and will always, always treasure.