This blog post has very little to do with the nutritional and immunological benefits of breastfeeding (although those are valid reasons for wanting to nurse a baby before or beyond one), but mainly, the emotional breakdown of what I’ve experienced from having my daughter, Marin self-wean.
I first want to break down some terminology since I truly understand that nursing jargon isn’t something everyone knows. Extended nursing is defined as nursing a baby past the age of one, and weaning is the process that that nursing relationship ends. Extended nursing is not particularly common in most of the United States, and most Moms that I personally know wean around age one – once cow’s milk is an acceptable dietary supplement for them and their babes.
For me, extended nursing was always my number one option, but I didn’t know if I would let Marin self-wean or if I’d stop at age two (my personal goal) and then once I was pregnant, I started to dream of tandem nursing bonding both my kiddos as siblings. It turns out that I didn’t really have a choice as much as I’d envisioned – Marin decided over the weekend that she was done nursing, and there were many signs that she was coming to that particular decision, but none of them prepared me for how I’d feel about her choice.
It literally feels like a gut-wrenching breakup. I understand that a nursing relationship isn’t 1) sexual and 2) that our relationship will continue and thrive in many different ways, but that is the best way I can describe how this has felt for me since very little compares.
When Marin was born, her need to nurse was ridiculous. It was also probably somewhat realistic, but she was the slowest nursling (affectionate term for a nursing baby) I’ve ever heard of – she’d nurse for at least 45 minutes -2 hours for the first several months (and keep in mind, you’re supposed to be nursing a baby every 2-3 hours since the beginning of their last nursing session). I was basically nursing somewhat constantly, and if we didn’t throw in a pacifier for my oral-obsessive baby, than I might have. I remember joking about having to send Mike’s pinky back to work, but really, if something wasn’t in her mouth, Marin would lose it after about 30 minutes to an hour. That was just how she came wired to us, and as much as family didn’t understand, hearing her cry when I could comfort her was one of the best early parenting decisions I made with her.
As time went on, and food was incorporated into her diet at a growing amount, her need for me as a dietary source also started to lessen. She had dropped some feeds over her first year and not relied on nursing to sleep any longer (although, I was still nursing her before bedtime), but we were both still pretty happily chugging along. In fact, if you told me she would have self-weaned at 22 months, I would most definitely not have believed you.
When I was in Florida last, in February when her leg was broken, she suddenly started getting really fussy when I’d nurse her and it later dawned on me that my milk had changed flavor as soon as I was pregnant. This may be the hardest part of it all – if I weren’t pregnant, a part of me feels confident I would still be nursing her. No matter how much I want this pregnancy, it makes me incredibly sad to think of how a second child has already impacted my relationship with my first. I know, I know, this is only the beginning, and there will be benefits to having a sibling around, but still, that pain is real to me today.
Essentially, over the last few months, Marin has seemed less and less interested. We switched our routine from books and nursing to books, nursing, then teeth, and that transition once it was normal and exciting, was the last straw in me feeling like Marin wanted to nurse vs. was just used to her routine of nursing. From there, in the last couple weeks, it turned into her not nursing very long, or me feeling like she didn’t really want to nurse, but I encouraged it because I was afraid of losing my supply if she changed her mind.
The writing was on the wall, and on Thursday I brought it up for the majority of Mike and I’s conversation that night. I couldn’t quite say what I was thinking and feeling, but it was a mixture of guilt, extreme sadness, unmet expectations, and reaching for what were only the last bits of something that would soon be lost. It’s like when you and the person you’re in a relationship with know that it’s going to be over soon, but you’re just dragging it out till then, and no matter how much you can convince yourself it will be ok, that this is for the best, or that there wasn’t much of a future left, it can still feel incredibly painful to go through because you’ve worked incredibly hard to get to whatever point you reached.
It also felt incredibly lonely. My non-lactating husband couldn’t relate, but either could the community of friends and family I had in my life. I know of two Moms whose sons self-weaned before a year overnight and completely by surprise. I know of Moms who fought to nurse for a month, and I grew up with plenty of women who would have never wanted to nurse their babies in the first place. What I have yet to meet is someone whose baby gradually called their nursing relationship to an end before a Mom felt ready – and that is a quite different boat. It’s the boat I’m in, and wish I could find one solid resource to feel genuinely supported by, but that resource doesn’t exist – which is a big reason I needed to write this blog post.
The few I’ve shared this grief with have said many well-intentioned statements to me –
“Think of the freedom!”
“Well, it’s for the best”
“You’ll have another newborn to nurse soon though!”
But unfortunately, none of those resonate with me because they didn’t address or hear my sadness – they simply found a solution that they thought would work. There’s not a solution to this problem, and it ended the way I ideally wanted (on Marin’s terms), but it still feels like I just got a call from my boyfriend to say ‘it’s over’ and that conversation hasn’t happened in over 7 years.
My nursing relationship started with cracked nipples, endless amounts of milk, and mastitis. I felt like it was something I fought for just like waiting till 43 weeks or having an acyclitic posterior birth. It took a lot of work and it did not come naturally or easily to me. It was something I wanted to do, but I didn’t enjoy it till Marin was older and less needy. I felt compelled to nurse originally for nutritional needs, and before that, I could have never predicted the relational component it would create with my daughter. I didn’t want that relationship to end because nursing guaranteed that I would have my high-speed toddler relaxed or asleep in my arms twice each day.
I am incredibly grateful that I can remember her last nursing times positively – that on the last day, she did fall asleep in my arms and I got to cradle her for as long as I wished before placing her in her crib to bed. I am also grateful that the next night when she didn’t nurse, she wanted to be held and I got to rock her to sleep in my arms for the first time in at least over a year – it was a sweet reminder that I can still have a similar relationship with her even if it doesn’t involve breastmilk. Since this weekend, I’ve had my highs and lows, and my lows are mostly around our normal nursing routine. When I would be nursing her typically, and I know for certain it’s not going to happen and that she’s not going to change her mind.
Still I ask her, just in case, “Marin, would you like to nurse?” and I try to not cry immediately when I hear her say “All done nurse”. I expected when she said that, just like every dropped feeding till this point, I’d feel ready to move forward and not look back. I’d be thankful for one less pump when I’m away from her, and I’d claim some missed and longed for freedom, but this last one was brutal. I have cried every single night after I put her to bed, and probably before, that she will not be nursing in my arms again.
Some wise Mom said to me that the fact that Marin has weaned is evidence she feels our relationship has evolved. I think that’s the best way I could possibly look at this moving forward – it’s not the end and it’s not a breakup. It’s that our relationship has changed, and while that’s hard, it can be a good hard. Marin asked for me to hold her and read some books tonight after I let her Auntie Kenzie read to her some, and I appreciated that she still has needs and wants from me specifically. The end of nursing does not make me automatically replaceable because there are still lactating cows or other laps to be read in. It’s just that our relationship is moving forward, and that forward can involve new things that it didn’t and hasn’t before. When Marin first came into this world, her needs for me on every level were incredibly taxing and exhausting. The contrast from those days to now still blows my mind, but does not make me any less significant to her as her Mom.
Still, I weepily write these words to you all, not because I’m trying to sell you on some ‘breast is best’ ideology, but because nursing can mean so much more than nutrition. For me, it did, and that’s something I will forever cherish about my first 22-months with Marin. It’s something I will always think of fondly, and it’s a love I’ll need to remind myself of come November when there’s another babe in my arms keeping me up all night, learning to latch, and making me wonder why I was crazy enough to nurse in the first place.