I wrote this piece for the Middle Tennessee Writing Project 2016 Summer Invitational Fellowship, but it was a piece I really felt that I needed to share, because this is a topic that is worth having a discussion about.
This blog post deals with breastfeeding, specifically, extended breastfeeding. If that subject matter is objectionable to you, please keep on scrolling, clicking, or find somewhere else to visit on the Internet.
I come to consciousness with a slow start: the room dark, the only sound my husband’s soft snores. My daughter ambles into bed, her body heavy and warm as she angles her body alongside mine. She paws at the flimsy fabric at my chest, fingers deftly moving any obstruction to her goal.
“May I have this baba?” She whispers, voice sweet and hoarse with sleep. I look at my wrist and my Fitbit glows eerily in the blackness of the room: it’s 3:20 in the morning.
“Not until the sun comes up. You know the rules,” I whisper back, trying not to wake her father. She still manages to rescue the flopping triangle of flesh from my camisole.
“I want to hug your baba,” she pleas, louder now, resting her head against my breast, closing her eyes in a kind of rapture I cannot fully comprehend.
I’m wide-awake now: it will be awhile before I will return to my slumber. Every time one of these early morning requests for milk arises, I come to sudden alertness, ready to defend my body against her aggressive maneuvers. I rationalize that she’s just a child, a baby really, nearly three years old, but it’s time. It’s been time. And I’m so done with nursing.
The journey to this night has been long and hard. I won’t say that there have not been aspects of beauty, wonder, and delight – breastfeeding is a magical thing, a special bond between mother and child. Halleluiah and amen. I would never have imagined three years ago that I’d want to turn my daughter away from the breast. I’d thought it would be a miracle if we made it to six months, some kind of momentous mark-it-with fireworks occasion if we crossed the year finish line. The first two weeks had been a nightmare; with slow-to-come in milk and a nearly non-existent supply. I spent the first eight months eating lactation cookies, taking Fenugreek supplements, smelling like maple syrup, pumping no more than 3 ounces per session with a $180 a quarter hospital grade pump. The droning sound of that thing, ironically called the Symphony, still haunts some of my dreams. I developed more than my fair share of blebs and milk blisters, and mastitis that then turned into an abscess. We nursed through it. We persevered.
“I’m going to make it to a year,” I’d said, looking down at her face as she nursed so sweetly. She was beautiful as she nestled at my breast, my darling little nursling. Breast milk was magical: it held the power to make her doze off to sleep, it had the power to make her stop crying if she was colicky or sad. “I’ll make it to eighteen months.”
My breasts have names, now. They have personalities. If I refuse my daughter’s desire to nurse, she can extricate a boob from my bra faster than any teenage boy and make my nipple “speak” to me: “Don’t be mean at her,” she says, in a high pitch, chastising “baba” voice.
We talk about the end of nursing, often. I tell her that on her third birthday she will have to say goodbye to babas. She contorts her sweet features into one of abject shock, “where are they going?” she asks, “I want them on my birthday!” I tell her she’s getting too old to nurse, that only babies nurse. This tactic fails: it results in her pretending to be a baby, falling to the floor and crying, crawling on the floor, mute other than tears. When I ask her what is wrong, she finally answers me with: “I’m a baby! Give me babas!”
When she falls, when she’s in trouble, when she has a boo-boo, with fat tears in her eyes that roll down her cheeks with dramatic precision, she will come to me and say: “I need babas! They make me feel better.”
Her persistence is legendary. I’ve never known a more stubborn person. She will ask and ask and ask, her hand pawing at my shirt, scooping down my top, digging at my chest. I’ll tell her to stop; I’ll give her a time out. She’ll grin ruefully: “But I want to eat your babas, mama. I’m hungry.” The “hungry” is plaintive, it strikes every chord in my soul, it begs for any shred of matronly humanity.
The World Health Organization recommends breastfeeding “for up to two years or beyond,” but the “beyond” in the United States has a stigma. Women who go “beyond” have psychological “issues,” are “narcissistic,” are “strange.” They are abnormally attached to their children, are trying to keep them infants. The women who practice extended breastfeeding do so in the closet, hiding in a kind of motherly shame as the judgment of the world is passed on them and their children tug on their shirts in public, begging them to let them have access to their favorite possessions.
The truth of the matter is, it’s not me that wants to keep breastfeeding, it is my daughter. And a successful breastfeeding relationship is about consent. Both parties need to be in mutual agreement. There are times I feel like a bag of meat, a cow. And then my daughter looks up at me with her big blue eyes and says “I love you mama,”before whispering, “and I love your babas,” and I realize that the love she feels for them is a subcategory of the love she feels for me.
I’m not really sure what to do with that kind of love.
End note: for what it is worth, I am in support of every mom that wants to (and can!) extend her breastfeeding relationship with her child.