February 16th, 2007

Crossing the Finish Line

I was never really good at breastfeeding my son. In the beginning, it was full of unexpected trauma. I remember feeling shocked at how painful those first weeks were, as he and I would wrestle into nursing “position”, a clumsy maneuvering of clothing and bodies which would leave me shaking and in a deep sweat. Our uptight dance was far from the picture I had imagined of a serene bonding experience with my newborn. Given the abundance of cultural images of “the nursing mother” as an ultimate expression of intimacy with a child, I was unprepared for the searing pain I would feel each time he latched on, or for his frustration and anger at milk that would come too quickly or not at all.

Luckily (and I do think a good deal of it is luck), it got easier. We carefully and painstakingly learned together, practicing until it became more casual, until there would come a time when I felt confident enough to take him out in public, because if he were to get hungry I’d be able to feed him without needing to rearrange my entire wardrobe or stack multiple pillows around us to “get into position.” It got easier, much easier, but it was never entirely relaxing. I never could drift off to sleep with him at my breast, contentedly sucking away. Rather, early morning nursing sessions would find me exhausted but wide awake, waiting impatiently for him to fall back asleep. Often, he would cry out in hunger and yet refuse the breast. Or nursing would leave him restless and fidgeting, rather than peaceful and dozing.

Eventually, though, I began to get a feel for nuzzling his little head in the crook of my arm, wrapping one of his skinny arms around my back, feeling the rush of milk, warm and full, as he sucked, and a familiar kind of muscular release as I let my body fold gently back into the rocking chair. His eyes would drop closed and then open and close again, and mesmerized, I would watch him slowly drift to sleep in my arms, and feel myself in the presence of a divine moment.

As other mothers whom I’d met with babies Jack’s age began weaning, I found myself continuing to nurse. Maybe because it had been so hard won for so long that I felt that I couldn’t quit, now that we’d finally gotten the hang of it. And so he turned a year old, a year and a half old, twenty months old, and there we were. “Are you still nursing him?” my mother and friends would ask me. “Yes,” I’d say hesitantly, searching for a hint of judgment in their voices, ready to set on the defensive. For all the reasons I knew it to be right for Jack and I, I preferred to remain an “in-the-closet” breast-feeder, protective and wary of inquiring minds, even the most well-intentioned. It had finally become our time, our thing, and I guarded it fiercely.

It is bitterweet, then, when I say it’s been six whole days since I last nursed Jack. For the last couple of weeks, he’s been letting me know in little ways that he’s ready to wean. Our nursing sessions have been growing shorter and further apart, so that he now falls asleep easily without me, and when he wakes in the morning, he no longer cries out immediately for me to nurse him. Now our little alarm clock calls out, “Mama? Dada? Eat? Eat! Waffle? PIZZA?!!”

I know it’s time to let go.

Last Sunday night as I nursed him he giggled and burrowed in close to me. He put his little hand on my cheek and patted it softly. We sang our goodnight songs as we rocked in our chair and as I put him down into his crib he said, “Mama. Nice. Bye-Bye” and immediately fell asleep. I left his room not knowing it would be the last time I would nurse my baby.

A week later, my breasts ache, full with milk from his absence, and my heart feels heavy. But I also feel like a tremendous sense of accomplishment, like I’ve been running this marathon for the last 20+ months and I’ve finally made it to the end without having to stop and walk. It feels that big and that wonderful. I’m proud of how far he and I came together, and I’m overcome by what an immense reward it turned out to be.

And now, my worry is that having myself accepted this as the ending, Jack will change his mind and decide that he needs more time. I worry that tomorrow or the next day, he’ll cry and reach out for me to nurse.

And, too, I worry that he won’t.


Posted by: Sarah on February 16th, 2007
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