I threw away the last of the frozen breast milk yesterday. There were just a few bags tucked in the back of the freezer, underneath a box of waffles. “We don’t need this anymore, do we?” Andrew asked. “No, you can toss it,” I said after a brief pause. But during that pause, my heart sank a bit and memories of weaning Harriet a month ago came back. I’ve been meaning to write about it for a while but have had trouble finding the words. I always try to be transparent when I write, and I want to be honest about weaning, but I’m sort of embarrassed about this topic because I worry people will think my reactions to it are over the top. I worry people will think there’s something wrong with me because ending the nursing chapter in my daughter’s life had such a profound effect on me. But because I don’t have much experience successfully masking my real thoughts and feelings, I’m just going to tell it like it is.
I still get choked up when I think about nursing Harriet. Right now, my eyes are filled with tears. Okay…one just fell. We finished the weaning process a long time ago but I’m still grieving it. I think it’s because nursing was such a big part of the past year and played such an important role in our bonding. I think I might have spent more time nursing over this past year than doing anything else. There were days early on when Harriet and I would literally spend all day on the couch or in the recliner in the nursery. There were times when she would stay latched on for two and a half hours straight. I treasure those moments. I treasure the fact that I could provide her with something that no one else could. I treasure the memories of those times when she got a shot or bumped her head or just felt really crummy and nothing would soothe her…until I nursed her.
Nursing also had its side perks. I gained thirty pounds during my pregnancy and lost forty-two pounds during the following year. For a while, I weighed less than I did when we got married. It was crazy! I also pumped way more than Harriet ever could have used, so I was able to give three big coolers of milk to a family who needed it. Unfortunately, I also threw away twelve gallon-sized Ziploc bags full of milk because I thought it “expired” after six months when in reality, it can last up to a year in a really cold freezer.
Nursing wasn’t always easy though. In fact, there were times when I completely resented it. We worked hard to get Harriet to latch and just when it seemed like she had the hang of it, I started overproducing. My milk let down really fast and literally choked her so that she developed a fear of nursing. I had to pump before every nursing session in order to get her to trust me again. She also had a lot of reflux in the early days. There were plenty of times when I’d finish nursing her and she’d immediately projectile vomit all of it right back up. But we stuck with it - talked to lactation consultants, read books, consulted our doula and our pediatrician, researched online. Eventually, we got into a great rhythm. It became so easy and natural, something we could do without even thinking about it. We never had scheduled nursings. I just fed on demand. There were times when she’d nurse 15-20 times per day, and it worked really well for both of us.
We weaned really slowly, over the course of about three months. For the last week, I nursed her just once per day, right before bed, for about five minutes. After one especially wakeful night, I called my mother-in-law and asked if she could come over so that Andrew could sleep a little longer. She mentioned that maybe Harriet was confused by the fact that she was still nursing but on such a limited basis. I decided then and there that I was done, that I wasn’t going to nurse her again. It was kind of nice knowing that the dreaded last time was already in the past. I think I would have been a complete mess if I had to go into a nursing knowing it was the last time, so I’m glad we did it that way.
I figured weaning gradually would cut down on the discomfort. Nope. It was unreal how engorged I was. I didn’t get stretch marks during the whole year I nursed, but I got them from weaning. I went up two cup sizes. I was so uncomfortable that I could barely hold Harriet. And I couldn’t sleep because I couldn’t find a position that worked. It was ugly.
On the ninth day of misery, I stopped by a clinic to see a lactation consultant. I pulled up my shirt and she gasped. She just kept saying “oh honey” over and over again while shaking her head. She told me I was right on the edge of mastitis. So for the next four days, I took two types of antihistamines around the clock and spent every minute I wasn’t at work like this:
Those are ice packs, but I also filled my bra with cabbage. That was kind of gross. Eventually, the swelling went down. Way, way, way down (emphasis on down). I have to admit I was hoping to retain some of it, but nope. Oh, and the weight came back. In about two weeks, I gained nine pounds. And I’m thinking it was probably more like twelve pounds if you account for what I lost up top. Bummer.
I had a hard time talking about weaning while we were still in the thick of it, but any time I did, women would always say the same thing – “it was way harder on me than it was on my baby.” I hated when they said that because I didn’t believe them. I knew how much Harriet loved nursing, how much she needed it. I think I was right about that. I don’t think I overestimated how important nursing was to her. But I do think I underestimated how adaptable she was. She did great. There were definitely times when she wanted to nurse and I had to turn her away, times when she accidentally saw me getting out of the shower and would reach her arms towards me with a desperate look on her face, but for the most part, this baby-girl-growing-into-a-little-lady of mine seemed to sort of…get it. And she was okay with the change.
I, on the other hand, am apparently not so adaptable. I grieved hard during the weaning process. I actually think I went through all five stages.
Denial: For a long time, I just kept telling myself that she’d wean early on her own. Yeah…right.
Bargaining: I know that it’s possible for some women to get pregnant while nursing. I’m not one of those women, but I thought I might have a chance if we brought some fertility drugs into the mix. I did some research on the effects of clomid on a nursing child. Turns out, it’s very safe. So I called every fertility clinic in the area to see if anyone would see me. Not a single doctor would treat a nursing mom. Not one. I have a suspicion that it has something to do with not wanting to compromise their success rates, since a nursing mom’s chances of getting pregnant are lower. Some clinics said they’d call me back but never did.
Anger: It still makes me so mad that we had to wean at all. I know this freaks people out, but I would totally be that lady that nurses her three-year-old. Put me on the cover of Time Magazine. I don’t care. Here’s the thing I always tell people – if it was possible for women to feed their children from their elbow or the palm of their hand, there would be three-year-olds playing at the park and running back to their moms to get a quick drink. No one would think twice about it. Nursing toddlers creep us out because we think of breasts as primarily sexual. But they’re not! They’re multifunctional! And toddlers know nothing of their other functions. But all of this is besides the point. Back to what I was saying…I wanted to let Harriet nurse for as long as she wanted to. It makes me angry that my infertility stole my chance to do baby-led weaning. Infertility stealing from me is not a new thing, but this is the first time it stole from my daughter, and that left me furious.
Depression: My dad watched Harriet on New Years Eve so Andrew and I could celebrate with some friends. “Stay out as late as you want,” he said. But I assured him we’d be home by eight o’clock and then completely broke down in the kitchen. “I just have to come home before she goes to bed,” I said between sobs. “I need to nurse her.” I knew that this stage was coming to an end and I couldn’t bear the thought of sacrificing one of those precious times for a night out. I think the cause of the depression was two-fold – the grief over the loss of Harriet’s babyhood and the hormonal upheaval that went along with weaning. For about a month, I lost a lot of my motivation and interest in doing things. I felt down all the time. I cried super easily. I read that women can go through post-nursing depression, similar to postpartum depression. I think that’s what I was experiencing.
Acceptance: I think I’m there now. Not that I have a choice. There are definitely benefits to having a weaned child. I don’t experience those benefits when I struggle to put on a pair of jeans that fit me so well a month ago. I don’t experience those benefits when Harriet falls off the couch and isn’t easily comforted. But I do experience them sometimes. And I’m glad that we are now free to pursue a sibling for her.
From the moment our children are born, we start letting go. First we release them from our bodies, then from our breasts. Eventually they’ll leave our homes for sleep-away camp. And then someday we'll have to let them go completely and trust them to other hearts, other hands.
I don’t want to be the type of mom who views every day that passes as something lost. In this way, I wish I was more like a man. My husband is always looking forward to the next stage, the next milestone. I want to live that way – looking forward, not back. I want to view past days as memories gained rather than moments lost. But this isn’t always easy. From what I’ve experienced so far, much of being a mom is bittersweet. The sweet is so much more powerful than the bitter, but there’s always that ache there, deep in your heart, in that little place where you keep the memory of first giggles and impossibly tiny toes.
I loved being pregnant, absolutely relished in it. I felt beautiful (even though I was growing out my hair and in reality looked like Justin Bieber). I felt strong and energized. I also loved those early days when Harriet still smelled of birth and rarely opened her eyes. I loved spending all day on the couch with her, nursing her and wrapping her tight against my body so she’d feel safe and secure. I think that one of the reasons weaning was so hard on me is that I have this deep fear that I will never get the chance to enjoy that again. I feel kind of panicky about the fact that we may have cut her nursing short so that we could pursue fertility treatments that won’t ever work. I am scared that I too easily gave it up and that I won’t ever get it back by birthing and nursing another baby.
So I guess my natural tendency is to live in the past or the future. It takes conscious effort to stay present in this moment. But I'm really going to try. And it shouldn't be too hard, considering the present moment looks like this: