Love hurts, especially when you’re trying to nurse a baby who keeps biting you. For the past two days my baby Rae has refused my breast. She either pushes it away or gives me a quick (and painful) nip.
This doesn’t stop me from trying to offer it to her. I’m like a lovesick teenager who keeps crawling back to the same boy who’s already going steady with someone else.
The baby’s beginning to get more adamant about her feelings toward her mommy stalker, who constantly asks in a hopeful tone, “Milk?” and has even been known to pump in front of this said baby in a sorry attempt to make her jealous.
She’s trying to be gentle with me, but I think she’s reaching her limit. Her most recent bite was much more emphatic. She’s also resorted to waving her hands furiously in the motion of a frantic “finished” sign.
C’mon, Mommy. Take a hint.
It wasn’t supposed to happen like this. Only two days ago she’d still been nursing four to five times a day. Now she looks at me like I’ve lost my mind when I open and close my hand like I’m squeezing an imaginary udder (the sign for milk).
Maybe I am a little crazy, but this is all too soon and too sudden. I think of myself as an extended breastfeeder. I always assumed I’d be the one doing the weaning – not the other way around.
That’s the way it was with my firstborn. I had to gently wean my first daughter at 22 months, enticing her with fancy sippy cups because my husband and I were ready for another baby and ecological breastfeeding works as a way of natural child spacing for us. (I conceived the month I weaned.) Actually, my high-need preschooler still occasionally asks to nurse at bedtime and even verbalizes why she wants to be close to Mommy. “I want to be a baby,” she told me recently.
So what about Rae? She is still a baby. She just turned 1 about a month ago. Why the big hurry to grow up? What’s next? Asking for permission to shave her legs?
I know I shouldn’t be taking this personally. Besides, maybe this is only a nursing strike. Maybe not.
Either way I know the facts. I’ve nursed one child until she was nearly two. My mother-in-law is a lactation consultant. I’ve read enough about breastfeeding to know all about the stumbling blocks, the benefits to both mom and baby, and the reality that natural weaning is child-led and there’s no set timetable.
I know that some babies do naturally wean at around a year, although it’s not the norm (experts consider 4 or 5 years to be the average age of weaning worldwide, according to La Leche League International). Most gradually wean while the minority of babies make what seems like a rather abrupt, spontaneous decision.
So why isn’t my baby in the majority? Why does she have to be such a rebel? She was supposed to nurse until I needed to wean in order to conceive baby number three. That was my plan and I can’t help but feel a twinge of inadequacy that my baby’s decided otherwise.
Just yesterday I watched as Rae held her sippy cup with chubby, deft hands, downing the breastmilk I’d pumped earlier after she’d nipped my nipple yet again.
So it’s not the milk she doesn’t want. It’s the container. It’s me.
Was it because I left her last Sunday to attend a conference (this was my longest time away from her since her birth)? Is the paci to blame (Madeline never used one)? Is it because I rushed her through too many nursing nosh sessions in the past so that we could get her big sister to swim lessons or even to the potty in time?
I needed some answers. I pulled The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding off my bookshelf and looked up “weaning” in the index. I found a whole section devoted to the mom who was ready to stop breastfeeding, but there was nothing about the mom who wasn’t ready to wean.
I know why. Because this isn’t about me. It’s about my baby. It’s about meeting her needs and right now, for whatever reason, those don’t include nursing.
But knowing something and accepting it are two very different things. If I accept that my baby’s ready to wean, then I’m also accepting that she’s growing up more quickly than I want.
For the past year, I’ve responded to her cues. I must do no differently now. Even if her “cue” comes in the form of an unexpected nibble that hurts in more ways than one. When she cries or reaches up to me, I must still react. But maybe I need to offer her my arms instead of my breasts. (She, too, knows the sign for “milk” and can tell me if that’s what she wants.) She may want to be rocked, cradled close to me while I sing a lullaby. She may want another story or for me to count her tiny toes or to tickle her beneath her chin. Sometimes, though, she may ask me to ransom her from the constant care I’ve grown so accustom to giving.
Really, parenting is just one long process of weaning. First, newborns are weaned from their mother’s womb. Then, arms open wide, they’re sailing down a hill on their bikes and we’re screaming, “Keep your hands on those handlebars!” Before we know it the very children we thought would never sleep through the night or get out of diapers are heading off to college with an assured (and perhaps inflated) sense of wisdom. I don’t speak from experience. My oldest isn’t even four yet. I can only guess how quickly it comes time to say good-bye and there’s no longer a baby wedged on a hip, flapping fat fingers at you while babbling, “Bye-bye.”
To be parents, I’m learning, is to teach my children to be less dependent on me and more dependent on themselves. This is just one of the ciphers of parenting: to figure out when you need to hold on and when it’s time to let go. I’m only just discovering that the holding on is much, much easier to do.