Nursing memories and lessons learned

DSC 0040 680x1024 Nursing memories and lessons learnedIt has now been over a year since I last nursed a child. I know a few mothers who didn’t enjoy breastfeeding all that much and were glad to be through with it, but I didn’t belong to that camp. I don’t love everything about babies or motherhood – trust me – but I did love nursing. And the specter of a nursing child curled into me visits me from time to time and reminds me of all that I miss.

I not only yearn the feel of a sweet baby in my arms, nestled close to me, or the hundreds of calories my milk-making body burned while I just sat on my bum. And, yes, filling more than an A cup was nice, too.

There was the awareness of my strength, my purpose as a woman and a mother that breastfeeding brought to the surface. Each time I nursed a newborn for the first time – usually immediately after birth and a few times with the umbilical cord still attached – I discovered a new brand of bliss. My baby’s instant acceptance of me, my body’s ability to bring forth new life and then to nurture it – how could I ever doubt my strength again?

Oh, but I have and I do pretty much on a daily basis.

I wish I could bottle up that fleeting sense of my power and worth, but there are many days when I question my mothering, my ability to be enough. Love offered through nursing was more than just sustenance. It was protection. I could keep my baby safe. Love was protection, but now that my children are growing older, it’s just love. And sometimes it seems there’s not enough of it to go around.

Nursing also gifted me with the perfect excuse to be still, to be quiet, and to do nothing while actually doing something very important – nourishing my child.

 

My Bible study group was talking about the challenges of finding quiet time to pray and to work on our relationship with God. All relationships take work; our union with our Heavenly Father is no different. We can’t expect to strengthen our faith if we fail to ever flex our spiritual muscles or think that just showing up at church on Sunday is all it takes to become a woman of God.

I’ve been struggling with finding time for God. My relationship with Him is in need of some work.

As I watched my friend and wise Bible Study leader nurse her baby, I remembered how nursing became a perfect time for me to pray. Breastfeeding gave me a frequent excuse to withdraw into a cloistered calm with my baby or toddler. (I breastfed all of my children for longer than what is considered “average” or sadly, “normal.”). Sure, sometimes I nursed while reading a book to an older sibling or even while grocery shopping. By the time Baby #3 came around, I became quite adept at feeding my little one in Ergo as I tackled my grocery list. Once an older woman saw a chubby little foot sticking out and asked to see the baby’s face. I had to turn her down because what she would have seen more of was a huge, milk-inflated balloon of a breast.

I nursed on demand and so frequently that I had to learn to multi-task, but there were many times – especially those early morning and late night feedings – when my child’s noshing session became a mini retreat for me. During these hushed pockets of time in an otherwise noisy day that was usually filled with sibling squabbles, little girls singing, a big-mouth dog barking, and the constant cacophony of a full house, I had time to just think, ponder, pray, and be.

The world around me blurred into a calm palette of simple beauty. I forgot about the drifts of canary yellow post-it notes reminding me of this and that. My to-do list didn’t seem essential when I was feeding a baby. Nursing made me feel accomplished and calm all at the same time. It was as if my baby wasn’t only sucking milk from me, but she was also taking the stress and my OCD tendencies away.

I would find myself watching my baby’s eyelids grow heavy with each suck while long eyelashes fluttered until finally the sleepy eyes vanished behind delicate eyelids. My baby’s breathing slowed, and I would feel her tummy rise and fall against my own. So often my child’s breathing and my own would become synchronized as if we were one lovely unit.

I’m not sure why, but I vividly remember marveling at my children’s ears while they nursed. When do you stop to consider the miracle of an ear – those tiny, perfect forms that wiggle as a baby sucks?

I’d hear my baby’s small gulps, which would start out almost frantic and then slow with my little nursling’s breathing, as my body nourished her. Sometimes even after my baby pulled off, her lips would continue to suck satisfied with just the memory of my breast. A tiny starburst hand would often hold onto the fabric of my shirt or little fingers would tightly grasp my own finger, and my baby’s strength would surprise me. I loved those baby hands, their softness, the tiny dimples where knuckles would one day emerge.

I have lots of knuckles around here these days; my growing kids are going on all Cubist on me and are all angles now. Only my youngest still has that dimply softness to remind me of his baby days, and I know in a year or so he will lose it and become lean and grow up as his sisters have.

I am guilty of painting the past as perfect. When people die, we rightly memorialize them and even glorify them. We mothers are sometimes guilty of this when we enter a new season of motherhood. It’s easy to forget the constant and sometimes crazy-inducing sleep deprivation, the inability to crack the cipher of a baby’s endless crying, the loneliness of mother-infant seclusion.

And while I truly did love the nursing experience, I do remember times when I was exasperated that my baby wanted to feed again.

Everything wasn’t always all sepia-toned, but there was something beautiful about those quiet nursing sessions when I was forced to slow down, when I had the ability to discern the smallest of details like my baby’s ear or the fringe of lashes on her eyelids, when there were very little distractions aside from my ticker tape of a mind and even that seemed to slow down when I fed my babies, when it was just my child and me set apart from everything around us, discovering our own world where we existed only for each other.

I long for more of those kind of moments. My babies all grew up so quickly. I have a 10-year-old who sometimes reads the same books as I do (Wonder Nursing memories and lessons learned, Grayson) and goes on runs with me and makes me laugh. I have a 7-year-old who loves animals and is kind and sensitive and writes me the most beautiful “just because” notes and birthday poetry. I have a soon-to-be 6-year-old who has started to read, loves to draw, and has a pitch-perfect singing voice. I have a little Todzilla who leaves messes in his wake, but also gives me more spontaneous hugs, kisses, and compliments (“Mommy, you look beautiful,” he tells me at least once a day) than I probably deserve. When I ask him to please clean his room, he says, “No ‘sank’ you.” He’s even old enough to exhibit polite defiance.

Several years ago a friend of mine told me she could see me having at least eight kids. Honestly, I could see it then, too. But now as my days of fertility are waning, and life is moving so quickly, I am accepting my family size as it is and I am also realizing I need to carve out quiet time whether I have a nursing baby in my midst or not.

I had someone ask me today if I wanted more children. I paused. I used to emphatically say, “Yes!” anytime someone asked me this, and a part of me will always – no matter how exhausted or overwhelmed I may feel – long for a baby, a new beginning, a new narrative of hope that begins with conception. But I also know that I am blessed to have the four lively children I have and that this new season is pretty, darn fun and that I can’t wallow in wistfulness for the past or  long  for a future that may or may not include another nursing baby. I don’t want to miss out in the life that’s right in front of me.

I love watching my oldest play basketball and be a team leader. I love having my 7-year-old bibliophile tell me all about her latest book. I love how my girly-girl 5-year-old accessorizes her outfits every day and asks to play with my hair. I enjoy my toddler boy’s silliness and curiosity and how his hugs are big, strong, and frequent. These little people are so interesting, so full of personality. It’s wonderful.

So I told my questioner this: “I feel at peace with my family right now, but I’d never say no to another child. We’ll see what happens.”

That’s the truth. I desire to live life in the present tense rather than pining for the future or dreaming of the past.

But whether or not I have a nursing little one around to remind me, I need to be aware of the importance of withdrawing from the world and the busyness life, and this doesn’t include exercising to fast-paced music (this is what my alone time often consists of these days). I may not be able to use a baby as an “excuse” to seek solitude and prayer or to graciously turn down anything that pulls me away from my primary vocation as a wife and mother or zaps me of energy and joy. But I don’t need an excuse to quiet my mind and my heart, to be grateful for the everyday glimpses of beauty that are all around me like those long eyelashes, perfect ears, smiles, sunshine-kissed hair, bright eyes of my children. They may be bigger, but they’re no less amazing

Baby or not, I must slow down long enough to appreciate life, to be still, and to know that He is God.

This is what extended breastfeeding really looks like

When I first saw the infamous cover of Time magazine showing the little boy with his mom’s breast is in his mouth, I immediately recognized it as shock journalism. But there was something else unsettling about it. I just couldn’t put my finger on it right away. Yes, the mother’s breast is showing. Yes, the whole propped up boy looking directly at us made me think that Time was trying to misrepresent attachment parenting as something that turns moms into slaves who are at the whim of their children’s every want and desire.

Yet, that wasn’t what really was getting under my skin. I’ve witnessed the heated debates over the photo, the backlash and anger. I’ve heard people calling the photo child porn and accusing the mom of child abuse. I don’t agree with these harsh statements, but I don’t agree with the photo either (and if I’d been the one to fly to New York City for the shoot, I most definitely would not have agreed to posing in that manner).

I received an email from an attachment parent who said she saw the photo as not being sensational and as being natural. After I read her email, I took a look at the photo again. I could not agree with her. I practice extended breastfeeding. I am very supportive of it and attachment parenting, but there was nothing natural about that posed photo. And the only thing “attached” in it was the boy’s mouth to his mom’s breast. As much as I didn’t want to admit it as a mom who is nursing an older child, there was something twisted and sexual about it.

Later I was nursing my sweet 3-year-old, and I felt warm and cuddly. She gently brushed my cheek with her little, dimpled hand and said, “I ‘wuv’ you, Mommy.” And – ah-ha! – it struck me that what bothered me wasn’t what the photo showed but what it didn’t.

I have seen my share of photos of older children nursing in other countries where there’s a lot more of the mother’s breast exposed (like the whole thing – nipple and all – because both breasts are clear to the eye since she’s topless); yet, these photos evoke beauty, peace, and maternity. But this photo does nothing of the sort.

The Time photo shows defiance. It shows a flash of breast. What it doesn’t show is any inkling of serenity or maternity or love.

An anonymous comment over at Faith & Family LIVE! said it best:

“This pic accentuates this woman’s boobs (even if they are not size ‘D’ or anything like that, they’re still highlighted by the pose and clothing); the woman is wearing tight clothes and standing in a defiant pose that does not suggest softness, cuddling, or warmth. My point is that I think this pic was *carefully* designed to pose attachment parenting moms in an unattached way. And attachment parenting without the attachment is… well… what is it? Let’s see, it could be weird… it could be gross… it could be any number of things because the barometer of love between mother and child which guides the mom in her choices and style is broken without attachment. So, would or could it then dip in to some gross sexualized situation? Why not! Basically, this pic turns attachment parenting on its head and debases it. This pic is the antithesis of attachment parenting. Like porn is the antithesis of what sex is meant to be. And I think that’s why this pic feels a little porn-like, even though we all know its just a nursing mom.”

My friend, Michelle, added,

“Breastfeeding is one of those things that I had very little experience seeing until I myself was a nursing mom. Then I saw it everywhere. Never, never, have I seen a great looking mom wearing tight clothes, hands on hips, pulling her top down so her preschooler could get a drink. There is nothing soft, loving or motherly here. It is a pose of defiance that dares the world to tell her she can live her life any way she durn well pleases. Perhaps there are extended breastfeeding mother like this, but they would be in the minority. For most, breastfeeding is a quiet, comforting time for both mother and child…or a time where the mother says, “Again? I just fed your sister…I need to do the dishes…” followed by a sigh (I’ve seen that one most often!). I generally wean by age 2, because I wanted to, not because my children wanted to. And by the time they were 15-18 months old, I discouraged nursing in public just because of this sort of thing. I have friends who NEVER nurse in public, always bringing bottles of pumped milk around, even to my house where I told her she was crazy to pump to nurse an infant, especially at my pro-breastfeeding home. But she just wasn’t comfortable nursing in front of others because of stigmas fueled by this sort of news coverage.”

I hate it that women feel shame because of media stunts like this. I’ve already received several messages from moms who breastfeed older children who are embarrassed and sad due to this hoopla. Want to know the truth? Something that mainstream media rarely, if ever, portrays? This is what extended breastfeeding really looks like:

nursing1 e1336841980444 768x1024 This is what extended breastfeeding really looks like

There is love. There is warmth. There is quiet. We often live in a “not now” world when it comes to our children because everything else demands our attention now.

“Mommy, can you play with me?”

“Not now, sweetie. I’ve got to make dinner.”

“Mommy, let’s paint!”

“Now now, honey, I’m checking my email.”

Breastfeeding limits the amount of “not nows” my child and I have to share (although I certainly do turn down some of my older child’s requests to nurse. A baby’s needs and wants are one in the same. As our children grow older, the line is more blurred). Nursing forces my hummingbird self to slow down and to take time to cuddle with my child. The attachment is way beyond the physical. It hinges on peace and love. The only thing attached in the Time photo was the boy’s mouth to his mother’s breast. No wonder it made people uncomfortable. What is mothering – and breastfeeding beyond what’s considered the “norm” is about mothering and nurturing a child – without love?

If you have a problem with my version of extended breastfeeding, then I’m sorry, but the problem is more you. You are not comfortable with the idea that breasts are instruments to feed children and not just sex toys. You are not comfortable that a child who is beginning to speak for herself and seek independence still needs to be close to her mama sometimes. Or that it might even be good for mama to slow down and to focus on her little one who lives in a world that tries to make her big before she’s ready.

I understand your discomfort. It’s not entirely your fault. There are lots of mixed messages out there and when media portray breastfeeding as Time did, we all get a little uncomfortable.

Aside from shocking people and igniting new mommy wars, what this distorted cover image and its loaded words ultimately did was disenfranchise moms. Thanks to Time, there is one group of moms (those who nurse and especially those who nurse children older than what’s considered “acceptable”) feeling like freaks. They also probably either feel like they have to hide the fact that they are still nursing or are prepared to turn militant about defending their choices. Some may even feel they need to defend that misguided photo (like I was at first, maybe they aren’t even sure why the photo makes them uneasy) because breastfeeding is natural and loving – but not when it’s portrayed the way Time portrayed it. On the other side is different group of moms who don’t nurse and/or practice attachment parenting, and they’re angry at the implication that they are not mom enough because of those big letters on the cover: “Are you mom enough?”

Nobody wins. Shame on Time magazine for making any mom feel unworthy. And right before Mother’s Day, too.

Motherhood is undervalued in our society. We give it plenty of lip service, but we’re constantly trying to define it, box it into a set of principles or rules, objectify it, undermine it, and judge it. At its heart, mothering is about love. And that is what Time magazine purposefully, I believe, completely dismissed when they put that cold and completely detached photo on its cover.

***

The primary purpose of this blog is not to promote breastfeeding or to even defend it. I write to encourage mothers no matter how they choose to feed their child or what season of their mothering life they are in. I also am not trying to be sensational by showing a photo of me nursing my 3-year-old, but I believe we’ve got to put ourselves out there some if want to fight the stereotypes and help to normalize breastfeeding. I’ll get off my soapbox now. Happy Mother’s Day to you all!!!

UPDATE: I feel compelled to add after reading some of the comments and receiving some emails that I was careful to not personally arrack the mom in the photo or to project blame upon her. I’m aware of how it could have possibly been my child and me manipulated into a pose that would sell magazines or even just unaware of all the snapshots being taken. In this post and in all of my discussions about the Time cover, I have referred to the photo and the magazine and its editors as being culpable rather than pointing my finger at the mom. I never said she didn’t love her child or that she was not emotionally attached to him or that she was flippant or arrogant and feeling “mom enough” – only that Time magazine chose a photo that didn’t exactly conjure up maternal love  and portrayed the act of breastfeeding and attachment parenting in a distorted way.

UPDATE (again because it’s my website, and I can update whenever I want): I frequently see passionate parents guilty of making a common logical fallacy when I or some other mom shares her own parenting style or even just a glimpse into her parenting life, and frankly, it drives me nuts. For instance, I’ll say something like I do “A” because it is a way to show love to my child, and someone somewhere angrily wags her finger at me (or that’s what I imagine her doing) and responds by accusing me of saying that because she doesn’t also do “A,” she doesn’t love her child as much as I do. Or because nursing helps to curb me from saying “not now” too often and living more in the moment that nursing longer than expected is the only way to do that. Rubbish.

I’ve heard overwhelmingly positive feedback about this post. There was one guy on Twitter who said the photo was maybe even creepier than the Time one. Whatever. I’m not going to even waste energy defending my words or photo to someone who makes an assessment like that.

But there was one mom, who was charitable in sharing her opposition, but was clearly upset with this post, feeling like I was asking not to be judged but judging moms who didn’t nurse as long I happen to be nursing one of my kids. (For the record: I did not nurse my first two nearly as long either. Also, I actually had to immediately wean the child who is now still nursing when I was put on bed rest after going in to premature labor. She did not nurse for 10 weeks but when the baby was born, she asked about a little mama’s milk, and here we are.) First off, I never asked not to be judged. In fact, I know that even a loving portrayal of breastfeeding an older child would have been rejected by some if it had ended up on the cover of a glossy. And I know there are probably people who saw my photo and squirmed a bit, and remember there’s the Twitter guy who found it really creepy. In these cases, I stand by my statement that that’s the person’s problem. Not that it’s completely anyone’s fault. We have some pretty strict cultural scripts to rewrite before everyone can become more comfortable with breasts’ sole purpose being to feed children – even older ones. Yet, what I never said is that if you choose not to breastfeed your child for a long time (or even at all), then the problem is with you.

But one mom saw it differently. She chose not to breastfeed her children as long, and she felt like I was being divisive and felt that I was saying she and her husband had a problem because they felt like gently weaning earlier was right for their family.  She felt that I was saying that anyone who does not nurse her child as long as I do has a problem. Rubbish, again, I say. I never said that. It was falsely deduced. So often people connect imaginary dots and end up feeling attacked.

As I shared in the combox after this comment, I’m a little disheartened because I so did not want any mom to feel like she had to defend her choices. I hate the mommy wars and always try to be charitable when discussing my mothering lifestyle and choices without making other moms feel like they’re not “mom enough.” I never imagined this post would go so viral, and I realize that there are a ton of people who are new to my website and don’t realize that I’ve written ad nauseum about how how I don’t like labels and that good mothering does not come in one-size-fits-all.

I also read something really great by Lauren @ Hobo Mama about how extended breastfeeding or tandem nursing probably seemed a little weird to most of the women who ended up practicing it now. She writes,

If you think extended breastfeeding, or tandem nursing, is weird, you’re not alone. Most of us did at one point or another, too. Most of us started out merely wanting to breastfeed until our baby wanted to stop, or until we as the nursing parents needed or wanted to, or until it wasn’t working for our family. We wanted weaning to be a gentle and gradual process. You don’t start out breastfeeding a four-year-old — you start out with a newborn, who just keeps growing. By the time a four-year-old is breastfeeding, the frequency is way down, and you both know it’s phasing out. Trust me, it’s not “all about the mother” — it’s about the relationship. And there’s no way you can force a child to breastfeed, so it’s definitely the kid’s choice.

That’s an excellent point. I don’t have “end dates” in mind when I start nursing an infant. I don’t think most moms do. I might have even thought it would be weird to be nursing two kids at once or to be nursing one for longer than toddlerhood. But here I am. And it doesn’t feel weird at all.

I’m adding these tidbits here and there because this post is continuing to attract a lot of attention, and I really appreciate the charitable and engaging conversation that’s going on. And I want anyone who finds her way here to know that I feel called to encourage all parents – whether their kids were breastfed for four years or not at all.

Extended breastfeeding is not extreme parenting

When visiting my parents’ house, people frequently enter their powder room and disappear. It’s a lovely room. My mom knows how to make people feel at home. There’s potpourri (and Poo-Pourri , too). There’s often a scented candle burning and freshly picked flowers from her garden displayed in a simple but tasteful vase. There’s foamy soap and silky lotion as well as luxuriously, soft towels that make you feel like you’re touching clouds when you dry your hands. Yes, it’s a cozy, soothing room.

Of course, there’s also a commode and a stash of the latest People magazines. My dad’s guilty pleasure is keeping up on pop culture and imbibing the magazine’s trashy content. We’re all so grateful he shamelessly subscribes because we all retreat to the powder room and get lost in what our family jokingly refers to as Poople since the pages are often perused while taking care of other, more natural business. (My family has never reached total adult maturity because we still find potty humor hilarious.)

Over Easter weekend I found myself in the pooper – er, I mean powder room enjoying an almost spa-like experience. A springtime scent – gardenia maybe? – wafted into my nostrils. The kids weren’t trying to break in as they do at home because they were happily occupied, playing in Gaba and Papa’s basement. I picked up a recent issue of People magazine and realized how out out of touch I am because I don’t even recognize a lot of the celebrities anymore.

I flipped through the pages, checking out the latest gossip and fashion trends (I am a closet clothes horse) when a celebrity short entitled “Extreme Parenting” caught my attention. The brief piece featured photos of three celebrity mamas along with text highlighting their “extreme” parenting behavior. First up was Alicia Silverstone. I’m familiar with the vegan and former Clueless star. I’m pretty sure she’s about my age. Anyway, she apparently is a mama bird who pre-masticates her food and gets it all nice and soft before her toddler son scrambles over to her and takes the chewed-up food from her mouth. I don’t like to judge parenting styles providing it’s not negligent or blatantly harmful, and this parenting style does not outrage me since it’s not likely to harm a child (other than perhaps resulting in more infections because of the potential for germ swapping) or make him feel neglected, but this does seem a bit excessive, gross, as well as completely unnecessary to me. Not that I’ve never been known to pre-masticate a bite here and there for a wee one. Come on, you know in a pinch you’ve maybe chewed a bit of avocado or something else to make sure it’s soft for your little birdy.

However, I have no plans or desire to routinely chew up food for my kids, and I would never think of using my mouth as a bowl for my little ones. Ewww. It wouldn’t even ever cross my mind to do so. Probably because I belong to the mammalia class rather than the aves one, although apparently some mammals and even some human cultures do practice pre-masticating for their young.

However, I can’t really figure out the benefit of this. Human mouths don’t need to be food processors, especially mouths belonging to humans who are millionaires. Feeding even the youngest of our children what we eat – natural, whole foods – is something I strive to do, but I am completely okay with using a blender or something like this Extended breastfeeding is not extreme parenting to get the food to the right consistency. And we do eat Goldfish for snacks, so our pantry is far from completely pure.

While I’m unaware of the science behind the practice of pre-mastication (or if there is any even), this does seem to fit in the extreme category and also just seems kind of nasty. Besides, its potential to share and spread germs seems great. I’m sure this parenting trend/choice is really, really cringe-worthy to anyone who is more germophobe than I am.

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