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.

Recycled Series: Tough Love

I’ve received a few emails from people – family members and strangers alike – commenting on the dearth of blog posts. I do miss writing more, but I just can’t seem to find the time to blog. I’m still freelancing. I’m still trying to overcome I-don’t-think-I-can-even-call-it-a-running-injury-anymore. I have my monthly radio gig and enjoy occasional speaking engagements. But mostly these days I feel like a glorified chauffeur. My life is all about schlepping, and sometimes I just want to hole up in home and nurse my non-existent baby.

My sister-in-law just had her first baby girl. I now have two nieces, and I am in heaven. I got to cuddle with one at the soccer fields last week. Unfortunately, the newest addition to our growing extended family lives far away, so I won’t be meeting her anytime soon. My sister-in-law is doing great, but I’m sure she’s bone-aching tired. Or, maybe, like I was after my first new-mom-euphoria is fueling her. If this is the case, I’ll pray she doesn’t slam into the wall like I did when Madeline turned six months of age and was still nursing on the hour. No matter how she or any new mom feels, I am careful to not say anything aloud about how I long for those baby days because I know it used to annoy me when I was bedraggled and exhausted and people would tell me to enjoy those precious years.

“These years are precious? Really?” I would think. “There’s nothing precious about chronic, fragmented sleep, smelling like my regurgitated breastmilk, and feeling like a yeti in yoga pants.”

But these days I am wistful that my youngest baby (my 3-year-old Thomas) is nearly as tall as my 5-year-old.

Maybe we always embellish the past. Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe we wouldn’t keep having babies if we remembered the sharp pains of labor or feeling drunk with exhaustion. Maybe we wouldn’t do a lot of things if we remembered how hard it was when we were in the midst of it. I am working on being happy with the now – not dwelling in the sepia-toned past or looking ahead to what is sure to be an easier, brighter future.

Still, I can’t help the part of me that is pining for the simplicity of those early years of motherhood when we stayed cloistered in our little home and only ventured out to go to the grocery story or to library story time. Of course, another part of me is enjoying the hilarity of my older children (and sometimes panicking over the fact that I am soon going to have a child who is a decade old). Truth is, this phase has been the toughest phase of motherhood so far for me. I can’t really say why. I do love babies, and I miss babies (and honestly, I thought I might have another baby by now), but it’s not just that. It’s the feeling like time is slipping by, and I haven’t really accomplished all that much. I fail to see the kids in front of me and how they are becoming such lively, wonderful people, and I am stuck in a weird funk.

Even now I am obviously not putting my feelings to words very well.

I’ll have to mull things over and maybe some day I’ll be able to write something encouraging again that is studded with brilliant insight. For now, I am turning to a something I wrote a long time ago about tough love. One child of mine has been constantly been comparing, and it’s driving me crazy. “You don’t ever get mad at so-and-so,” she bemoans. “Why can’t we do this like this family?” “So-and-so can listen to that song and watch that movie.” And then the refrain comes in loud and clear: “IT’S NOT FAIR!”

Nope. It’s not fair. Life’s not fair. The sooner you realize that, accept it, and be happy instead of jealous of the sister who seems to get more to you in your eyes, the better.

I refuse to keep score and make sure everything is even between my children. I love them all equally, but sometimes one of them may seem to come out ahead. That’s life. I’ve been working on celebrating the fact that other people have more than I sometimes do. Or praying for the multitude of people who have far less. I hope I can help my children to do the same.

Without further ado, my old “Tough Love” essay”:

The other day, I was reaching over to offer my two year old some leverage as she attempted to scale the mountain of our double jogging stroller when she batted my arms away and shook her head, saying in her adamant toddler style, “No, Mommy, no. I do it by self.”

Her tenacity impressed me. It also, I admit, made me uneasy to see my child toil like a turtle on its back when I knew I could easily step in to help her. But I forced myself to resist the urge to save my daughter from frustration.

Like most parents, I don’t want anything to thwart my children’s happiness. I want so badly for things to work out for them that I’m sometimes tempted to take away all their struggles. Other times, it’s difficult to say no when my child asks for another bedtime story while batting those long lashes, or when she asks politely for a toy she’s had her eye on for months.

And don’t get me started on the emotional and physical wounds the world inflicts upon my precious offspring. When I recently heard my daughter’s sharp sobs and saw a trail of blood running down her face after a head-on collision with an unruly Wii remote in the hands of her big sister, I was far more traumatized than my bleeding little one.

My mama-bear instinct is strong. It’s what drives me to safeguard my cherubs from everything from food additives to boogey men. Though I haven’t always been this way.

Before I became a mom, I rolled my eyes at doting, smothering parents and resolved to be more of a no-pain-no-gain hardliner when I had kids. I was never going to be one of those helicopter parents, I told myself, who hovered over their kids and swooped in to provide aid before their children even sent out an SOS. What doesn’t kill kids makes them stronger.

My how things change.

From the moment I conceived my first child, I was overwhelmed with an intense desire to protect my baby and to keep her safe. One day I was on a walk during my first pregnancy, and – preggo klutz that I was – I tripped on an uneven part of a sidewalk. I was headed belly-first for the ground, but somehow I managed to throw my body to the side, and it was my hip that first made contact with the concrete.

Nothing was going to hurt my baby. Nothing.

Only now I see that things hurt my babies all of the time. Sometimes it’s even – gasp! – me who’s doing the hurting, by gently but firmly saying no to their pleas. There are rainy days when it’s supposed to be sunny so we can venture out to the zoo. There are dinners not followed by dessert. There are new, nursing babies who take up too much of Mommy’s time.

One day, my kids will likely face much bigger disappointments – broken hearts, rejections from colleges and employers, backstabbing friends, missed opportunities, and maybe worse.

There’s no escaping it: Pain is a part of the human condition. Welcome to life, kiddos. It’s full of disappointments.

The world is chipping away at my children’s innocent hearts every day. And yet, as tough as it is for a mother who is designed to love her children fiercely and deeply, I know it’s not my job to inoculate them against all the angst of life.

Thomas Paine said, “What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly.” And didn’t God say something very similar when He sacrificed His only Son for us so that we could have life? One drop of Christ’s blood could have saved us all, yet He freely chose to shed every last bit of it. He gave what is beyond sufficient, so that we might recognize the power of sacrificial love.

But we often don’t get it. Neither do our kids. After all, it’s not PC to talk about suffering or sacrifice anymore. Why struggle when there’s an easier way? Why take the moral high road when there’s a quicker detour at every turn?

Counterfeit praise is distributed more freely than candy on Halloween. Standards for competence have been lowered or removed completely. Soccer games with no scoreboards. Awarding a tone-deaf child a solo in the school musical for fear that the truth that she can’t hold a tune might crush her. Eliminating honors societies in public schools so Average Joe won’t feel excluded.

The problem is that an artificial inflation of self-esteem only sharpens our children’s disappointment in the real world. What happens when they realize they have to do more than just show up at work to stand out and get ahead? How will they cope when faced with true adversity, if everything in life has been handed to them? How will they ever learn to embrace “Thy will be done” instead of “My will be done”?

As a mother, I’m here to teach my children to solve their own problems, not to be a slave to their longings. I’m here to gently guide them, not to micromanage their lives. I’m here to offer empathy but not always to take away the pain. I won’t boost their self-esteems by doing everything for them or by not insisting they take personal responsibility for their actions.

Ultimately, I want my children to recognize that we are entitled to very little except for God’s love. I want them to work hard as well as to see the redemptive value of suffering. But that won’t happen if I toss them a lifesaver at the first sign of distress, even when every ounce of my maternal being wants to do just that.

No wonder it’s called “tough love.”

As I watched my toddler wrestle with the stroller over the hard concrete, you better believe I made sure my arms were ready to catch her should she stumble, but I allowed her to struggle. In doing so, perhaps I gave her a small lesson in fortitude as well as a taste of triumph after perseverance. And it was her own glory for the taking.

When she finally clambered into her seat, her smile and proud exclamation said it all: “I did it all by self, Mommy!”

Yes, you did, little one. Yes, you did.

Your baby is just fine and so are you

Here’s an old post from the archives as part of my Recycled Series. I dedicate this to both of my sister-in-laws – one who has recently welcomed a baby into her arms (whom I had the joy of spending a lot of time with on Monday) and to another who is on the eve of new motherhood and also a cousin of mine who recently had her first baby. I wrote this when Mary Elizabeth was just a little nugget.

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Mary Elizabeth, who’s now 5, and me

Recently, I had the rare opportunity to go to the grocery store toting only the baby. She was a happy, wiggly little thing, and I quite enjoyed our visit as well as her many admirers.

Typically, I’m in such a rush that I avoid onlookers. I’m not overtly rude, but I don’t stop to make idle chitchat either. My goal is to take care of my grocery list before one of my kids melts down or surreptitiously takes shampoo off a shelf, pulls it into the car she’s cruising along in at the front of the cart, and starts smearing it all over her body (thinking it’s lotion of course), and isn’t caught in the act until a confused Mom smells mango, even though that type of fruit wasn’t on her list (yes, this is a true story. I won’t fully reveal the guilty party, but she often wears pigtails and exclaims, “I two!”).

But today was different. I had only one child with me. This was easy street.

During our visit we were stopped by the grocery paparazzi several times and received the following comments:

“She’s a big one for almost 4 months!”

“She’s so small for almost 4 months, isn’t she?”

See how fickle the paparazzi can be. You’re too fat one minute and a weak waif the next!

“Well, you’ve got an angel there.”

True, true.

“Oh, look at that funny hair.”

I swear, I combed it. It has a mind of its own.

“He’s so cute. Errr…I mean, she. Sorry.”

No worries. Apology accepted.

“Is that comfortable for you to have her attached to you like that?”

Yes. Very much so.

Now in the olden days – as in when I was a newbie mom with just one child in my care – I admittedly would have fret over some of these comments.

In fact, I vividly remember when my husband and I ventured out to a salad buffet-type of restaurant with Madeline when she was around the same age as M.E. is now, and an older man and his wife stopped to ooooo and ahhhhhh over our little brawny bundle.

“Wow! He’s gonna be a linebacker. How much did he weigh when he was born?” the man asked, smiling.

I looked at my daughter’s pink and yellow outfit and then back at the grinning and obviously nearsighted man. “She weighed 6 pounds and 15 ounces.”

She? My goodness. What are you feeding her?” the man asked, still smiling.

“My milk,” I replied, not smiling at all.

“She’s beautiful,” his wife added, probably noting my annoyance with my firstborn daughter being mistaken for a beefy linebacker.

This was not an isolated incident. Everyone use to comment on how chunky Madeline was. I know now I should have been proud of those rolls and extra dimples (they were of my own making and made for a healthy, happy baby, after all). But I used to worry my daughter was destined to a future in the NFL and that it would be all my fault for nursing her too much too often.

Fast-forward four years, and my daughter is tall and slender. But what if she’d stayed on the roly-poly side? What difference? Why was I so hung up on what strangers had to say about my baby?

I wish I’d had the confidence I have now. To appreciate the fact that I was feeding my baby somehow, someway with my body and that she was perfect just the way she was.

While I was a fairly laid-back first-time mom in many aspects (I didn’t constantly check to make sure my infant was breathing, for example, and I nixed the whole idea of having a perfect nursery, didn’t bother to use a Diaper Genie, and didn’t put a call into the pediatrician with a question until she was 15 months), the most innocuous comments could occasionally drive me to collapse into a heap of self-doubt. Was I nursing her enough? Too little? Was I, by subscribing to what experts called “attachment parenting” but what just felt natural to my child and me, setting my child up to be a leech who would be rooted to me like a barnacle for the rest of her life?

How tiresome it must have been to spend so many of my waking hours fretting over others’ unsolicited (and probably well-meaning) commentary about parenting!

And what a blessing it is now, that as more of a seasoned mom (although I realize more than ever with three completely different, tiny human beings who are constantly growing and changing under my care that I’ll ever have this whole parenting thing figured out), to not be crippled by the relentless foray of unsought pearls of parental wisdom tossed my direction at every aisle in one random grocery store visit.

Yes, M.E. is a chunky love. Is she too big or too little for four months? We’ll see at her well-child visit in a two weeks. Honestly, I don’t care what the growth charts say. She started out small, and now she comes in chunk-style – just the way I like my babies. Of course, Rae was on the small side at this age, and she was perfect, too. (Yes, I’m biased. I’m their mother. I’m supposed to be.)

I feed M.E. when she’s hungry, when she begins to stir in the night, when she cries during the day, or when she just wants to be close to me. I take note of her rolls, and I pump my fist in the air in triumph. I have a healthy baby, with strong limbs, who is growing each and every day! I “wear” her as I go about the daily grind. She’s a lovely accessory, and yes, it is quite comfortable to keep her so close to me. She sleeps close by and I sometimes hear her soft sighs and marvel at the wonder of her. I soak up her smiles and watch as her cheeks move in involuntary sucks long after she’s ceased nursing and is sleeping, curled into me. I don’t really care what others think or say about my baby. She is tiny for four months. She is big for four months. Perhaps she’s an androgynous sprite with hair that defies gravity to the casual onlooker. And I wholeheartedly agree with the “experts” that she’s an angel attached to me.

This post is not an endorsement of any particular type of parenting. If you’re new to my blog or are just wondering why my baby appeared to be “attached” to me as I foraged for food for my family at the grocery store, attachment parenting, or some semblance of it is the ideal I strive for, but I’ve found some of its principles – which seem to change anyway – are not always a constant reality in the trenches.

This is, on the other hand, an endorsement of mom intuition – a gift I believe all women-turned-moms possess. Use it, and use it wisely.

This one’s for all the new moms who – after a trip to the grocery store or anywhere out in public (or even during a click-by on some random new parent discussion board where a plethora of welcome and sometimes not-so-welcome advice awaits) – might find themselves lying awake in bed at night reciting an inner monologue of self-doubt about their mothering. Silence the inner critic. Once you become a parent, it is a waste of precious energy to seek popular acclaim from the experts and all those who make their public opinions known. Parenting gurus are an opinionated lot, and each has his or her own idea of the right way to parent. If you try to listen to everyone, you’ll end up with confused kids and no firm parenting principles of your own.

Please ignore the sweet old lady in aisle 7 who tells you your baby is too big. Ignore the cashier who says your baby is awfully small. Ignore comment number 7 on the discussion board that says the only way to be a good mom is to do this or to not do that. Ignore the friend who advises you to let your baby “cry it out” if every ounce of your maternal being is saying it doesn’t feel right. Tune out the finger-wagging advice that tells you you’re spoiling your baby by keeping him close to you all day. Be the mother you want to be. Better yet, be the mom you feel called to be. Smile politely at all of your baby’s admirers (they really do mean well), and snuggle up with your little one. Then repeat after me: Your baby is fine, and so are you.

Mother knows best, and you – not the woman who tickles your baby’s toes in the produce section – are your child’s mother. Be secure in your role. Because your baby doesn’t feel more secure in anyone’s arms but your own.

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Welcoming Mary Elizabeth into our family five years ago!

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