I think nursing a baby has finally become socially acceptable in this country. Breastfeeding has been endorsed by a long list of public health and medical associations. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends nursing for the first year, and "thereafter as long as is mutually desired" by the mother and baby. But during that second year, you don't have a malleable, blanket-covered package. You have a small person, who wears shoes, repeats cuss-words and runs away from you at the mall. And having attempted to nurse two of these small people (though not at the same time) in a cold, cramped car, at the Cozy Village truck stop near the Maryland-Pennsylvania state line, I believe I have done all that I can to satisfy the recommendations of the public health establishment.
After Cassie had nursed for two and a half years, I was more than ready to pull the plug on our nursing relationship. When Cassie was a newborn, I had this idea that I would let her "self-wean." She's my last child and I didn't want to rush through her precious babyhood. But somehow a 30-pound toddler gnawing on my nipple while humming "Pop Goes the Weasel" was less endearing than you would think.
Sure, it was great to have this excuse to cuddle, this panacea for the world's slings, arrows and boo-boos. I was the ultimate, self-contained toddler comfort station. And I certainly knew people who nursed their kids longer. Last year one of Benny's kindergarten teachers told me that the reason kindergartens were originally half-day programs was to allow kids to go home for a milk break with Mom!
But I was beginning to feel self-conscious when Cassie nursed in public. When you're nestled in the library pressing a baby to yourself, nobody really notices. But when you've got a big bouncy girl with a slobbery grin exposing your naked breast to the room, even the most scholarly passers-by will give you a second glance.
As newborns, both of my children nursed a dozen times a day and neither of them ever took a bottle. Talk about a postpartum weight-loss program. Like most babies, they tapered off a great deal after the first few months. But Cassie was still latched on six to eight times a day, well past her second birthday. I started to get nervous. "Is this kid ever going to leave me alone?" I wondered. "Will I be FedExing bottles of expressed breast milk to her when she goes off to college?"
Even her pro-nursing, supportive grandparents were beginning to ask, "When will it end?" And while I see nothing wrong with nursing a toddler or preschooler, I did not want to be The Source in perpetuity. I might have felt differently if I hung out with a different kind of crowd. When I weaned Benny, at 17 months, we had been nursing twice as long as anybody else I knew. Now, five and a half years later, nursing for a year to a year and a half is pretty standard among women in my neighborhood. But Cassie was pushing the envelope.
When I found myself growing really resentful of her claim on my body, I designated certain times of the day as nursing times and refused to give in to her demands for non-scheduled nursings. For the last few months, she got her fix three times a day: upon waking, before napping and before bedtime. I deliberated long and hard over which of the remaining sessions I should cut first. She woke up between 5:00 and 6:30 a.m. every day demanding to nurse. Would it ruin the day to lose this one, the one that reunites us after hours of dark separation? In the middle of the day Cassie rarely wanted to nap and the mid-day milk buzz zoned her out and gave me a 75 percent chance of getting a respite from her boundless energy. Could our family handle the evening crankiness every day if she didn't nap? Odd as it may seem the nursing session just before bedtime was the best candidate for elimination. She occasionally fell asleep without nursing and there were lots of good things to use as substitutes: a return to the nightly bath, extra reading, strawberry milk. (An extra perk for me: while Dave took over Cassie's bedtime routine, I got a break from reading One Fish, Two Fish 20 times in a row.)
Thankfully Bedtime With Daddy worked well. We were down to twice a day. Next I tackled the mid-day nursing session. Cassie's napping grew sporadic, but she had always been a spotty napper, so it wasn't too much of a change.
Now that the end was near, I began to feel sentimental. Every morning when she woke up far too early, I brought her into bed and we got to snuggle together. I got extra time in bed. It was quiet. Did I really want to give that up? Was I really ready to close this chapter of my life? What about my reputation as a groovy, Earth-Mother type? (Well, actually I'm a little too uptight for that.) But, what about that bumper sticker I got at the La Leche League conference that says "Eat at Moms," with the baby bottle with a line through it? Having spent four (nonconsecutive) years as a nursing mother, it was a big part of my identity. Maybe I should start looking for one of those half-day kindergartens now, I thought.
I told Dave that The Nursing Mother's Companion warned against trying to wean if you're ambivalent. "Then wait." he said. "But I want to stop nursing!" I cried. "Then stop." he said. "Don't you know what ambivalent means?" I pouted.
Eventually we got it all worked out. Childhood consists of a series of weaning events: from breast to cup; from crib to bed; diapers to potty. I can't think of a parallel in adult life. When was the last time you gave up something which had been wonderful, healthy and appropriate because you'd outgrown it? Maybe it's a little like moving and we all know how much fun that is.