Breast Intentions

by Alison Bell

Breast Intentions

My son Hank is 2, and I just stopped nursing him. That’s right: I breastfed him for not 6… not 16… but 26 months. It wasn’t part of any master plan, some grand Theory of Breastfeeding. I wasn’t even that gung-ho on nursing in the first place.

I’d nursed my first two children, but only because it was easy for me. I was ready to whip out the bottle if I experienced any of the nipple-related horrors I’d heard about. Luckily, both kids latched on like champs from the start. And then nursing seemed a heck of a lot more convenient than mixing formula and cleaning and toting bottles.

When Hank was born, he was immediately whisked away due to labored breathing. During our 24-hour separation, he was given a few bottles, and because some infants have trouble making the switch to breastfeeding, I was prepared to raise my first bottle-fed baby. Hank, however, took to nursing right away.

I had weaned my older children at around 8 months (this was before the recommendation to aim for one year). With each, there was a day when I looked over and thought, Oh my gosh, you’re huge. What are you still doing at the breast?  — and decided enough was enough.

Hank at 8 months was no delicate flower. He wolfed down solids at such a rate, I was sure that any day he’d be demanding a 16-ounce tenderloin steak for dinner. But I surprised myself: I didn’t want to stop nursing. All I could think of was how sweetly Hank clung to me, how blissful he looked. I was 42, and he was sure to be my last. In the back of my mind, I figured that when Hank turned 1, I’d stop.
Hank had a different idea. His first birthday came and went, and he was still nursing morning, noon, and evening. If I tried to give him a cup, he’d scream and throw it to the floor. If he woke at 2 a.m., he made sure to take a nip or two at the all-night buffet (made easy since he was still sleeping with me). By now, breastfeeding was much more than a meal to Hank. He nursed when he was upset or overwhelmed, or when he fell down and got hurt. I was his pacifier, blankie, and beloved stuffed animal rolled into one. How could I deny him? Quitting at one year be damned!

And so we kept at it, despite all the curious people who couldn’t help but ask, “Still nursing?” Then, at 16 months, Hank upped the ante by coining a word for nursing, mee-mee, and repeating it mantralike if not immediately gratified. Even worse, he began jamming his hand down my shirt. There I’d be, in line at the market, at the park, talking to dads at a PTA meeting  — and in went the hand. I’d pull it out, but Hank would thrust it back, sometimes even taking desperate hold of my nipple.

He was becoming a breastfeeding bully. But nursing was such a part of our routine that the thought of giving it up was overwhelming. That is, until Hank was around 20 months. We were in the park, and I watched a mother flip up her shirt and bring a sturdy toddler to her breast. It looked so incongruous: two long, strong legs dangling from her midsection instead of the delicate limbs of an infant. Yuck, I thought. She really should wean that kid. Then I did a reality check. Hank was at least as large, if not larger, than that child!

I went home intent on decreasing the number of Hank’s feedings. And I did. If I worked my hardest to distract him  — with Cheerios, a toy, a walk  — I could skip his midday session without eliciting any screams. By now, he was also willingly taking a cup or juice box. I contemplated going cold turkey. But Hank isn’t ready, I told myself. And I still treasured those quiet moments when it felt like just the two of us alone in the world.

Alison Bell’s latest book is Zibby Payne & the Drama Trauma (Lobster Press).

Hitting the two-year mark

A few months later, when Hank turned 2, that all changed. Maybe hitting the two-year mark freaked me out. Or relieved me from obligation. All I know is, suddenly I was sick and tired of nursing. Tired of dropping what I was doing and dropping my pj top. Tired of worrying about how much coffee and wine I was drinking. Tired of sleeping with Hank and being woken for nighttime feedings. Tired of all my shirts being stretched out by Hank’s plunging hand. I wanted my body back. I wanted my life back. I wanted to go to the Gap and buy dozens of new T-shirts.

Besides, Hank now weighed 30 pounds. He had a vocabulary of 50 to 100 words. He wasn’t a baby anymore. I began talking to other long-term-nursing veterans, who gave me weaning advice ranging from the quirky (put mustard on your nipples) to the practical: Go away on a trip and let your milk dry up. So my husband and I planned a weekend getaway to San Francisco. Our babysitter would have to handle Hank’s disappointment and anger during my absence.

Making a clean break sounded like a good idea, but once we were on the plane, I worried whether it would be harmful to Hank. What if he cried all night, or sobbed so much that he got sick? What if he suffered permanent psychic damage? I felt better that evening, when I saw how my body was responding. My breasts didn’t become engorged or leak milk, as I’d anticipated. My body knew it was time to stop nursing.
The sitter stoically reported that the first night we were gone, Hank threw himself on the floor and cried to exhaustion. He also woke up in the night crying, but settled down after crawling into bed with her and burrowing into her side.

When we returned home, my husband put Hank to bed (his, not ours), while I hid. Hank sobbed for half an hour in Daddy’s arms, yelling “I want Mommy!” He woke up once or twice in the night, but fell back asleep when my husband comforted him. Daddy also went to him the next morning. We repeated the pattern for two more nights.

On the fourth night, I put Hank to bed. I explained that Mommy didn’t have milk in her breasts anymore. “Besides, you’re a big boy now,” I said. “You drink cow’s milk and juice  — you don’t need Mommy’s milk.” He gave me a forlorn look, as if to say, “But I thought things would stay this way forever. You betrayed me!” Then he went limp, moaning “mee-mee, mee-mee, mee-mee.”

He looked so pitiful and small lying there. All I could do was rub his back and say, “I’m sorry, sweetie.” I’d come this far, and I didn’t want to start all over again in a few weeks or months. Hank finally conked out till the morning, when I lured him away from my chest by offering to make pancakes. And so, Hank was officially weaned.

Well, sort of. The following night, around 3 a.m., a little creature came tiptoeing into our room and nestled into bed with us. A small, warm hand wiggled its way under my pajama top and rested on my left breast. There it stayed until morning, and there it remains, starting at the same time every night. When it gets too annoying  — and it does  — I pull the hand off. But like a boomerang, it comes back.

So in the end, we didn’t get our bed back. And I didn’t get my breasts back completely, either. But for now, I’m going with the flow. Weaning Hank seems like a big enough accomplishment for the moment. And I swear I’ll tackle The Hand  — and getting Hank out of our bed  — later. After all, this stage can’t last that long… can it?