I had it all planned out; I was going to continue to be a nurse-on-demand mother who gradually weaned her daughter as the second birthday approached. We would slowly but surely cut out one feeding at a time, until we reached that last nursing session. I would have had time to prepare myself emotionally for weeks in advance and would have approached the last time together with quiet acceptance.
I planned on having that one last session according to my time table that I could soak in and cherish, taking a journey down memory lane as she nursed one final time. But my daughter had other ideas, three weeks short of her first birthday, and it was more devastating than I could have been prepared for.
Everything was proceeding normally. In fact, she was nursing me dry at night and we had been lectured by the doctor about her not needing to nurse during the night time hours anymore. As usual, on a Friday morning, she woke up for an early morning nursing session. Little did I know it was going to be our last one!
After putting her back to bed she slept until 8:00 a.m., and as I always did, I got her up, changed her, and then offered to let her nurse. She pushed away, which I found a bit unusual. I attributed it to teething and didn’t get too worried. By mid-afternoon, however, I was starting to worry a bit. She hadn’t nursed at all!
Be evening, not only was she not nursing, she was screaming every time I offered her the breast. I hopped on my blog and forums and posted a “help!” post, and then browsed the Internet as the responses started to pour in. Most told me it was probably a nursing strike and she would go back to nursing when she got hungry enough. Some told me it was time I weaned her anyways, and others said that she had decided to wean herself. I wasn’t sure what to think, but the more I read, the more I determined it was a nursing strike.
So I did what everyone familiar with nursing strikes told me to do: I didn’t let her have milk in a bottle or a sippy cup, but only from a regular cup. I did skin to skin contact and I offered to let her nurse every few hours. Twenty-four hours proceeded into forty-eight, and then forty-eight hours proceeded into seventy-two.
“It’s ok,” some told me, “a nursing strike can last up to two weeks sometimes.”
If that was the case, I was determined to ride it out. As a mom diagnosed with infertility, this was more than just losing something precious to me. This was, perhaps, the end of something I would quite possibly never get again. It was worth pumping until it ended, if we could just go back to the way it was.
I loved nursing. Even in the first two and half months when it hurt so badly I would cry when she first latched on, I loved it. I loved that I could nourish my child from my body. I loved how her fingers would curl around mine and she would look up at me as she nursed.
We used our nursing times to read through The Chronicles of Narnia and I made up songs during our wee-morning hour nursing sessions.
How I loved that I had an excuse not to leave her with sitters! “She doesn’t take bottles. She’s a breast-fed only baby,” I would explain to all those that told me I “needed to get away for myself a bit and to leave her.” I know not all agreed with me, but it’s what I felt I was called to as her Mama and I never had a moment of regret that I couldn’t leave her for hours at a time.
I wasn’t ready to let those quiet, Mom-and-daughter times go — those times where my not-normally-cuddly baby would lie still in my arms, nursing away, gazing up at me while I soaked in every last detail of her face, ears, head, fingers…. No, I was not going to let this nursing strike be it for us!
So for two weeks I pumped and I offered milk in a cup. There were days of fewer wet diapers and days that milk spilled everywhere. And the tears — oh, the tears. She would cry and I would cry. I knew she was hungry but she would not take the breast. She would simply scream louder. She was eating baby food too, but it’s as if she missed “milkie”. She missed it, and yet she refused it. Doing so made her angry and clingy and tearful.
I was amazed at the emotions that hit me with this. At first there was the confusion:“What was going on? Why is this happening? Did she wean or is it a strike? Is she sick? Does her throat hurt her?”
Then, the guilt: “Maybe I did something wrong. Did I eat something to make my milk bad? Does it make her stomach hurt? Have I hurt her feelings so she doesn’t feel I’m safe to nurse from? What did I do?”
After that came the rejection: “She doesn’t want me anymore!” I bawled to my husband. ”She won’t let me comfort her. She just gets angry when I try to nurse her. I don’t know how to help her!”
Anger took over. It’s true. I was angry with my 11-month-old. Her screams, her cries, her signing “milkie” repeatedly and frantically, but not taking it when I offered it, it all frustrated me to no end. Our doctor, not fully supportive of me wanting to nurse past one year old anyway, told me she was weaned. “Some babies do it that way,” she stated.
My mom just chuckled, “Like mother, like daughter! You did the same thing at that age. Guess she’s going to be a strongly independent girl like you always were!”
In my other ear was La Leche people: “Babies don’t just suddenly wean,” they told me emphatically. “It’s a nursing strike. Keep doing what you’re doing. She’ll come around. They always do.”
My husband came home from work one night, about a week into this. Once again, I was bawling and so was she. I was holding her on my lap and I looked at him and said, “I don’t know how to relate to her anymore. When she was thirsty, I nursed her. When she was hungry, I nursed her. When she wanted Mama, I nursed her. When she cried, I nursed her. Now? Now I have nothing to offer her. I just don’t know where I fit in her world now.”
My husband, with all his get-to-the-point advice, said, “Guess you’re going to have to find a new role with her then.” (Lest I make him sound heartless, this same man cried over this entire situation one night a few weeks later as he finally realized his little girl was already growing up.)
Two weeks wore into three and she still wouldn’t come back to the breast. No amount of skin contact or space or time wooed her back. In the middle of the third week I offered to her one more time. She latched on, my milk let down, I felt tears of relief flood me, and three swallows later, she pushed away, shook her head, grinned, sat up, and that was the last time she ever latched on to nurse.
I pumped another three weeks, which was a labor of love since I am not one of those women who has an easy time pumping. Six weeks of pumping myself raw and finally pushed me into making the decision to transition over to regular milk (to raw goat’s milk I may add, since that is closer to human milk than cow’s milk).
The drying up process was not fun. It was physically painful with clogged ducts off and on for three weeks. Add on to the physical discomfort, the grieving process of letting go of the one thing I had longed for almost my entire life, knowing I may never get it again, made it even more painful.
I still get teary over this. It’s three months later and just writing this makes me emotional. I miss nursing her so much that it takes my breath away sometimes. I have envy issues with all my friends who are still happily nursing their older-than-one-year-olds. But like my husband encouraged me to do, we’ve found our new roles together, she and I.
She’s still not a cuddly baby, and yet, first thing in the morning, when she wakes up, guess what she wants to do? Sit and cuddle for a while.
Every afternoon, before her nap, we get her two blankies, her doll-baby, her bear-bear, and I grab our Chronicles of Narnia book that we are almost through (we’re now on the final book, The Last Battle, having read all six books together since her birth) and I read to her as she cuddles and falls asleep.
When she gets hurt, she heads full tilt into my open arms and I kiss away her tears and hold her. Then I flip her upside down and tickle her until she laughs. When she’s tired, we wrap up in a shawl a friend knitted us and we snuggle deep and sing together. When we wind down for the night, we curl up in a bean bag chair and look at books together. And when she wakes up cold in the middle of the night, I go and get her and rock her and soak in every detail of her face, ears, head, fingers… as she falls back to sleep in my arms. I breath in her sweet baby breath and I smile through my tears, looking at my daughter who is no longer a nursing infant but a 14-month-old who is just growing up way too fast.