There's been a lot of ink spilled (including mine) on the difficulties parents face when breastfeeding. While there were times I found nursing difficult, I actually found weaning, overall, to be a greater personal challenge, even though it's (arguably) discussed less. If I had a time-traveling DeLorean (which is totally something I hope to have one day), I would 1) Have dinner with Oscar Wilde; 2) Kill Hitler (you kinda have to if you have a time machine); and 3) Visit my past breastfeeding self and share the things I wish I knew before I started weaning.
Like breastfeeding itself, there is no single weaning experience. How weaning will go and how people will feel about weaning while they're going through it vary from, you guessed it, person to person. Most American mothers wean their babies well before a year; Some women wean out of necessity, due to inability to breastfeed or technical issues related to nursing; Some children wean themselves, which causes some mothers elation and others, absolute sorrow.
Speaking personally, I weaned my children at 17 months and 21 months (way past the national average) and so I'm certain that weaning toddlers and weaning infants is a whole different ballgame. Then again, I'm also sure weaning my toddlers and someone weaning their toddlers, is completely different. So, while I can only speak to my own personal experiences here, I think there are some things that I wish I could have known ahead of time that other breastfeeding mothers may find helpful, as they stare weaning in the face.
Remember the scene in Trainspotting where Renton's parents lock him in a room to detox and he has a series of horrifying fever dreams that cause him to scream uncontrollably? Angry screams. Scared screams. Terrified screams. That's the kind of screaming I'm talking about. My kids were hurricanes of emotion at the beginning of the weaning process. It was not pretty.
Forever. My breasts are like the grandma who won't let you get away with eating just one helping and, instead, keeps prodding you to take more, no matter how many times you assure her that you're full. It's like they're saying, "Eat! Eat! You're so skinny! Here! There's so much left! Eat more! Take some home with you!" I weaned my daughter almost four months ago, but apparently my boobs didn't get the memo.
Any major change has the potential to prompt a kid to latch on a little more (no pun intended), and weaning is definitely a big change. All of a sudden, daycare drop-off got emotional and weepy. We went from sleeping through the night to waking every couple of hours for a reassuring cuddle. I didn't put two and two together and realized that the weaning likely caused the clingy-ness, until we were through the worst of it.
After being pregnant or nursing for almost 5 years, consecutively, I probably shouldn't have been caught off-guard by the fact that I underwent a massive hormonal change when it all came to an end, but I definitely was. There is not a lot of research on post-weaning depression and, after my experience, it is a sincere wish that more is done in the future. After years of riding an oxytocin high, I crashed hard when my body wasn't producing as much of it anymore. It was difficult to get through a day without feeling completely overwhelmed and weepy: it essentially felt like epic PMS that lasted two and a half months.
Around the time I started to feel depressed, I felt the highly uncharacteristic need to go running. Now, something you should know about me: I'm absurdly out of shape. I hadn't run outside of, like, running to catch a subway, since I was 16 and had to run a mile in gym class (my time was 11 minutes 30 seconds, and I was trying). I thought this bizarre caprice was unrelated to my abysmal hormonal state, but it turns out that my body was trying to tell me something. Because after I (finally) went running, I felt exponentially better, almost giddy. So, I made running a habit and on the days I couldn't run, I felt it. I would go back to the really frazzled, despondent depression that running was combating. Simple exercise isn't an effective treatment for depression in all people, but it was for me.
After weaning, people's opinions on what they'd thought about my breastfeeding was something I just couldn't handle. (Mainly the, "Thank goodness! It was definitely time for you to stop!") It's like, "Dude, no boobs, no opinion (and even if you have boobs, still no opinion)."
While I was nursing my daughter, my second and last child, I didn't pay too much mind to the itties bitties who crossed my path. Now that she's no longer on the breast, however, I can't resist shamelessly gazing at each and every squealing, heart-melting newborn I see. My ovaries were playing cruel tricks on me, and I had to fight against this witchcraft because my partner and I had established that we were very happy to remain #twoandthrough.
Does anything, though? When I got ready to begin weaning my son, I always assumed we would slowly whittle down the number of sessions we had in a day until, eventually, he would seamlessly just sort of pop off the boob, kind of like a tick. But, like an actual tick, he had to be pried off with a lot of difficulty and no small degree of annoyance for all involved. We wound up doing something I never wanted to do: cold turkey. My daughter's weaning went a little more according to plan (due, I'm sure, to the fact that this wasn't my first rodeo), but even a second time around, I was up against some stumbling blocks and setbacks.
Real talk: my son didn't stop sticking his hand down the front of my shirt (for comfort, when he was scared, absentmindedly, or for fun) until he was about three and a half years old. My daughter, who was recently weaned, is even less smooth about it. She doesn't just stick her hand down my shirt or in my cleavage, she grabs onto as much of my boob as she can and jiggles it. It's like living a very long episode of Mad Men.
I swear to God, sometimes I can even hear the sad trombone sound effect when I take my bra off. Fortunately, I hear from several reliable sources that, for many formerly nursing moms, breasts regain size and shape around six months after weaning.
Some women feel a tremendous sense of loss during and after weaning. Others feel a wistful fondness. More still feel unmitigated joy at the freedom of, "having their bodies back to themselves." All of those feelings are completely valid. You're not a jerk if you're not sobbing at the idea of weaning. You're not a crybaby even if weaning makes you cry like a baby. Breastfeeding, on every level and at every stage, is deeply personal, and that includes weaning.
The sweet cuddles, the on-boob smiles, the special bond that had been highlighted by breastfeeding my children, were not exclusively caused by breastfeeding them. So, when that was something we didn't do anymore, we still had that love and closeness: it just finds new ways to manifest.