There are a lot of things about pregnancy and parenting that people just don't tell you. For instance, here is something I didn't know: When you're pregnant and they test you for Group B strep (GBS) — a common type of bacteria found in many women's vaginas — no one told me that I would have to stick a dry Q-tip up my own butthole. That was a really pleasant experience at 8 in the morning. I knew that getting up every two hours to feed my daughter was going to be difficult, but I didn't truly understand how difficult until it was 2 a.m. I thought that watching her learn how to crawl and walk would be fun... until the first time I saw her fall and really hurt herself. And I knew that weaning my daughter was going to be hard for her, but no one told me exactly how hard weaning my baby was on me.
First of all, I had no idea that along with sharing some of my daughter's emotional distress that I would also experience some debilitating physical symptoms of weaning, as well. I guessed, correctly, that I'd experience some painful engorgement in my breasts. My breasts were rock hard for about a week as I began to decrease my daughter's breast milk intake and supplement it with other foods or liquids. But my body quickly got with the program. Except then one morning, only a week into our weaning program, I tried to stand up from sitting on the floor with my daughter, and I fell. My vision went black and I landed flat on my face. The only thing that saved me from having a broken nose was the fact that I landed on her soft, Elmo armchair.
I lay on the floor for a few minutes, unable to get up because of the dizziness and nausea while my daughter played around me, oblivious. It got to the point that I was scared to be alone with her for eight hours a day or drive with her in the car because I wasn't sure when the next dizzy spell might hit.
Weaning made me come to terms with how much my sense of motherhood was wrapped up in my ability to breastfeed. The way I defined my motherhood was by my ability to breastfeed.
It turns out that many moms experience nausea and dizziness during weaning, even irritability and clumsiness. But these physical symptoms, while normal, made me question why I was doing it. I already felt sad that my special bond with my daughter was coming to an end and these physical symptoms only compounded those feelings.
So, these physical symptoms created more emotional distress that piled on top of the general sadness I was already feeling. I knew it was going to be hard, but I didn't fully understand how hard until I was in the thick of it. Weaning made me come to terms with how much my sense of motherhood was wrapped up in my ability to breastfeed. The way I defined my motherhood was by my ability to breastfeed — notice I didn't say the way I defined motherhood was by breastfeeding. I don't think that women who don't breastfeed (either because they can't or don't want to or whatever other reason) aren't mothers or are less of mothers by any means, but for my daughter and I, breastfeeding wasn't just a way for me to feed her. It was a way for us to foster connection, a quiet moment for the both us; something that only I could do for her, something just for us. Being a breastfeeding mom had become a part of my identity. And I felt terrible guilt that I was not only taking that away from her, but from myself as well.
I felt selfish that I was choosing myself and my comfort and my body over her.
But while I contended with these feelings of sadness and loss, I also — really — wanted my body back. I wanted to be able to choose a piece of clothing without having to take into account how difficult it might be to pull out my boob. I wanted to be able to go away for a night, or more, with my partner and not experience engorgement or leaking. I wanted to be able to have a glass of wine with dinner without worrying whether she'd want to breastfeed soon after. I wanted her to be able to find comfort in her father, just as much as she found in me, but as long as I was offering her the breast she'd always choose me over him. But then, of course, I felt guilty about that. I felt selfish that I was choosing myself and my comfort and my body over her.
I read a book once, long before I ever considered being a mother, called Attachments by Rainbow Rowell. In it, there is a mom character, the type of mom character I hope I'll never be. The kind of mom who's obsessed with her adult children and can't understand why they might want to do things like have their own place and be in relationships and not be with just her 24/7. And while, generally, I felt annoyed by this character there was one moment when — even as a non-mom — I kind of understood where she was coming from. In the book, the "crazy" mom says,
It's so strange... I can remember a time when you needed me for everything... Why do you think I can remember that when you can't? Why does nature do that to us? How does that serve evolution? Those were the most important years of my life, and you can't even remember them...
And now that I'm a mom, I understand that obsessed-with-her-kids mom character even more.
Because when I was pregnant, it was me and her. Yes, my partner was a part of it, too. A very important part. Except, also not really. Because my daughter and I, we were attached, together. All the time. My body gave her life. It fed her and housed her and kept her safe. I felt her kick, I felt her move. I felt her hiccups any time I ate peanut butter. I woke up when she danced in my belly at 2:45 a.m. every morning. And when my daughter was diagnosed with four congenital birth defects at 28 weeks gestation, my partner could get away from it all. He could go to work, go to the gym, or just be in a different room, and be able to not think about it for a moment. But I never could because I carried her and my questions and fears for her around, all day; all the time.
When she is a 20-something and thinks she knows more than I ever did, I will remember. I will always remember her at my breast, as my baby. And no one told me how hard it would be to give that up.
And then, after she was born, my body continued to give her life. For six months she ate — almost exclusively — from me; for 14 months total, we breastfed. My body, my breasts, made her big. My breasts gave her that baby chubbiness we all love. And she didn't just eat at my breast. She slept there and smiled there. She played with my hair and hummed. She took her first test bites with her new teeth. She wiggled and squirmed there and, as she got older, even stood at my breast. She poked me in the nose there. And asked me for kisses there. She giggled there and took comfort in me when she was hungry, when she was sleepy, when she was hurt or scared, there at my breast; at my heart.
And weaning, though it is something that every parent and child will and must go through, means an end to that. All of those things that my body did for her? She will forget. But I will remember. When I drop her off at her first day of school, I will remember. The first time she doesn't want me to hold her hand, I will remember. When she is embarrassed to be seen with me in public, I will remember. When she is a teenager and can't stand me, I will remember. When she is a 20-something and thinks she knows more than I ever did, I will remember. I will always remember her at my breast, as my baby. And no one told me how hard it would be to give that up.
We're weaning slowly. We're down to two short feeds a day. One when she wakes up in the morning, and one before her bath every night. And when I feel sad or selfish or guilty about it, when I wonder if I am doing the right thing, I remember the words of advice from another mom. She told me, in my first week of weaning:
Just remember, it's not your job to make her life easy. Just support her through her struggles and model to her the faith you have in her capabilities to get through tough times. Then she'll learn she can and that lesson is so much better than anything breast milk can give her.
That is a lesson that I think I can apply, not only to weaning my daughter, but to myself. I know life isn't going to be easy and it's not supposed to be. But I have faith I'm making the right choices for my daughter and for my family and for me. And that together the two of us can learn who we are as mother and daughter but also separately, as individuals, as women. And that will be better than anything breastfeeding can do for me.