I’ve just weaned my 19-month-old daughter, and I’m crying, actually crying, as I write this. They’re not tears of joy. My hormones are spiraling out of control. I’m going through oxytocin withdrawal. I’m drowning in guilt. My daughter is old enough to grasp that she’s being denied, but not old enough to understand why. Every time she tugs at my shirt, begging for “nah nah,” I have to tell her she’s big girl, and big girls don’t nurse; it feels like tearing my own heart out. But this shouldn’t be about me, should it? This should be about her, about easing her through the transition with extra love and assurance, offering replacement rituals like singing special songs and drinking "special" (aka chocolate) milk. And for the most part, it is about my daughter, and teaching her how to cope with frustration. So why did I find myself crumpled on the floor of her bedroom last week, weeping as I inhaled her dirty pajamas and wondered if she would stop smelling like a baby now that she’d stopped nursing? I know why; I’m addicted to breastfeeding, too.
There is definitely a hormonal element because the first few days felt like brutal PMS. The kind where I drop a pencil and burst into tears because I’m clumsy, and what if pencils have feelings, and even if they don’t I’ve hurt so many people in this life, and what if I’m hurting my daughter by denying her my breast?
But seriously: what if she feels abandoned because I’ve taken away the most intimate expression of love we’ve ever shared? When she crawls into bed with me in the wee hours of the night, the emptiness between us is palpable. Something is missing, and we both know it. I’m the mom, it’s my job to fill it, but I can’t. So she has a tantrum and falls asleep, and I lie awake, contemplating how heavy my guilt will become as the years wear on and the “I can’ts” pile up.
Never again will we exist as not-quite-separate beings.
Dealing with the practical side of weaning brings its own soul-crushing challenges. Long, fiery tantrums. Swollen, leaky breasts. Admitting to myself that sticking my nipple in my daughter’s mouth has become an easy and immediate fix for some not-so-easy problems.
Like most addictions, my dependence on breastfeeding is strongly rooted in the psyche. My daughter’s second year of life is going so much faster than the first did. Our time together is more dynamic, we have real fun together, but she’s not a baby anymore. She’s becoming a brilliant, beautiful and fierce little girl. Last week, I dropped her off with my sister, and instead of crying, she waved gleefully, calling out, “Bye-bye, Mama!” It brought a delicious shiver of freedom that ended in a stab to the guts.
I should be savoring this freedom. After two and a half years of working to sustain my daughter, my body is completely my own again. I should be celebrating — and I am — but I’m also grieving the loss of our physical connection. Never again will we exist as not-quite-separate beings. I’m less necessary. I’m, quite simply, less. And the worst thing I could possibly do to my daughter is to burden her with filling that gulf.
When she walks into the room, everything inside me lights up. I want her to know this, but I don’t want her to know it all the way. I don’t want her to feel responsible for my happiness.
It’s not easy. My daughter fills my life with so much joy and purpose, it’s easy to forget that I had a full and meaningful life before she came along. She’s given my life new shape, greater depth. When she walks into the room, everything inside me lights up. I want her to know this, but I don’t want her to know it all the way. I don’t want her to feel responsible for my happiness. I want my daughter to feel good about becoming independent and needing me less. In order to do that, I have to be sure that I’m not using her as a Band-Aid, or relying on her to fix any of my own sh*t.
If I miss having a baby in my arms, it’s my problem, not my daughter’s problem. I want to become good at not just boundless love, but unconditional love, selfless giving, without any expectation of return. Nursing my daughter used to feel that way, but it stopped being selfless a long time ago.
It’s been 11 days now, and after a number of meltdowns, we’re both feeling better. My daughter isn’t angry at me. She hugs me more. She sleeps better and whines less, rests her head on my belly instead of my breast at night. We’re exploring new ways to bond and express love. And we both have more patience with each other.
Two weeks ago, weaning was one of my greatest fears. Now, I see it as our first beautiful step toward a healthy relationship. Our adventure as two individuals is just beginning, and it’s going to be thrilling and difficult and fulfilling and fraught and one of the most important adventures of my life all at once. I can’t wait to see where it takes us.
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