As I type this, Jonas is taking his fourth big boy nap, or a nap without Mommy milk. So far (we’re only 10 minutes in), this is the least hysterical. The first day was a nightmare. He cried and cried and sounded absolutely heartbroken. He was grieving. He finally fell asleep, up in the baby carrier, as I rocked and calmly told him it was ok to cry, ok to feel sad, and named all the times I love him. “I love you when you’re sad. I love you when you’re mad. I love you when you’re scared. I love you in the morning. I love you at breakfast time. I love you at lunch time,” I said calmly as his breathing slowed down and his eyes slowly got heavy.
The second day, I was at a book club meeting and he cried a little and then laid down and went to sleep with Jared on the couch. Yesterday, he fell asleep relatively easily, then awoke 5 minutes later, ready to hang out at the barbeque we were having. A few hours later, he had a complete meltdown, crying so hard he was gagging.
Today, though a relief, is bittersweet. People say that about weaning a lot– that it is bittersweet, but I feel like that implies more of a 50/50 split than what this feels like. This feels a little more like an 80/20, or maybe a 70/30, with the sad parts winning out. I know part of that split is hormones. With every feeding I cut, I have an oxytocin withdrawal. When I night weaned I felt nauseous. This time, I am teary. Part of it is what is making this cut so hard for Jonas too– it’s the next to the last feeding, and we can both feel the end coming. I’m tearing up even writing this. It is also, more than the others, a loss. The other feedings we’ve cut were more ambigous– no more public nursing, then no more nursing while reading, etc. This is a very specific time and tied into a ritual that still exists. We still bounce, I still sing, we don’t still nurse. It feels real. We’re really doing it.
Part of it, too, is my own mixed feelings about weaning. I didn’t expect to feel this way. I knew I wanted to nurse for a year. It was a goal. In the beginning, sometimes the hormones would make me want to crawl out of my skin. And then a lazy latch made me feel that way again when shooting itches surged through my nipples. Not a pleasant feeling. But I knew I would stick with it. I had a wonderful support system and it was just something I knew I would do. I would figure out how to nurse for a year. Then he was a year old. Friends in my mom’s group were still nursing. I read about gentle weaning. It made sense and fit right in with the other parenting that has worked for our family.
But the comments started. They weren’t mean or judgmental. They weren’t from strangers or from people online. They were caring and they were from people who I love, and who are part of that same support system that helped sustain our nursing relationship up to that point. I have to be fair. Everyone has been very civil and has walked very gently around the subject with me. They know it’s very sensitive, and I truly truly appreciate that. Sometimes there were stories– a relative who nursed her baby until he was five. The slightest hint of a question in it– “That’s not going to be you, right?” Sometimes it was advice– little tips for nudging the weaning process along. Sometimes it was just a question, “How long are you planning on nursing him?” or “Is he still nursing at bed time?” and even if it wasn’t what they intended, even if it was my own self-consciousness, I felt something behind the comments– a fear that I was going to be the weird relative. That my kid would be the weird kid still nursing at preschool dropoff. And honestly, I knew I wouldn’t be. I imagined us nursing til 2, slowing down, and him choosing to stop sometime shortly after, with some gentle nudging and encouragement from me. I don’t have the same kind of fear or antagonism toward moms who choose that, but it really wasn’t the image I had for what I would do. I knew that their fears were unfounded. All of the research done on extended nursing shows that there are NO negative effects– physical, psychological, nothing, EXCEPT the social stigma, and I wasn’t receiving any negative feedback or pressure EXCEPT from the people who were concerned about it. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy. By worrying about the social pressure, they became the social pressure, even though they were doing it in a loving, supportive way. So even though no one was saying anything judgmental, and even though they weren’t suggesting I do anything I wasn’t planning anyway, the comments made me cringe. When I heard them I wanted to hide Jonas and myself away, to turn our backs and stay in the little world of love we make every time we nurse.
Still, the comments have made me be a little more proactive than I probably would have been otherwise. In some ways it has been good. I’m glad I’m only nursing a couple times a day now and that he knows it is off-limits at other times. With this latest development, though, these big boy naps, I just don’t know. My first instinct, when he cried like he has a couple times was that I was hurting him. When I first mentioned weaning to Jonas, I told him, “You know, when you’re a little bit bigger, you won’t drink Mommy milk anymore.” He was quiet and looked at me for a moment, his face growing sad. “What’s wrong?” I asked him. “Baby get bigger,” he said. “No more Mommy milk.” I asked him if he wanted a hug. He nodded and melted into my arms, bursting into tears. The next day, he patted my chest and told me “Love Mommy milk.” It was his first glimpse at the idea of impermanence. Those tears on his first days of big boy naps– they were tears of recognition of that impermanence, and they carried the pain of that knowledge. The depth of them was just as deep as the pain we all feel at that knowledge. The knowledge that everything we love is here for a while, but not forever.
I know in my gut I need to keep holding him and mothering him in this way for a while longer. I know in my gut it is almost time to stop. I have never in my life felt two completely conflicting things in my gut at the same time like this. I need some kind of permission that isn’t an excuse, that isn’t from someone with skin in the game.
The closest I’ve come to permission came from a woman sitting next to me on an airplane. We talked and she, a school counselor who nursed both of her own children until they were 18 months old, told me that learning resilience is important for kids. Jonas will be resilient through the loss of Mommy milk, she assured me with the confidence of a professional and the compassion of a mother, and that resilience is a skill he will carry with him. I know she’s right, but still. There is so much in this world to build resilience. I want to be part of my baby’s team, not part of what he has to overcome. Maybe as a parent, it is my job to be both.
There are lots of tips for weaning. Even for gentle weaning, there’s lots of advice out there. But it isn’t the kind of advice I’m looking for. I don’t want more practical strategies for distraction. I want someone to tell me how to take deep belly breaths when I feel like I’m going to cry and that sometimes it is harder at night when you’re holding your baby, and this tiny lesson you’re teaching them about impermanence is reminding you that you have never really mastered that lesson gracefully.
And the guilt. The guilt is hard. Some gentle weaning sites say crying and clingyness are a sign you’re going too quickly. We’ve been cutting down extremely slowly, and still this was almost enough to make me stop. Babies also cry and get clingy as they reach developmental milestones. This definitely counts as a milestone. From a behavioral standpoint (my best friend is an Applied Behavioral Analyst and I’ve been texting her like crazy), if you stop, the process will take longer and be more difficult for everybody. Love your baby the way you do through any big change.
Mostly, I need to tell myself the same things I’ve been telling Jonas. It’s ok to be sad. It’s ok to cry. It’s ok to be scared. It’s ok to be mad. It’s ok to feel guilty. It’s ok to not know if I’m doing the right thing. As long as I love him and love him and love him, it is all ok.