Before I had a kid, I was pretty lukewarm on the whole breastfeeding thing. I’m a more or less independent woman with a penchant for excellent beer and a sincere attachment to my creature comforts. The idea of a small squalling creature attaching itself to a sensitive part of my anatomy every hour on the hour did not appeal to me, to say the least.
While I was pregnant, I read this excellent article on “the case against breastfeeding.” Rather than just an argument for why you shouldn’t nurse your child, Hanna Rosin pitches the (outrageous) idea that breastmilk is not some magical substance, something between manna and liquid unicorn horns, that will make your baby superhuman. Is it good for your kid? Sure, without a doubt. But is it really worth the pain, shame, heartache, and general malaise it causes mothers (and fathers) today? Not really. According to Rosin (and the very real research she cites) many of the studies on breast-milk vs. formula have inconclusive results (really!), and even in the cases where breast is really best, the positive blip is negligible. What’s more, Rosin honestly describes the difficulties that plague nursing mothers: everything from intense pain and illness (mastitis, anyone?) to depression and marital strife. Needless to say, it’s a great read.
Rosin’s article got me thinking about the whole “breast is best” craziness, and after a bit more research I decided I would give the whole nursing thing a try, for as long as I could, but I wouldn’t kill myself over it. I mean, motherhood is hard enough.
No way did I imagine I’d be nursing my daughter past the one-year mark.
Charlotte is now 18 months old, and neither of us are showing much of an inclination to wean. I say “neither of us” because, like everything else in this whole parenting adventure, weaning is truly a two-way street. Rather than stopping organically somewhere before or around 12 months, as most of the her peers have (based on my very non-scientific research), my daughter seems quite happy to continue pulling my shirt down whenever she feels thirsty, hungry, sleepy, or generally in a bad mood:
I nurse Charlie to sleep every night, and for her nap every day, and when she wakes up in the wee hours of the morning I climb, half-asleep, into bed beside her, and snuggle in for the long haul. Basically, if you don’t know where I am, I’m lying on the futon mattress on the floor of my daughter’s room, humming tunelessly or reciting Where the Wild Things Are.
This may seem crazy, and sometimes (like whenever we have folks over in the evening) it’s inconvenient: I leave the party and the hosting to my husband, and retreat into Charlie’s room for however long it takes for her to wind down and go to sleep. If she wakes up again 15 minutes later, she sometimes won’t go back to sleep on her own, so I return and lie down with her again, and again, for as many times as it takes. The same is true of naps. My parents (among others) think I’m slightly deranged to agree to this hand-holding every day, especially when half the moms I know simply plop their kids in a crib and walk away. Some days, like yesterday, I end up lying down and nursing on and off for an hour and a half while my child sleeps, curled up beside me like a baby cat. Thank goodness I have a Kindle: I’ve become adept at reading while lying on my side in the dark.
Then there are those people who believe I’m doing my child a disservice: she should be left to cry, otherwise she will never learn to go to sleep on her own! She will become a spoiled, dependent, sleep-deprived little brat with bad teeth from all that sweet milk! Well, I’ve read enough pediatric and sleep books to be able to state with some certainty that I’m not ruining my kid. But the inconvenience thing is real, and all the questioning from my family does get under my skin now and then.
So, why do I do it? Why do I bother with all this extra parenting, when I could enjoy a glass of wine with my friends in the evening, finish unloading the dishwasher during a nap in the middle of the day, or (shocking) update my blog?
The truth? I just really love nursing my kid. Sure, it was challenging for the first few weeks, or even months: Charlotte nursed almost non-stop in the early days, maybe because she was so small when she was born, and really needed the nutrients, or maybe just because I let her, and it made her sleep well, and made both of us happier. My memories of that first summer consist of one long nursing session. I think it was the first time since college that I read newspapers and magazines cover to cover, and I blew through an impressive number of books, as well, with all that sitting on the couch. But after that it got easier, and now that Charlotte gets most of her calories and nutrition from solid foods, nursing is mainly for calming, and comforting, and falling asleep–the ultimate lovey–but it still feels easy, and natural, and right.
I know it’s not like this for everyone, or for every baby: I know moms who gave up soy, dairy, gluten, corn, brassica, alliums, garlic, nuts, you-name-it, just to keep nursing their child who was allergic to something, although it was hard to tell just what. I know other moms who tried and tried but just couldn’t get their baby to latch, or had terrible pain for weeks, every time they nursed. I know moms who struggled through postpartum depression, or whose milk never came in, or whose kids never gained the weight they should have. I would have given up long before they did: I just got lucky.
I also know families who chose to use formula from the start, or supplement nursing with formula, for the benefit of all involved–more equal parenting, the mother’s right to work or travel, the nutritional needs of the baby, or all of the above. I respect this choice, and have more than once envied these peers their more balanced lives.
But I also love sleeping with my kid. For every time I wince at hearing her persistent little voice through the monitor in the middle of a dinner party, there are a thousand times I cannot wait to lie down beside her in the dark (and I’m sorry if you’ve been to my house for dinner and I’ve run out on you, but it’s the truth). There is an immensely comforting, and irresistibly wholesome, feeling that comes over me when I crawl into her bed and let her curl into the curve of my body. She is warm and soft and smells of peppermint shampoo and baby sweat. This time of year, when the rest of the outside world is frozen and dry to cracking, her room is warm and steamy from the humidifier, and stepping through the door is akin to walking into a magical, fairytale jungle, populated by Wild Things and friendly, dog-shaped dragons.
There is some part of me, too, that revels in these long, twilit hours, because I know I cannot keep them forever: like (almost) all children, my child will grow up. She will one day wish to sleep alone, or with a brother or sister (I hope), and will not need me to nurture and sustain her in this very specific, baby-way. When that time comes, I hope I’ll be ready for it.