I stumbled across an article online yesterday that really troubled me and forced me to rethink my assumptions about mothering. The article is entitled “The Case Against Breastfeeding” written by Hanna Rosin and published in the April 2009 edition of The Atlantic. From the get-go what must be stated is that not only have I chosen to breastfeed both Micah and Eli, but I am still nursing both of my sons. This is information that I usually don’t volunteer readily, and honestly, tandem nursing was something I stumbled into, rather than confidently ran towards.
To begin with: I chose to breastfeed Micah because I felt it was the natural thing to do. My mother nursed me and my brother and always spoke highly of the experience. She loved the bonding aspects of nursing and always shared that she marveled at “God’s perfect plan for mothers and babies” in the example of breastfeeding. She even spoke of enjoying the experience of her milk letting down because of the deep connection she felt with her babies and how it put her in tune with their needs. Sure I had heard/read of the other purported advantages of breastfeeding– the antibodies passed on, the perfect fat content, etc…, the ease and convenience of nursing, the “free” factor, and others. But it was always the argument that nursing helped in the process of mother/child bonding that felt strongest to me.
I enjoyed nursing Micah the first 7 months of his life while I was priveledged enough to be home with him. But when I returned to work full time, the experience certainly shifted as I found myself needing to pump at work everyday– and all the added stresses and inconveniences that came along with expressing milk in order to keep up with nursing. Micah nursed a lot at night because he never really was fond of drinking expressed milk from bottle or cup. No other nipples for that little one! He was a committed nursling, and I was mostly glad that I could offer him what he seemed to want most of all- time with me at the breast. Even if it meant I experienced less sleep and needed to spend every lunch of every week day isolated in a bathroom with a machine attached to my breasts for a half hour. I had a good bond with my son, and nursing seemed to be a huge part of that.
I thought that I would certainly nurse Micah for a full year– if he wanted– and then I would take it month by month. At the one year mark, we introduced cow’s milk into Micah’s diet and he liked it. I didn’t feel sad, or shunned, as some women report. I was happy he was taking in some other nutrients and hoped with this introduction and all the solid foods we were giving him as well that he would slowly start to wean himself from the breast. But this was not the case. He was, as mentioned before, a committed nursling. He learned very quickly how to communicate to difference between cow’s milk and what he began calling “ma milk”. Nursing was clearly his greatest joy.
By Micah’s first birthday, though, I was pregnant with Eli. I knew enough to know that I could nurse through pregnancy. But in my ideal world, I wanted to continue nursing Micah for a few months more, and then have him self-weaned a few months before Eli was born. Micah still seemed too young to stop nursing all together, but at 16 months this seemed more reasonable. I began doing a lot of reading about pregnancy and nursing. Most children wean themselves when their moms become pregnant for a variety of reasons– the milk tastes different, the milk supply decreases, etc. But once again, Micah was committed. I tried all the subtle ways of leading Micah to a breast-free life, but none of them worked with him. At this point, I needed to choose whether or not I would be committed to what is called “child-led weaning” or I would lead/force the process for him. (Read: simply refuse to nurse him until the habit is broken.) It was painfully obvious which path I would choose. I simply couldn’t find good reason in my heart to force my son to give up what gave him the most pleasure, and comfort, in his life. Even if it meant that life was more complicated, and literally painful, for me.
Nursing was painful because at about the third month of pregnancy my milk supply dried up. Micah continued to nurse but was not getting any milk- a term I quickly learned was called “dry nursing”. While I was wondering why Micah wouldn’t give it up, especially since he wasn’t receiving any sustenance from it, a friend shared with me that she far preferred the term “nursing” over “breastfeeding” because as she said “There is so much more going on than simply feeding.” Comfort is being given, love is being shared, heartbeats are being heard, skin is being touched. Nursing was, and is, the great bond between us. Micah still loved that, and needed that. My physical discomfort, and continued lack of sleep, seemed less significant when weighed against what I knew Micah was receiving.
And so I stumbled into the world of tandem nursing. Micah was 19 months at the time of Eli’s birth and was used to a system of nursing that entailed me using a timer to limit the amount of time he spent actually pulling on my dry breasts. He was happy with one-minute sessions of nursing. I called them “Micah’s way of checking in and connecting with mama”. He probably nursed like this 10-15 times a day– which meant 10-15 minutes a day total. But obviously, at Eli’s birth, milk returned. And I was deeply concerned about making sure my newborn baby had ALL he needed first, considering that Micah’s nutritional needs were being met by other sources. I read what I could about tandem nursing, but still felt so unsure, especially considering I didn’t personally know any other woman who did such a thing. But I still felt as if I was following my heart. It seemed like the right choice to be making.
And to fast forward a bit– here we are 6 months later. Eli is about to begin eating solid foods. He enjoys nursing, but I can already tell he has a different relationship with me and nursing than Micah does. Micah is still nursing, though I couldn’t contain him to one-minute intervals anymore after my milk returned, and in abundance. He still LOVES “ma milk”. He is still as committed as ever. We passed his two year birthday, and I marveled that I was nursing a toddler. I never would have imagined that I would be doing so, and I still marvel that I continue to do so without a clear game plan for the termination of this relationship. I have never seen myself as a committed breastfeeding fascist. But if anyone else looked in they would probably assume I was because of the amount of time, energy, physical blah blah
it’s not about the milk. it’s a relationship.
i need it for my salvation. i need to set aside my needs and priorities and place my children’s needs before mine. it makes me less selfish. it allows me to love my children in their individual needs.