• Dr Julia Hodgson (@drjuliaparents)

I Wasn't Ready To Stop Breastfeeding

My toddler recently started referring to all milk as “mom-milk” because that’s what I would call breastmilk to differentiate from (chocolate) milk. Today, this made me cry.

A few hours ago, she asked for real mom-milk, tugging at my shirt. We cuddled up and she tried to drink.  She switched sides a few times and said “where’d it go?” That’s when I realized that there was nothing there for her. 

“All gone?” She asked.

“All gone, sweetheart.”

E has been nursing less often over the past month or so– decreasing from the pattern she had for months: nursing when she wakes up in the morning, when we are watching Sesame Street before dinner, and at bedtime. Then it was nursing either in the morning or at night. The last few days, it has seemed even more sparse. I dismissed this as just because our routine had been off from visiting my parents over the weekend.

But I think E was weaning herself without my realizing it. She asks to nurse a little, but she hasn’t been drinking much for a few weeks now. And my body noticed, and responded even though my head didn’t notice. My body responded by stopping its milk production entirely.

E and I made it 20 months nursing. It was a special time, when we would cuddle and my body would nourish hers. While it was certainly not always easy– especially after I got pregnant and had to deal with breast tenderness (ouch)– I loved breastfeeding. I loved that I could give her this unique gift. That my milk would adjust to what she needed– increasing its nutrients when she was sick and returning to usual once she was healthy again. I loved that only I could give this to her. I loved the touch, holding her in my arms as she ate. I loved that it forced us to pause our day and spend a few minutes together. When everything else felt like it was impossible, when it felt like she was only eating junk or when I couldn’t calm her down– breastfeeding was something I could do for her.

And now, today, that is suddenly gone.

I thought I had more time.

I thought she would keep nursing after her brother was born– I had been reading about tandem nursing, about the connection, the logistics, the intimacy. I was prepared (as I could be) and nervous and really excited.

I thought E would breastfeed at least until she was two– an arbitrary benchmark I had in my head after we hit the one-year milestone. (The World Health Organization recommends breastfeeding until at least two and the competitive perfectionist in me wanted to do it to prove that I could… and, uh, for her, of course). I wondered if I was being selfish– persisting because I wanted it and not because she did.  I adjusted my tactic, offering her milk, but not pushing it when she said no. I respected her needs, as well as my own.

I had already considered weaning a few months ago because it was getting so hard with pregnancy. It was painful, uncomfortable, and I started to dread it more than yearn for it. I was devastated by this consideration and confided my dilemma in my journal as I searched for articles and books that would ease my guilt (really hard to find, by the way– I surprisingly found some solace in the beginning chapters of Adventures in Tandem Nursing: Breastfeeding During Pregnancy and Beyond by Hilary Flower).  By the time I wrapped my head around the idea of weaning being okay, the physical pain subsided a bit and I let the idea go.

Now that breastfeeding is over– and without it being planned or my choice– it is not only bringing up all the guilt and sadness that arose when I first thought about weaning, but it’s also compounded by the pain of not having been prepared. I didn’t have time to set my expectations. I was caught totally off guard. Ending breastfeeding would have been hard no matter what, but I am struggling with this more than I would have anticipated.

This is the part of breastfeeding that a lot of the books don’t talk about. They talk about how to physically wean baby, how to help baby manage the change emotionally, how to help parent’s body decrease its milk supply with minimal pain. But what about our emotions? What about the parent who has sacrificed their body for months and has come to rely on the emotional connection of nursing to nurture their own soul each day? How do we help them with this difficult transition?

I am mourning the loss of breastfeeding. Mourning the loss of this stage of E’s life that I won’t get back. Mourning the loss of that connection we had when she was nursing. Like with any loss, this pain will pass and will feel less awful with time. But that doesn’t make it feel better today.

I feel the need to say that I am immensely grateful for the 20 months I got with E. My sad feelings don’t discount any of the gratitude or joy. And yet, right now, all I can focus on is the overwhelming grief that it’s over. I am spiraling on the guilt and the fears– the terror– about how this will change things for me and E. Rational or not, these fears are making me doubt the things I (usually) know to be true. 

I need to know that I will still be a good mom once I am not breastfeeding– that I will have something to give my daughter.

I need to know that E and I will still have a way to be close without the bond of breastfeeding.

I need to know that I am allowed to have these feelings.

Today, I think I just need to be allowed to be sad.

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