Before I gave birth to my babies I always planned on exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months, and I also planned on nursing until they were at least age two or beyond, depending on when they felt they were ready to stop. Like most plans I had about babies and parenting there have been modifications along the way.
In recognition of World Breastfeeding Month, I would like to share my story of the joys and challenges of the 32 months and counting of breastfeeding, pumping, traveling, and working with my 32 month old and 6 month old.
Oh, the places I have breastfed- in the back of a jeep in the Wadi Rum desert in Jordan, on a snorkeling boat in Watamu, Kenya, on beaches in Haiti and India, on hiking trips in South Africa and Lesotho, on countless planes and trains criss-crossing continents and bodies of water, in countless cafes and restaurants, and on countless days and nights from my bed or inside a baby wrap. I’ve breast fed at a flamenco dinner show in Barcelona, watching street performers in Paris break dance, and walking through a blizzard in Chicago with my newborn wrapped beneath my coat on the way to the passport office. I’ve breastfed while typing on my computer and while having conference calls, ferociously jiggling my baby to keep him quiet while I speak.
And all I I think is, “Try it, try it, Sam I am, you may like it….”
And, oh, the places I have pumped- on countless unspeakable toilet seats in bathrooms around the world with varying levels of cleanliness, in a Bedouin tent in Jordan, in a dusty document storage room in Jordan, under a tree in a rural area among the Masai women in Kenya and indigenous women in Paraguay, on a boat off the coast of Trincomalee, Sri Lanka. I’ve pumped in movie theaters (most recently while watching the Great Gatsby in Kenya), in the back of bumpy, dusty car rides down muddy roads and torn up urban streets in Haiti and Paraguay.
There have been many moments of awe and pure happiness inspired by my breastfeeding relationship with my children, most notably that absolute beauty of watching my children intertwine their fingers together and smile while tandem nursing. To this day I rightly or wrongly attribute the strong bond with zero jealousy issues my kids have because of tandem nursing since my son’s birth. Throughout my pregnancy with him I fed my toddler and spent many hours talking to her about her baby growing inside me- she would rub my belly, smile, and continue nursing. I like to think that I provided her with a feeling of security and inclusiveness by feeding though the pregnancy and after the birth.
Breastfeeding has been a harbor of calm, stopping so many tears of my both my children’s sadness, frustration, sick, and hurt. Watching their tightened faces melt into a soft ball of bliss is incredible to witness, and a powerful feeling to be the source of such contentment for my little ones. It’s also been an easy way to calm and soothe a wound up toddler. I have had countless nights of sound, peaceful, and restful sleep with my babies curled into my abdomen me, snacking through the night as they please. I still have no idea how to respond to the popular question of “Does your baby sleep through the night?” that parents seem to wear like badges. We all sleep through the night with varying levels of transitions from deep sleep to half awake consciousness while my little ones find my breast.
There have also been many moments of resentment, frustration, and a sea of anger. On our last plane trip from Paris to Johannesburg I would have been happy to leave my toddler behind on the plane after she spent hours of the trip screaming and crying and having a tantrum, yelling, “I want boobie juice,” when I was unable to give this to her while nursing my son. She kept waking him up right after I got him to sleep, and my husband was helpless. Yes, it was night time, and yes, everyone was staring at us with contempt. And then comes the guilt for having the desire to abandon my baby.
I have laughed and smiled about my children breastfeeding. My favorite time of day is waking up with my children nestled into me, gently being lulled out of sleep at the breast. They are like little kittens, pushing and pulling the milk out of me. “It tastes like blueberry ice-cream,” my toddler tells me frequently. No wonder she wants to keep on the boob- I’d want to taste blueberry ice-cream throughout the day, too. We have shared laughs over both kids getting their faces sprayed by a let down, de-latched nipple, over salsa dropping on their faces- I have shared countless meals eating food over my own snacking beasts.
I have cried and groaned over it too, and yes- screamed a few times behind a closed door. The nights when my son was three weeks old, my daughter was 2.5 years old, and my husband was gone for work when both kids would wake up to feed and I felt like throwing them both off of me. I sometimes shut myself in the bathroom in the weeks after my son’s birth, leaving my son to cry and my toddler to scream because I had a horrible post-pregnancy rash (PUPPS) and all I could do to stay sane was to be alone and scratch my legs until they bled. I was tired and craved nothing more than my itch to go away and a quiet bed to myself.
Breastfeeding has been painful. I have had mastitis twice. The first time was when my daughter was 3 months old and we visited the Dead Sea in Jordan. Some stray dead sea mud was left on my nipple beneath my wet swimming suit for a little too long. I thought I was going to die after days of agony. The second time was shortly after my son was born. That time I knew what the angry red streaks across my breast and the onset of flu-like symptoms meant and got antibiotics straight away.
Breastfeeding has been a great source of sadness. I also nursed my toddler through my pregnancy with our trisomy 13 baby, Aksa, who we had between our two babies. I had a D&E at 20 weeks and had a subsequent uterine infection. At one of my darkest points of experiencing motherhood, I spent a night alone in the hospital while my husband cared for our then one year old daughter at home. My breasts became engorged and I pumped several times to relieve myself, staring at the full bottles of milk that was meant to sustain our son, and I wept thinking of him alone wherever he was when all I wanted was to hold him warm in my arms at my breast.
Breastfeeding has been a great source of comfort. When I returned home from the hospital the days, nights, weeks, and months after losing our baby was perhaps softened by the moments I spent with my toddler nursing her. I was immersed in grief and nursing her sometimes reminded me of what could have been that we lost, but mostly it gave me strength, pushing me forward to focus my energy and love what is here and present with me now.
Breastfeeding has been an incredible unleashing of freedom. Freedom to give all of myself, freedom to claim what makes me a woman, freedom to love and be, and connect with what matters in the world. It has given me the freedom from insecurities and doubt that comes with knowing true all encompassing love that is at its height when I have a baby at my breast.
Breastfeeding has also been an incredible prison, bound like a slave to my children’s survival, constantly interrupting my work, my thoughts to get their nourishment. My six month old is crying now for a feed- and here I am talking out loud to try and tune out his cry for just ten seconds while I finish my thought, knowing that in a moment as soon as he latches on nothing else will matter in the world for the time he is at my breast.
I have been proud going to great lengths to have a full stock of breast milk for my babies when I leave them. I have been disappointed and heartbroken when that milk and all the love and work it represents has spoiled in a hot airplane waiting to leave the ground, spilled over my lap in the back seat of a car on my way to a meeting, or dumped down the drain after my son decided he prefers in this order: breast milk straight from the boob, formula, and no pumped breast milk accepted from a bottle whatsoever.
I have learned great humility, bonding with other breastfeeding mothers, and making sure my babies get my milk in a way that respects the local cultures where I might be living or traveling for work. I have traveled with long scarves and wraps to hide my wet shirts when I have gone too long without pumping or nursing and my breast pads are saturated.
I have learned to respect, and most importantly not to judge, people’s choices in breastfeeding, pumping, bottle-feeding, and formula feeding. Because sometimes our choices are limited, and they aren’t choices at all. And mostly because we all love our children and we do what we can with what we have, and we do what is best for our families. We have to as parents come together and support one another’s decisions in order to raise a supportive world community.
I have learned what courage and pride are, pulling my shirt down even further, pushing my chest out a little more when I feel disapproving stares and comments in my own country (I am talking about you, man wearing nothing but a gold thong at Gay Pride Parade in Chicago- I was there to support you and your damn gold thong, so don’t judge me for feeding my freaking baby).
I have learned how to ignore people’s intentional and unintentional judgments about nursing a toddler, nursing while pregnant, and tandem nursing. I have learned to ignore people’s well-meaning, ill-informed advice, doctors included, to stop nursing my toddler because there won’t be enough milk left-over for my newborn, because it might hurt the growing baby inside me, or because my toddler will become spoiled.
I have appreciated the unwavering support of my husband through all of it, including his trust in me to make the best decisions for our children and family. I have relished in supportive comments, approving nods, and knowing smiles of kind strangers and other breastfeeding mothers.
When my daughter was born we were fortunate to quickly establish a strong breastfeeding relationship, and the same goes for my son. When both were six weeks old they each took their first international trip with me for work- Veda to Paraguay, and Surya to Haiti. That’s the self-inflicted too short maternity leave which comes along with the life of a consultant. Both babies traveled with me, but because I had to be away from them during the day for work, I introduced them both to bottles at six weeks old (the first kink in my exclusive breastfeeding plan). I pumped religiously, intent on giving them the nutritional and health benefits of breast milk.
I have lamented work for interrupting my breastfeeding, and I have lamented breastfeeding for interrupting my work.
I have gone in and out of working full time away from my kids, working full time from home, and being a stay-at-home executive household manager. I have breastfed on demand, pumped, and my babies have sucked from a bottle as early as 6 weeks old, mostly with breast milk, but supplemented sometimes by formula.
When my daughter was 15 months old I was working in Nicaragua and my husband took her back home because of my long work days and the subsequent emotional backlash from my daughter. I thought it was the end of our breastfeeding relationship, and I wasn’t ready for it. I had a shitty pump that wasn’t working, and thanks to some incredibly supportive and responsive women at LLL in Chicago who responded to my desperate emails, they suggested I extract milk with my hands to keep my supply going, and it worked. I cried every night alone in my hotel missing my daughter, squeezing my breasts relentlessly.
Now my daughter is 32 months old, and I am emotionally and physically ready to end our breastfeeding relationship. It’s an end of an era, and our relationship is evolving. I wasn’t ready to end it in Nicaragua, and I wasn’t ready after my son was born. But now I am- and she is too, for the most part. Because at this point, out of all the jumbles of emotions, there are more negative ones than positive ones with her. Our relationship has evolved, and breastfeeding does for neither of us what it used to and has become more a source of tension between us.
Last week my husband and I talked to my daughter for several days about having a Big Girl Party. Last Thursday night, here in Lesotho, we bought a chocolate cake we lit with 20 candles and sang to my daughter that she was a big girl now and didn’t need boobie juice anymore. She gladly accepted the chocolate cake and chocolate ice-cream. It’s been a week now and she’s asked to nurse every day, but for the most part she’s accepted “no” as the answer, and happily exclaims, “I’m a big girl!” She still kisses her brother on his head while he nurses.
I am fortunate to have been able to decide when and how my breastfeeding relationship will end with my daughter, on our own terms and in our own way that is right for us. I have no idea how long I will nurse my son. I hope that we continue on for a while longer. We would like to have another baby, and I would love to tandem nurse them as I have with my son and daughter. For now, I am content knowing that at some point my son and I will decide together when our relationship will evolve out of breastfeeding. I can’t know that now, I can’t plan that now, and no person or book can tell me when that moment will come for us.
I have few regrets over the choices I have made in breastfeeding my children. If I had to change anything, it would probably be working less and spending more time relaxed with my babies at my breast and spending more time nourishing their emotional security in this world. I probably would have shed fewer tears this way, as well. But overall I am proud of what I have been able to give them in the context of our realities and the decisions already made.
One of my favorite poems that I was recently reminded of at my dear friend’s wedding in France is Ann Morrow Lindbergh’s Gift from the Sea. At this stage in my life, it perhaps applies even more to my breastfeeding relationship to my children as it does to my marriage, which continues to be my harbor.
“When you love someone, you do not love them all the time, in exactly the same way, from moment to moment. It is an impossibility. It is even a lie to pretend to. And yet this is exactly what most of us demand. We have so little faith in the ebb and flow of life, of love, of relationships. We leap at the flow of the tide and resist in terror its ebb. We are afraid it will never return. We insist on permanency, on duration, on continuity; when the only continuity possible, in life as in love, is in growth, in fluidity – in freedom, in the sense that the dancers are free, barely touching as they pass, but partners in the same pattern.
The only real security is not in owning or possessing, not in demanding or expecting, not in hoping, even. Security in a relationship lies neither in looking back to what was in nostalgia, nor forward to what it might be in dread or anticipation, but living in the present relationship and accepting it as it is now. Relationships must be like islands, one must accept them for what they are here and now, within their limits – islands, surrounded and interrupted by the sea, and continually visited and abandoned by the tides.”
― Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Gift from the Sea