For the past ten years I’ve shared my body with a small person. From the moment when sperm joined egg to create Older, until a few weeks ago when Baby nursed her last, I mostly willingly, sometimes grudgingly, often joyfully nurtured a small person in the most physical of ways; first through pregnancy then through nursing. When I weaned Older long ago, just after his third birthday, I was a bit wistful at how my firstborn had grown but I can’t say I was sad. I was nursing nine month old Middle at the time and was happy to focus my physical nurturing on her alone. When Middle weaned herself four months into my pregnancy with Baby I was again a bit sentimental, but mostly I was relieved that I no longer had to share my exhausted pregnant body with anyone other than my growing baby. I have a hard time writing it; have barely spoken it aloud, but Baby has not nursed in many weeks. She has weaned. For the first time in ten years my body is solely my own.
The weaning happened much as I had hoped it would. Uncomplicated by another pregnancy or a new sibling I wanted to allow her to wean on her own. My mother joked that I would be nursing her until kindergarten and I think, quite honestly, I would have happily obliged. However, of her own volition, around Christmas Baby began to skip days of nursing more frequently. Her intervals would stretch to four or five days at a time without Mama’s milk and although part of my brain was pleading with me “offer to nurse her!” I wanted her to steer this process so I neither offered nor refused. She began to comment on the saltiness of the milk but then quickly followed her comments with the reassurance that “I like it salty.” She is a perceptive and intelligent girl; although I never asked her I could tell that she knew our nursing days were numbered. She skipped a week of nursing and when she nursed again I snapped a photo of us in the dim evening light. I wanted to capture her last nurse and I knew it could be any day now. This went on for several weeks until about a month ago when she fell asleep nursing in my arms for the last time. I have a picture of her, long curls draped over my arm, head resting on my breast, long lashes fanning out from her closed eyes, breathing out her sweet milky breath.
A few nights ago, during the circus that is bedtime with three children, Baby asked for “Big Na-na”, her special term for nursing. I was surprised and hoped she would be distracted by bedtime stories. I should have known better; she has a steel-trap memory. After a couple of books she asked to nurse again, special blanket in hand. I gathered her into my arms and settled her on my lap in the big upholstered rocking chair I have nursed all my babies in. I told her, as plainly and gently as I could, that the milk had dried up; it was simply what happened if one didn’t nurse for a long time. “I forgot!” she wailed; a primal cry escaping her chest as she buried her head in my dress. “I was on a break. I just forgot.” she bargained in desperation. I held her close and my eyes filled with tears as her eyes spilled every tear her body could muster. I told her I loved her over and over. She mumbled, through her sobs, that she would miss big na-na. And then I heard her draw in a deep breath, pause, and say that she would have big na-na again “when I nurse my own babies”. I squeezed her tight and whispered in her ear that I would help her with her babies. Her cries calmed and she pulled back and smiled. “We could be next door neighbors” she stated tentatively. “I would love that” I told her and the truth is I can imagine no better future. She then giggled and said with a deep sigh “Big na-na is over. But we can always have chocolate.” I laughed and reassured her that we would certainly be eating chocolate together until we were old ladies. We held each other, giggling and rocking, for a while longer. I felt that in that moment we understood each other perfectly; two sides of the same coin.
It is clear to me, as well as to her, that it isn’t the nursing, per se, that the both of us are grieving. She woke up at midnight two nights ago and came to snuggle with me in bed and when I asked what was wrong she told me “everything is changing”. The days (and nights) of nursing my children when they were young have been, altogether, nothing short of magic. Now that I have two school aged children, it’s harder to feel the magic with them. The deep connection we forged when they were young is still there but it’s all too often buried under gymnastics practice, homework, and a pile of socks. I am ashamed to admit that some days I don’t really feel it at all. Perhaps because she is the youngest of three, I think that Baby can see the magical bubble of uninterrupted time with Mama is rapidly slipping away. The end of nursing is a marker of the end of an era; an era that has a lot more to do with being her Mama’s little girl than with milk.
Parenting is a never ending succession of both loss and discovery. The child that wakes up every morning is inevitably a little bit different than the child that fell asleep the night before. Every milestone is both a joy and a death. Most of us cannot remember the last time our child crawled, the last time they called us “Mama” instead of “Mom”, the last time they padded sleepily down the hall and asked to sleep in our bed. At least I have the beauty of a picture and a perfect memory of the last moment that I was a nursing mother.