"I just wanted my body back." When I worked with breastfeeding moms I used to hear them say that regularly after they'd weaned their little ones.
It's been a long time since I had my body to myself. I first nursed a child during the first Clinton administration. I just stopped.
I used to write a lot about breastfeeding: why I nursed my children past infancy, why I nursed them in public places including church, why I loathe those lampshade-apron things that women hide under. It's been awhile I posted about nursing one of my actual children, in part because we're pretty far out in the tail of the distribution at this point. At this point, actually, we're into what most people consider freaky-deaky territory. Even my La Leche League friends, while they might vociferously defend my decision to nurse for this long, mostly found that their children weaned younger than mine.
I've been more hesitant to write about my personal experiences in recent years because it turns out that the years from preschool to junior high last approximately 37 seconds. You blink a time or two and the boy who was deliberating over a weaning present (and then telling the clerk at the register why this particular Lego set was in the cart) is doing calculus. A kid might not want his classmates stumbling across the story of his weaning party. And, too, strangers on the internet get stupid-crazy (or should that be crazy-stupid? whatever the term is for lots of both all at the same time) when they talk about breastfeeding. Having experienced long-term nursing as tender and affectionate and also kind of annoying and clearly temporary and normal for our family, it's so bizarre to imagine random strangers certain that they can see into my secret heart and determine that I am personally unfulfilled (no) or channeling unmet sexual needs (really??) or failing to permit my children to grow up (see above re: calculus) or whatever pseudo-wisdom they might dispense.
So why am I putting it on the internet that I nursed my children for 201 consecutive months?
Because I will miss the magic. Nursing was an effortless way for me to get it exactly right: to soothe and settle, nourish and nurture. I could nuke the pinkeye pathogens without irritating sensitive little eyes. I could stave off dehydration in a small person who couldn't keep anything else down. I could help to build the brain that would later do the heavy lifting in calculus class. And I could read a book at the same time (except during the conjunctivitis smiting, which required an accurate aim).
Nine years ago I compared nursing to a Swiss Army knife. I have many tools in my toolbox these days, and I have learned a lot about using them well. I will miss my Swiss Army knife all the same.
I have posted more than once about the ways that nursing has brought home to me the goodness of post-Incarnation life in the body. I have written about its reminders that our bodies are not our own, its daily nudges to offer my body and blood (albeit fashioned into a more appetizing substance) eucharistically. For almost 17 years, nursing has challenged me to be more generous than I'm naturally inclined to be.
On the feast of the guardian angels Stella nursed for just a couple of minutes at bedtime. "There's not much milk, Mama," she said. "I'm going to be done." In the moment I didn't know it was a permanent kind of done, but the timing is perfect, I think. Those months of nursing will mean she is less vulnerable to infectious disease and more emotionally resilient in childhood. They may mean she is less likely to develop schizophrenia as a young adult, alcoholism in her 30s, or multiple sclerosis in middle age. They may even mean that when she is an old woman, long after I am dead, she is less vulnerable to heart disease. Like her guardian angel, they will offer her silent and invisible protection for years to come. I am watching her step away from me and towards her future and I am pulling so hard for her: Be safe, sweetheart. Be well. Be loved.
I remember, vaguely, how overwhelming it was to share my body in the early days. Leaking milk into nursing pads. Living life in two-hour blocks, because my first baby nursed every two hours like clockwork. I thought I would be sad when I stopped nursing because I was pretty sure I was going to fail wretchedly at it. I didn't know I would be sad (only a little sad, friends) to stop nursing because it had been such a success. I am thinking back on the 26-year-old me, hunched over an uncooperative Alex in the NICU, and wishing I could tell her it would work out beautifully. I wonder if my future self will look back at the 43-year-old me, the one who is a little wistful and a little uncertain about her ability to guide these growing kids safely to adulthood, to smile and say it will all turn out just fine.