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Letting Go
A Weaning Story

Lu Hanessian
Englewood NJ USA
From: NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 21 No. 1, January-February 2004, pp. 4

My son was barely out of my womb when people asked me how long I planned to breastfeed. A year and a half later, people ask when I plan to enroll him in school, whether he throws tantrums, if he's a picky eater, if he's waking up dry yet. Then they find out he still breastfeeds.

"I can't imagine nursing such a big baby," laughs my neighbor.

"Agh! How do you do it with all those teeth?" shudders my friend Jennifer.

People are curious, I suppose. And probably a little concerned about a nursing child who can also feed himself with a fork. "You still have milk?" a girlfriend asks incredulously.

Occasionally, my father-in-law teases me that Nicholas will still be breastfeeding when he's 35. "You're coddling him," he jests. And I kindly remind him that he was nursed until he was four.

"Why?" people ask, half-afraid of the answer. Why nurse him when he can walk? I guess the answer is so simple that it's kind of complicated.

My son loves to nurse. He gets giddy. He takes my hand and pulls me to his favorite Red Flower Chair in the corner of our living room. "Ana nuss, Mah-mee," he declares. Translation? I want to nurse. Yes, at a mere 18 months, the boy knows what he wants. Or rather, he knows what he needs. He plays like a Whirling Dervish, then comes to my lap and asks to breastfeed for a minute, like an Indy 500 race car coming in for a pit stop.

He wakes up from a midday nap, and my husband, Dave, brings him downstairs where I'm writing. He looks at me with his nap hair and pillow-creased cheeks and gasps, "Mah-mee!" And he runs to me from across the room in his superhero way, arms suspended, fists high, eyebrows raised, mouth open, his eyes glistening with anticipation. We spin in my swivel chair, reveling in the moment, both of us wearing silly, sloppy grins of deep, deep satisfaction. And then, he sits up suddenly, like a Pavlovian bell has just rung, and says, "Nuss!" For him, nursing is a tonic, a stabilizer, an elixir, a magic potion. Society tends to find it weird.

Some people think attachment to the breast means attachment to the mother, which means too much dependency on the mother. And too much dependency on mama? Well...we all know what that means.

I suppose some people get nervous because they think that a child who doesn't "learn to soothe himself" will never learn how. I think about that logic applied to anything else a child learns. For example, if you feed a baby, he'll never learn to feed himself. Or, if you dress him, he'll never learn to dress himself.

I'm warned that if I don't wean him early, he'll never wean himself. In other cultures around the world, however, it's not unusual for children to breastfeed as toddlers. And they do, eventually, stop breastfeeding.

Our Western society, however, frowns at the thought of a walking, talking child at the breast, because it's generally perceived as inappropriate. Sexually inappropriate. As if physical arousal was the goal of toddler nursing-or the effect! Maybe people are uncomfortable with the emotional intimacy of nursing a toddler. It's easier to sexualize the breast than to confront and resolve their own intimacy issues. People who find a breastfeeding mother's motives suspect just don't understand that no toddler can be forced to breastfeed against his will. If he doesn't want to nurse, nobody can make him take a breast any more than someone can force him to eat his lima beans.

In my mind, there is absolutely no confusion whatsoever about a toddler's motivation to nurse. At 20 months now, my son's motivation is clear, because he tells me. I can determine by the tone and inflection of his voice, and in what particular context, the actual reason he wants to nurse. He wants to soothe himself. He wants to connect. He wants to meditate. He wants comfort. He wants to gather his wits. He wants to restore himself.

He comes to me and asks, "Mahmee, pleez nuss?" And he whimpers in triplets under his breath like he's bravely trying to stifle a meltdown. And then he adds, "A lidda bit..." He's becoming aware of time and timing. He is beginning to understand the unspoken and spoken dynamics of relationship, and the language of his needs-and mine. "I have to go to the bathroom first, sweetie," I explain. "One, two, fwee, fo…" he counts, rocking back and forth on his little heels.

I am deeply convinced that the only reason he is even half-heartedly able to exhibit this small vestige of patience at 20 months is because I breastfed him whenever his little heart desired until he was old enough to understand "not right now." In other words, I can occasionally and lovingly say "no" to him now as a toddler because I consistently said "yes" to him as a baby.

This was my first blinking "a-ha!" moment that shined a floodlight for me on the very origins of trust. He trusts me, not because I am his mother, but because I am the mother that responds to him.

We breastfeed in silence. We breastfeed in dialogue. We breastfeed asleep. We breastfeed in a chair at the end of the day until all the light is gone from the room. I hold him, knowing, wistfully, that he will never remember this. But somehow, I feel in my intuitive heart that this will have helped shape his perceptions of himself and me, and give him some kind of internal compass that leads him along a path that is always lit even if it's dark.

In spite of my poetic musings about nursing and the call of the human spirit, I still get flak. Lots of flak. When he was a year-and-a-half old, many people thought my son was just too darn old to nurse because he was apparently not a baby anymore.

But he cried when I wiped his nose. (Still does.) He didn't put his fingers in the right glove holes. (Still can't.) He got upset when his hands were sticky. (Right.) He fell apart when his play-date left. (Yup.) Time passes.

Now, at two years old, people really think he's too old to breastfeed because he's a self-sufficient toddler. But he wears a bib when he eats. He wants to play outside without clothes. He wants his scrapes kissed better. He is afraid of velcro.

People at the mall, in the park, on the airplane, at my pediatrician's office, and sometimes in my own home, are upset with me. A friend visiting from out of town counted how many times my boy nursed in a day. "Six," she says. "Like a newborn baby," she adds. As if I've been giving him Coca-Cola every hour, on the hour.

He cries upon my return from an appointment one day, and a friend shakes her head, and mumbles that she's "worried" about his breastfeeding. It seems everything can be blamed squarely on the breast. Any unseemly toddler behavior. International crises. Traffic jams. Inclement weather. If my son is the slightest bit unruly, it's got to be the breast. Clingy? The breast. Anti-social? You got it. Doesn't want to go outside today? Yep, it's because the breast has lulled him into a state of agoraphobia. Wants to play in the park until dark? It's the breast's fault for not setting better limits on his recreation.

Left breast turned off its plumbing? "There are women who nurse on one side," the doc reassures me. "But at this point, it's time for you to wean him," he advises. "There are no medical benefits to nursing at this stage. There are actually no benefits at all, other than maybe psychological. But it's very controversial."

My son, who is strapped in his stroller in the room with me while the doctor states his case, is now crying so hard I can see his epiglottis. The doctor then proceeds to tell me that I've put myself in a "very difficult position" by nursing my child "this long."

"I'm not here for your support of my nursing," I say calmly. "I'm here for a medical checkup."

"Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying I don't support nursing. I think nursing is great. I'm your adversary!" he assures, surely meaning to say "advocate."

I don't bother to correct him. Sometimes, I feel like a marathoner hopping on one good leg to the finish line.

It's bedtime. My son and I are in the rocker. He's nursing while doing his version of Cirque du Soleil. My last nerve is frayed. I have little scratches all over my stomach, almost as if I've wrestled a cat. He likes to press his thumb into my navel when he's nursing like it's a milk dispenser. My tolerance is depleted. I feel forsaken for feeling depleted. Resentful for feeling forsaken.

His eyes are wide open. Even in the dark, I can still make out two blinking black pools. I "shhh" him softly. I tell him to close his eyes now. He puts his paw over his eye as if to let me know that even if he won't close his eye, he can at least cover it.

My breast begins to feel sore, and I tell him I can't nurse him anymore right now. He manages to stop long enough to blurt quietly out of the side of his mouth, "No..." He believes he owns my breast.

Sometimes, I wonder if it's really mine. For a moment, I feel a flash of ambivalence. I see how nursing my baby has helped him flourish. I see how comfortable he is in his own skin because he has gotten the kind of comfort he wants. I see how helpful it is to both of us to be able to breastfeed him when he's not feeling well, when we're in the emergency room with croup at 11 pm, and he's feeling hot, scared, and confused.

I see how he finds his peace. Orders his world. I see how blissful it is to sit with him at dawn and nurse him into another day. I see how breastfeeding him for comfort has made him more comfortable in general. More patient. More respectful of my needs. More able to calm himself. More centered. Happy.

I see how it has made me more patient, more centered, able to calm myself. I see the look of deep knowingness in his eye, as if we've been walking the planet together for a couple of hundred years. I see how breastfeeding has become part of our rhythm, our rhyme, our understanding of each other. How it has given our relationship a whole other layer of connectedness. And how that connectedness has influenced my parenting choices, how I perceive him, and how he responds to me.

I can also see how he won't go down to sleep at night with anybody else but me. At least, not at this point. Not now. Not yet.

Sigh. I hear the chorus of friends, strangers, and pediatricians who warned me about becoming a "human pacifier." I can hear the wave of "I-told-you-so" sweeping across the landscape like a hot wind. Is that them-or me?

Two seasons have passed. The trees are barren in anticipation of our first snowfall of the season. My two-and-a-half year old is watching an old Ed Sullivan show on TV, the Beatles' first appearance. My son is sitting cross-legged on the couch mouthing the words. "I wanna hold your hand, I wanna hold your ha-a-and."

We haven't nursed in a long time. Three whole weeks. An eternity. I think he's weaned himself. He has been going to sleep without breastfeeding for months now. My breast is no longer needed for soothing. For sleep. For comfort. For peace.

Gradually, he asks less. His need diminishes in phases. The "gotta-make sure-they're-still-there" phase. The "20 seconds phase." The phase where he asked me if my breasts are "feeling okay." If they're "tired."

The first time we go a full day without. A full week without, The first time I rock him in my arms without nursing. The first time I comfort him without nursing. The first time he sees a friend's baby breastfeeding, watches in recognition, and goes on with his activities.

I used to think of breastfeeding as the essential connection between us. I couldn't imagine, and sometimes worried about, how we would relate to each other after he was no longer breastfeeding. It was part of our language. Our understanding of each other.

Now, in retrospect, I realize that nursing is only one aspect of motherhood. One way of connecting. One way of comforting. On the other side of the nursing journey now, motherhood continues, of course. And, in some ways, for me, it is just beginning again.

In letting my son decide when to stop nursing-when to let go-I have learned about letting go, too. About letting go of one thread while holding on to others. Letting go, letting go, until more threads are loosened, unraveled, untethered, like a dancing kite that has set itself free.

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