By Doña Bumgarner
My three-year-old daughter and I are sitting at a café table on a sunny morning in June, a few feet from the road. The smell of exhaust competes with the sweet smell of cakes wafting from the open door. She tucks into her chocolate cupcake. Mine, with its coconut icing and red raspberry on top, looks strikingly like a breast. It’s the perfect cupcake for the occasion.
Today’s celebration is a day I have both dreaded and looked desperately forward to. I had discussed the timing of it with my partner and my therapist but not with my mom friends. Each of their babies had weaned before their first birthdays. But Stella had recently passed her third birthday and showed no signs of losing interest.
I was committed to letting Stella lead the way, confident she’d give up nursing when she was ready. I just thought it would be sooner. But now she still wanted to carry on and I had arrived at done. After a recent infection led to an emergency surgery and hospital stay, my body was so depleted that every nursing session felt like Stella was literally sucking the life out of my body. I was tired of being a vehicle for food.
I loved breastfeeding my daughter and didn’t regret continuing for so long. However, as I recovered from surgery, I had begun feeling drained and resentful every time she nursed. If this was any other relationship and I felt the same way, of course I would step back and say “Enough.” But moms aren’t encouraged to draw boundaries very often, especially with our young children. Instead we give and give and give. I wanted to keep giving, but I couldn’t. It was time for a transition.
So one night while my partner was handling bedtime, I turned to Google for guidance. I held a glass of red wine in one hand and typed “how to wean” with the other. The resulting hits varied from advice for moms of newborns returning to work, to hard-core attachment parenting forums, whose moms were committed to extended breastfeeding. I read a description of a girl who nursed on the morning of her seventh birthday and then said to her mom, “You know, I feel kind of silly. I don’t want to do this anymore.” It struck me that if my daughter could discuss nursing with me in complete sentences with proper grammatical structure then I had let the whole thing go on longer than I was comfortable with. I could still see the baby in my three-year-old, but I could not imagine nursing my child when she was old enough to read bedtime stories to me instead of the other way around. And I couldn’t let my child have carte blanche access to my body for as long as she saw fit, the way I had originally thought I would.
Then I found a blog describing a mother’s weaning ceremony with her toddler son, and I knew I had found my answer. I had heard of this kind of thing for saying goodbye to a pacifier, but never for a breast. I needed a ritual to honor the importance of this aspect of our relationship and both of our roles in it. I needed to include my daughter in the planning and to make the weaning a celebration, not a loss.
I talked it over with Stella the next morning. I wanted her to be involved in the details, but I also wanted to be firm that this would be the end of nursing for us.
“Honey, you know how we talked about how some of your friends don’t drink milky?” She was nursing, still sleepy and relaxed, her long legs in pink monkey footie pajamas spilling off my lap, her toes pressing into the rungs of her crib to keep the glider moving at the pace she liked.
She looked up at me, mouth full of nipple. My heart lurched; I realized that if I finished this conversation, I might hold her like this only a few more times. I pressed on. “Well, you are getting to be a big girl and my body is getting very tired of making milky.”
She looked alarmed and released her latch. “I drink milky now.” She patted my breast to reassure me that my supply was just fine. I smiled down at her.
“So I want us to pick a day that will be our last milky day. We can have a little party, just you and me. I’ll still hold you and rock you and snuggle you before bed and in the morning. But we won’t have milky. Do you understand?” She nodded again.
I pulled my sweatshirt down between us and settled her more comfortably in the crook of my arm. She had stopped rocking us, so I picked up the rhythm myself. “So what do you think? When would you like your last milky day to be?”
Oof, that was sooner than I was expecting. I had to bite my tongue not to take all my words back.
“Yeah. I big girl. No more milky ‘morrow. What kind of party?”
So that’s how I find myself staring down at this breast-shaped cupcake. I point it out to Stella. “Look, honey, my cupcake looks like a milky.”
She giggles. “Taste like milky?”
“It tastes like coconut. I don’t know what milky tastes like.” I look at her, realizing that soon enough she’ll forget that flavor, too.
She smiled at me with chocolate-covered teeth, probably more happy about eating a cupcake than fully comprehending the reason for it.
Doña Bumgarner is a late-life mama, a blogger and an artist who lives with her family and a combined flock of cats and chickens on the Central Coast of California. She blogs about mindful parenting at NurturedMama.net.