By Jill Christman
My daughter Ella was just over two on the morning of her last breastfeeding. She’d stumbled in from her own room around five a.m., as usual, scrambled up into our bed, and latched on. Humming and suckling, she slipped into sweet sleep. Most mornings, this was the method by which my husband and I got to be those rare parents who sleep until eight.
This morning was different because I needed to catch a flight, without Ella, to interview job candidates for three days at the Modern Languages Association Conference in Washington, D.C. I’d never been away from Ella for a night. Not ever. I lay awake and watched Ella nurse, feeling sick with love and the specter of our separation, touching the tiny droplets of sweat on her soft temple, watching her jaw pumping out the rhythm of our bodies together.
My husband Mark and I had decided that this forced separation would be the perfect weaning window, and I knew chances were good that this would be the last time she and I would lie together like this: cuddled, content, sleepy and sleeping. I must have drowsed off myself because the next thing I knew the morning news was mumbling in my ear and the clock glowed six thirty. In that alarm clock moment I did what I had always done when I needed to get up without Ella: I slipped my finger between her lips and my nipple to break the suction, held a gentle pressure under her chin until her sucking wound down and her mouth relaxed. And then I got out of the bed.
In the dark, on the way across the room to the shower, I realized what I had done. I had failed to mark the last time as the last time. Standing frozen in the warm stream of the shower, I felt as if that moment should have been something more. What should she and I have done? Lit a candle? Whispered a prayer? Shared a promise?
Think of all your last times in love. Did you know they were endings? The end? This time, so rare, I had known, and I had let it slip away.
* * *
On the plane to D.C., my heart was breaking and my seat belt was broken. The buckle clicked, but when I leaned forward, the whole mechanism slid easily along the nylon strap. No resistance. No help at all in a crash, but then again, who are we kidding? Nonetheless, I notified the flight attendant, who couldn’t get the darn thing to clamp either, and then there we were, a whole plane waiting on the tarmac because of my seat belt. I dismantled the thing and put it back together. It worked! The mechanics were cancelled, we took off on schedule, and the flight attendant offered me a free drink for my heroism.
I didn’t want to be on that plane. I wanted to see my baby. I ordered a Jack and Coke. Why the hell not? I wasn’t nursing, after all. I wanted this high-noon cocktail to feel liberating. Instead, I deplaned with a big, fat headache.
* * *
We met with the job candidates in my gloomy hotel room. By day, I dressed in a loose jacket to hide breasts that grew larger with every interview, and at night, when all of the candidates had gone, I peeled off my professor clothes and climbed naked, a mother again, into the shower. I needed to express milk—enough so I’d fit into my clothes, not enough to encourage production. She’s not here, I told my body. Give it up.
Ba ba is our family word for breastmilk. Months before I found myself in that dim hotel shower, wet and weeping, I read a sidebar in a parenting magazine that had made me smile. A recent study out of Australia reported that nursing toddlers say their mothers’ milk is “as good as chocolate” and “better than ice cream.” No wonder Ella was crazy for ba ba. Sweet goodness and a cuddle with mom. That’s some soda fountain.
Standing under the warm stream, I lifted my hands up under my breasts and they felt like full IV bags, liquid heft. What a waste to squeeze it all away, I thought, but I did. I did.
* * *
After three days in D.C., I was afraid to go home. What would we be now?
On the plane, I obsessed over our reunion, and all the possibilities scared me. Maybe she would run towards me, short arms flailing, demanding to be nursed. My husband and I had discussed this, of course, and he had been firm. He knows my weaknesses.
“You will say no,” he told me on the phone. “You weren’t here. It was hard. We’re not going to do this to her again.”
This made sense. But I wondered about the other end of the spectrum. What if she’s mad? What if she feels abandoned? What if she doesn’t want to see me?
When I pulled up in the car, Ella was waiting at the glass storm door, leaping intermittently. I watched her press her face and both palms against the glass and jump, a haze of breath and nose smear. From the driveway, I could see she didn’t plan to punish me for going away. Instead, she was all over me with hugs and stories. In those first happy hours, she said nothing of ba ba. I was enough.
But there was a bedtime ritual yet to be performed, and part of it was going to be missing.
After a bath with four rubber ducks, I dried her in the frog towel and got her into footie pajamas. My heart was in my throat. Ba ba time. “Hold me,” Ella said. “Mommy, hold me.”
“How about a book?” I said with forced cheer. “Do you want to read a book with Mommy on the couch? And then Daddy will read you some more books in the big girl bed?” I heard the false notes ringing from my lips, and I knew she could too. Ella’s two, but she’s no fool.
The book-reading on the couch went fine: My Opposites. Mis Op-puestos. “Ooh,” I said. “Look! The green snake is lo-o-ong. En espaÃ±ol, largo. Can you say largo?” Her pronunciation was surprisingly good. I sounded like a parody of a bedtime parent. When the book was over, we headed back to the bedroom. I was as cheerful as Christmas morning, but Ella was onto me. She dug her heels into the area rug beneath the dining room table.
“I want some ba ba,” she said. Mark and I made eye contact. This is what we’d been waiting for. “I want some ba ba.”
I threw my head back and laughed (a friend of a friend had mentioned this technique and in this moment I had nothing better). “Oh no,” I said, still laughing, “You don’t want ba ba. You’re a big girl!”
Mark repeated my message, smiling at Ella, and then directed his expression to me and hissed, “Redirect! Redirect! Don’t come in the bedroom. You’d better just stay out.”
By now, Ella was on the floor, sobbing. “But I needba ba,” she countered. “But I needba ba.” At this point, nobody was saying anything just once.
I walked to a part of the house where I could not hear the screams. My breasts were aching. By the time I returned, maybe ten minutes later, the sounds were muffled. Reading sounds.
Mark appeared triumphant about an hour later, rubbing his eyes.
* * *
At seven the next morning, Ella scrambled up into our bed. She flopped on her belly and turned her face toward me, breathing softly. Her breath smelled like sweet corn. I fluffed a pillow to keep her head up with my head, not in the habitual place, breastside. I rubbed her back and hummed. This seemed to make her happy. But then she flopped around. “I need you to change my diaper,” she said. “And then it will be seeping time.”
I did. It was not sleeping time.
“I need Something,” she said, capitalizing the something A. A. Milne-style.
Mark watched us through a cracked eye and chose this moment to intervene. “Do you want some water? In your sippie cup? Are you thirsty? Here you go.” If he hadn’t been supervising, would I have folded? Would it have been our little secret? I still wonder who was weaning whom.
Ella slapped the cup away. “No. I need Something Else.” Amazing. She couldn’t seem to remember what she wanted. She couldn’t seem to remember what those dark, early morning moments had been for throughout the first two years of her life. But we could see her mind working. Redirect. Redirect.
“I need Something Else.”
Mark gave options. Juice, soy milk, Kix.
She rejected them all and turned to me, half-remembering. “Roll over,” she demanded. “Roll over.”
Since I was facing her, I started to roll away, obediently, a woman without a plan.
“Noooooooooooooooooooo! Roll over! You need to open up the ba bas.” She pulled on my heavy black shirt. “You need to open them up!”
* * *
And so it went—a cycle of remembering and forgetting until time did its work and made nursing a vestige of babyhood, an artifact, something that happened “last night”—Ella’s umbrella term for all things gone by.
Later on the first full day of my return, Ella had seemingly forgotten about nursing again, and we made oatmeal cookies. After the margarine and the sugars, I reached up to turn on the KitchenAid, and without being told, Ella put her hands flat on the countertop and said dutifully, “Only Mommy or Daddy can touch that machine.” I wondered: If she can forget breastfeeding, the nearest and dearest thing she has known, after only five days, how can she remember anything at all? How can she hang onto something I’ve told her maybe twice about a mixer, and not be cognizant of the soft keystone of her young life?
In the weeks after D.C., even though I could reach out and touch her whenever I wanted, I missed Ella. I missed my baby. The relationship changed—it had to—once the nursing was over. I cuddled her, and she let me, but it wasn’t the same. I had nothing to offer her that was mine and mine alone to give.
That can’t be true, can it? It felt true.
We held back from each other, doing a kind of dance to avoid physical closeness that might remind us of what we once shared. I keep trying to figure out what this feeling was like—this stage on the letting-go continuum between giving birth and dropping her off for her first day of school—but since Ella is my first child, I can only compare this shift in intimacy to the end of a romantic relationship. Not a messy, dirty breakup, but the kind born of time and change—the kind you both know has to come. Okay, so you talk and talk and talk. It’s over. This is it. This is the best thing for everyone. But his stuff is still in your apartment, the hide-a-bed couch is a back-breaker. This is a time of transition. You agree he can stay for three more weeks until the lease starts on his new place. He can even sleep on his side of the bed, but he can’t roll over onto your side.
But you know how many moles he has on his back. You know how he likes a swirl of honey in his coffee, but not the whole spoonful. You know he’ll never replace the cap on the toothpaste, even if it’s a flip top designed for recalcitrants like him. You know everything. But you can’t touch him when he’s feeling sad about leaving. You can’t, because if you do, well, there you go, you’re back in it, and you’ll both have to begin the separation all over again.
This is how Ella and I felt, and I know her well enough that I can speak for her, too. Here’s the difference: She wasn’t leaving. Not yet. For now, she’s not going anywhere, and we need to figure out what our new intimacy is going to look like. We need to figure out what replaces what we’ve lost, what we’ve grown beyond. This can be exhausting.
A week after my return, this involved a turkey and hummus sandwich with the crusts cut off at 3:30 a.m. A picnic. The next day, I sighed and said to Ella’s babysitter, “I don’t want her to think that this is what we do—we wake up in the middle of the night and have picnics! But she was hungry. She ate the whole sandwich. I can’t just let her be hungry.”
The babysitter laughed. “Well, she was having midnight picnics before, wasn’t she? It was just a different caterer.”
In nursing, Ella and I had located each other. Seconds after the doctor tossed her onto my belly, she rooted around and found what she needed. Knowing nothing but what I’d read in books, I followed her lead. Here you go, Baby. Here you go. Shhhh. Since then, we had known no other way of being.
But motherhood is about letting go—first from our bodies, then our arms, then our sight, then our homes—and then? Weaning falls hard on this spectrum, forcing me to see the life Ella will live far beyond me, where she will learn to find her own sustenance, her own comfort.
I have never seen a child of mine grow up. I am starting to see what it looks like.
Jill Christman’s memoir, Darkroom: A Family Exposure, won the AWP Award Series in Creative Nonfiction and in 2011 was reissued in paperback by the University of Georgia Press. Recent essays have appeared in Barrelhouse, Brevity, Fourth Genre, Iron Horse Literary Review, River Teeth, and many other journals, magazines, and anthologies. She teaches creative nonfiction writing in Ashland University’s low-residency MFA program and at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, where she lives with her husband, writer Mark Neely, and their two children. Visit her at www.jillchristman.com.
Brain, Child (Spring 2007)