By Jennifer Berney
Some months ago, after enduring four hours of dental surgery, my toddler emerged from anesthesia groggy and pissed off. He punched at my ear and my jaw as I carried him to the car, and then he cried the whole ride home. I brought him to the kitchen where he clung to me and threaded his fingers through my hair, still sobbing. I offered him some blueberry yogurt in a bowl. He calmed himself enough to eat a few bites, and then he pointed to the couch. I carried him there, and once we settled, he asked to nurse. I lifted my shirt and cradled him. His breathing steadied, as did mine. I wiped the tears from his face with the edge of my sleeve. My eyes wandered around the room. “Other side,” my son requested eventually, and so we changed positions. All in all he nursed for maybe fifteen minutes, and in that time he was restored to his usual self. As I righted my bra, he slid off the couch and began to chase his older brother around the living room.
I had no idea that this would be the last time we ever nursed.
My approach to weaning had been so haphazard that perhaps it’s a stretch to even call it an “approach.” A year earlier I had wanted to quit because my son—newly two years old then—woke up desperate to nurse every morning. His demand was so insistent that it limited my ability to meet my own basic needs. I learned to master the art of peeing with a child propped on my lap and to brew a cup of hot tea with my one free hand. He seemed to have an internal rule: his feet could not touch the floor before he nursed.
Once I brought him to the couch, he wanted to keep me there all morning. If I tried to unlatch him after, say, twenty minutes, he looked me coolly in the eye and moved my hand away from his mouth. After several months of this, I left town for a conference and was gone for seven nights and seven mornings. Without me, my son woke up happy. He walked straight to the kitchen table and ate his breakfast.
I returned home wondering if our nursing relationship was over, and also knowing that I need not wonder—the decision was mine to make. If he asked to nurse, I could simply tell him no. The airport shuttle dropped me off at home an hour after bedtime. I peeked at my sleeping children and settled in my own bed. In the morning my younger son wrapped his arms around me, smiled, and asked for a bowl of cereal. We had spent two hours of our morning together before he put one hand on my shoulder, cocked his head, and asked me “nursey time?” I hesitated for a moment, and then I said, “Okay.”
In the months that followed, my son nursed less and less. Sometimes he’d go two days without asking. Occasionally, he’d ask twice in one day. Each time he asked, I wondered when I would start saying no. With my first son, I had drawn a clear line. “This is our last time nursing,” I had told him before our final session. It was late on a Saturday morning and sun blasted through my bedroom window. I propped up pillows so that I could comfortably sit and nurse, just as I’d done a thousand times before. I thought about his first days at home and the hours I had spent in this same spot latching and unlatching my newborn, trying to get it right. I thought about the midnight feedings and the naptimes, and all the times that nursing had put an end to tears. It was a tender moment, this final goodbye, and the clarity of my boundary allowed me to savor all of the flavors, the bitter and the sweet.
I had expected to do the same with my second son, eventually. And then one day I realized that we hadn’t nursed in weeks. Our nursing relationship had ended without ceremony. I only remember our last time because it was such an unusual day.
I am thirty-nine now and, by choice, I will have no more children. I will never be pregnant again. I will never nurse another baby. I feel relieved about this, and sad about this, but more than anything I feel puzzled. How did I get here so quickly? Every day I look at my seven-year-old son and tell myself that he’s halfway to fourteen. Before I know it, he’ll be shape shifting into a man. My second child, my three-year-old, still looks like a baby to me most of the time. But then last night as he raced two imaginary friends across the living room, he looked suddenly taller, leaner. I could see in him a preview of the child he’s becoming. Somehow, suddenly, I’ve arrived at the phase of parenting where my children leave my embrace as often as they seek it.
I leave behind the years of intensive physical parenting, the years of rinsing diaper inserts in the toilet, of wiping drool away from chins, the years of mastitis and sore nipples, of baby whorls and cradle cap, the years of rarely being alone and always being needed, of being too crowded in the bed, of being asked to sing the same song over and over and over in spite of my broken voice.
Those years are now behind me. They are years that were as frustrating as they were joyful, but I have no doubt that the filter of nostalgia will eventually render them perfect. There’s no token I can hold—no lock of hair or beloved blanket—that will actually bring those years back. That era has come to an end with no clear warning, no announcement. This is of course, the way of things. To say goodbye, I must turn around and wave to the thing that is already gone.
Jennifer Berney is a Brain, Child contributing blogger. Her essays have also appeared in The New York Times Motherlode, the Brevity blog, and Mutha. She is currently working on a memoir that chronicles her years-long quest to conceive a child. You can connect with her on Twitter, or on her personal blog, Goodnight Already.