By Christine Gilbert
I have a secret. I’m still breastfeeding my three-year-old son, along with his three-month-old sister. They call it tandem breastfeeding, but they might as well call it shameful-secret-of-mommies-who-are-doing-it-wrong because that’s exactly what it feels like.
My husband and I have become adept at maneuvering around the major obstacles, hiding the fact from my Ob-Gyn while I was pregnant, since our first doctor said we had to stop immediately because our toddler was stealing nutrients from the unborn baby (not everyone agrees with that and she was fine). Not telling our son’s dentist because when he was six-months-old he said we had to wean from our night feedings or risk cavities, which we didn’t do, never mind his other advice of wiping down his teeth with a wet cloth after each session. Whispering to my son when he mimes for my breast in public, “not now sweetie, when we get home.”
In the hospital, the day after my daughter was born, I covertly breastfed my son while the nurses were away. I didn’t know what their policy was, but I couldn’t face finding out. I sat in the reclining rocker with my newborn on my lap and my son stood next to me and suckled from the breast I held at his mouth. It was a quick furtive gesture to let him know he was still mine and I was still his.
My attempts to keep a low profile have slowly become futile, as my son, the late-talker, has overnight gone from giving me dreamy moon eyes when he wants to feed, to shouting at me from his car seat, “Mama! Boobie! Booooooobie! BOOBIE!”
At a recent beach picnic, I had to out myself to my childless friends and pre-empt what I knew would come after my son went swimming. “So, we’re still breastfeeding. Both of them. Both.”
I didn’t wait for a reaction, I lobbed it at them like a warning, a simple instruction: Please do not freak out about what you’re about to see today. We know. Trust us, we know.
You see, I’m not a lactation-nut. I’m aware that breastfeeding isn’t a magical improvement over formula nutrition-wise and I have plenty of friends who chose formula for medical or convenience sake. I get it. For me, I liked breastfeeding because it seemed especially loving and tender, something that was missing from my own childhood, something I wanted so desperately to give my son. From my pre-baby perspective, two years sounded about right, but as two rolled around, my son was still so little, and barely talking, so I let it continue. Three months later I was pregnant with my second, but for the first two months I didn’t know, so when my breasts started to change, I thought there was something wrong with my body. It became painful to breastfeed, just a gnawing discomfort I couldn’t pinpoint. Fed up with it, I decided to wean my son.
For a week, I tried everything to get him to feed less: distractions, hiding from him, saying no, letting him cry a little, putting him off until later. None of it seemed to work; instead, he would wrap his legs around me, trying to hold me in place to try to catch up on all the feedings I had put off. Still as the pregnancy continued, my breast discomfort grew more intense, and I began to feel desperate. I put lemon juice on my nipples for three days in a row. He kept feeding. I switched to vinegar. He winced but suckled anyway. I gagged so hard at the smell that I finally realized perhaps I was pregnant, confirming it the next day with an over-the-counter test.
Once I knew I was pregnant, it was clear what was going on. Like many women, my milk supply was drying up from the pregnancy hormones. I had new hope. Perhaps this entire weaning thing would now resolve itself. My milk would go away and my son would just lose interest. I removed all restrictions on breastfeeding and just let him feed on request, knowing that at any point he could self-wean. I tried to relax and enjoy these last few sessions we had together.
My milk dried up completely at the four-month mark of my pregnancy, yet he persisted. It became increasingly uncomfortable, but something in me shifted: this was our last time together before the new baby came. He would lay with me so peacefully, the only time he wasn’t running around the house, and he would look into my eyes. He would curl around the swell of my baby bump, and his little sister would gently kick him while he fed. I would talk to him about the baby, while he melted into the bed next to me, and I would push back his hair from his sweaty forehead.
“There’s a baby coming. She’s in my belly. Can you feel her moving?”
He would nod. He wouldn’t let go. He wasn’t getting any milk, but this ritual, this habit of ours was still important.
Two days after the baby was born, my milk came. Milk glorious milk, where there had been none now my cup overrunneth. My son was in heaven. His face got fuller in the first month, and he slept more deeply. There were moments when both children wanted the breast at the same time, and while I tried to defer to the youngest member of our family, sometimes I’d feed both of them at the same time, breastfeeding my newborn on my side in the primary position, with my toddler draped over my back and hanging on to me as he fed up-side down. Whatever works.
Three months out and things have settled down to a manageable routine. I’m beginning to feel twinges of wanting to stop again, wishing he would just outgrow this stage, that he’d let me off the hook from what I know will be stand-off. I could just go to a hotel with my newborn, I think. A week away would solve it. It wouldn’t even register in the long-term-damage-I’ve-likely-done-to-my-son. And then he comes home from the park with his father, crying. I rush out to the gate to see what’s wrong.
“I’m crying,” he says to me as I scoop him up.
“I see that, why are you crying? Are you sad?”
“Why are you sad?”
“The boy… “
And he breaks into sobs again.
“That’s okay, I’ll make you feel better.”
And I think to myself, maybe at four, maybe four is a good age to wean.
Christine Gilbert is the writer behind almostfearless.com and is currently working on her first book for Gotham/Penguin about learning languages (Arabic, Mandarin and Spanish) with her kids. Her writing and photography has appeared in the BBC, Esquire, Lonely Planet and Rough Guides.
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