On Weaning: Mothering Without the Breast

My son went to bed tonight with a headache. I know he’s really not feeling well because he fell asleep on the floor with his head resting on the pad we use to change his sister’s diapers. He didn’t have dinner or a popsicle. (He never skips a popsicle.)

He woke up briefly a few minutes ago. I can’t say I’m sorry, because I got to hear his little voice, know that he’s OK, and coax him back to sleep...without breastfeeding.

Weaning

Did I mention we’ve weaned?

As we bid farewell to National Breastfeeding Month and begin to welcome the change in seasons, it seems like the right time to talk about weaning. After so much anticipation of this thing that I dreaded so much, it’s baffling to me that I can’t tell you when we breastfed for the last time, although I know it was about 2 months ago, give or take. I can’t give too many specific details about the whole process, actually, except that it relied less on specifics or facts I’ve learned and almost entirely on my instincts and gut feelings as we neared that feeling of completion.  As it turned out, weaning was the most entirely fluid process I’ve ever experienced–a solid 2 years of ebbs and flows–and a process that I know is ours and ours alone.

We tried minimizing the effects of weaning doing it gradually: slowly counting to 10, singing a song 3 times then stopping, only breastfeeding at night, only using one side (I don’t recommend that one.) We replaced breastfeeding with other comforts, like backscratching, “bee-tecting” (my son’s word for “protecting”, or wrapping our arms around each other), and when I was pregnant, we fell asleep with our bellies touching.

Each of those methods worked a little bit, and eventually they all added up to the feeling of being ready to stop, along with a little bit of gentle nudging from me. This happened after about 3 months of tandem nursing with Little Miss Baby Sister – moments I wouldn’t trade for anything. I’m sure that I will draw on my son’s weaning process a bit when my daughter begins to wean, but I also know that it will be a new journey based on my unique relationship with her.

So, I can’t give too many tips on how to wean a near-preschooler, because it took us a looooong time, but what I can tell you is that I’m a little bit freaked out by the next step. A little relieved, to be honest, but also a little bit intimidated by what mothering looks like now.

How do I mother without breastfeeding?

I feel like my toolbox is empty. Tonight, my son is sick for the first time since we weaned. My instinct is to nurse him. When he’s hurt, or scared, or overwhelmed, or supremely tired, my instinct is to breastfeed. That’s what we breastfeeding moms do. We breastfeed. But WE don’t breastfeed anymore.

As a new mother, everything is new. And foreign, and intimidating, and terrifying, and wonderful and ethereal and all the things that ever were all rolled into one. It’s during those times that we rely on the breast to help us do so many things, from nourishing our children’s bodies to comforting their souls. That’s why I stand so firmly behind the idea of full-term breastfeeding. After 3 1/2 years of building up my mom legs, I’m finally ready to stand firmly on them and begin to venture into the deeper waters.

I can only speak from my own experience, but I just keep thinking , “Now things are about to get real.” The wonderful gift of breastmilk has served as a cushion for me as I learned and thought and grew as a mother, and now I feel like I have to really stand on my own. It’s a brilliant design, really: over the past several years, I’ve had our breastfeeding relationship to rely on as I got to truly know this tiny new person and his needs, as I developed kindness, gentle words and patience, as I learned to understand and empathize with his little self, as I learned to be what he needs me to be rather than what I had ever been before.

Breastfeeding helped me mother my child while I learned how to be a mother.

So now, we’re done and I’ll put all those things I’ve learned into practice. When he’s overwhelmed or overstimulated, I’ll talk him down. When he’s sick, I’ll bring him his favorite things to eat and drink and I’ll hold him tightly. When he’s scared, I’ll sing. And when he’s hurt in any way, I’ll heal him to the very best of my ability every single time.

It’s a comfort to me that breastfeeding is still a part of my life, but I look at it differently now. I used to fear the end because I thought I wouldn’t be needed anymore, that I wouldn’t be quite so special when the milk was gone, but now I know that I had it all wrong. I’m putting the self-doubt and guilt aside. I’m special because I’m Mommy–HIS mommy– not because I hold the food. Next, I’m planning on several more years of breastfeeding my daughter and getting to know her sweet little self inside and out, too. And after that? I’ll be just fine.

My son taught me that.

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