This month, my daughters will turn three and one. I have spent 31 months breastfeeding.
The first time I nursed Anabelle a nurse showed me the football hold. It brought on more post-labor contractions that hurt. I felt awkward with my boobs out and people coming and going in my hospital room. The doctors were confused about whether or not I should breastfeed while taking steroids for Bell's palsy. They had me give her a bottle and I had mixed feelings about it but she liked it. I held her in the sunshine pouring in through the window and fed her formula while all my pre-conceived notions crashed to the floor. Who was I to say what was best? Babies need to eat. Then they came back and said never mind and she never had formula again.
I didn't set out to be some sort of purist. I kept a stash of formula for "what if's." On my Bump birth month board, I learned about every breastfeeding snafu and struggle. Wise women who had done it before sacrificed hours of their time giving other members of our board advice. I read it all. It was painful at first. Anabelle's mouth was small and her latch wasn't great. My nipples were sore and cracked.
My goal of nursing for six months seemed out of reach. I just wanted to make it to the end of the week. And then to the end of the first month.
I was exhausted from the wake ups and refused to bedshare at first which made it worse. I didn't sleep well because my eye wouldn't shut all the way because of the Bell's Palsy. All night long I could see the red glow of our nightlight. When the nerves in my face began to regenerate, they crackled like lightning. I held her head to my sore face and we soothed each other.
Back then, everything about breastfeeding was difficult and confusing. Ten days after birth, I went to the chiropractor for the first time to see if he could help my face. I remember taking off my sweatshirt in the office and underneath I was wearing a nursing cami. My nursing pads were visible through the tank. I was almost very embarrassed but the whole period was so steeped in that "fish out of water" feeling. I just leaned into the feeling that the world would understand. Motherhood initiate right here. The chiropractor's boyfriend just gave me that "bless your heart" look.
I got several clogged ducts. One in particular ambushed our Thanksgiving. But using the advice from my board, the clogged ducts all resolved quickly. "Hot showers, compress, and nurse, nurse, nurse," said the board. No mastitis for me. I even tried the strangest thing in the world-- dangle feeding. Just imagine.
Anabelle kept me on a short leash. She nursed every 1-2 hours. Friends and family would see me start to nurse her and they would always say, "She's hungry again?!" I just smiled and nodded. I nursed on demand because that made sense to me. Nursing works via a supply and demand system. More demand equals more supply. When a baby's body knows it will need more milk for an upcoming growth spurt, it puts in its demands early and then your body rises to the occasion and makes the supply. And nursing comforts babies. Comfort is a very important need. Just as important as eating and sleeping. That just seems human. Once I believe in a system, I am all in. So I was. I was lucky that my delivery, my health, and my community made breastfeeding easy for me.
I did make it to six months. Breastfeeding became a crucial part of my relationship with Anabelle. It was how I got my sleep-fighter to sleep. We nursed everywhere. The car. The park. The coffee shop. Chili's. I nursed in a meeting with older men who avoided looking at me and inside I was laughing. But I was also sweating. I nursed anywhere as a way to force myself to be brave. I nursed because there is a part of me that is a rebel and I liked making some people uncomfortable so that other moms would feel slightly more empowered to nurse their babies in public, too.
We made it to a year and we kept going. Nursing a toddler was… easy… like it was designed to be. It helped with our big move back to Texas. It helped calm Anabelle's storms. It was a snack I never forgot to pack. It helped her heal from illnesses. You probably already know this but still-- it's amazing. A baby's saliva communicates the baby's needs through the breast. Sick baby? The milk adapts to fight the cold. Growing baby? The milk adapts for that too. I think it's pretty fantastic.
We gently began night weaning at 17 months when it seemed she could understand what we were telling her. Something about waiting for the sunshine. Mitch and I slowly increased the time between Anabelle’s nighttime feedings until I finally got the whole night off. I honestly can’t remember what that felt like. Success? Bittersweet. I was pregnant and had insomnia. Honestly, I missed nursing at night. I couldn’t remember how to sleep without it. Three months later, Anabelle weaned completely. I felt sad. Even though I never planned on tandem nursing once the new baby came, it was still sad to see that part of us end.
Four months later, Clementine was born in the water on a foggy night. "You're here!" was the first thing I shouted and an hour or so later, I began nursing again. Clementine’s latch was good and easy. It never caused pain. She was eager to nurse but also a good sleeper. So good, in fact, that I worried a little about my supply. I drank lots of grassy lactation tea with milk and honey. But it worked fine. She nursed. I made milk. She went longer between feedings and I got to go out with girlfriends or go out writing and leave her back at home. Dreamy really.
Sometimes being on a longer leash made me feel uneasy. What would our relationship be like if she needed me less? Was I paying as much attention to her? Common thoughts of a second-time mom but still they kept me up at night. I tried to take every chance to look her in the eyes. She loves me because I am her mom, I learned, and not because I am her food. She has her own rhythm. She would love me if I never gave her milk and only gave her cuddles. She think I am the best thing. The feeling is mutual.
When we hit six months, I started her on table foods just like I did Anabelle. It was harder to pay attention to what she was eating. I didn’t have as much time to sit and stare at her eating like the ninth wonder of the world. But- oh- does she love food. She will try almost anything. Lord, she has eaten so much sand and dirt. I don’t really care. I love when I get a chance to watch her eat. She is exuberant. Recently, around 11 months, she learned how to sign “all done.” And when she is done, she wants out of her chair immediately. She has other things to do. Girlfriend started walking at nine and a half months. She doesn't have time to sit around and wait for everyone to finish eating.
Clementine mostly only eats before she sleeps except for one late morning feed. She is pretty distractible so we don’t nurse in public as much because I would be flashing people constantly. Nursing would calm Anabelle like nothing else but Clementine is easily calmed by just being held. Another difference is that Anabelle would often hold my hand while she nursed. I adored that. I thought Minnie might do that, too, but she is not interested. She would rather run her fingers through my hair. That is her latest thing. She will nurse and play with my hair until she falls asleep. It's a little annoying but I know it is fleeting.
Here we are on the eve of their birthdays. I will celebrate me somehow in all of this joyful hubbub. I will celebrate making it this far nursing my second babe. I will celebrate the miracle it is to make food for them because it isn’t easy for so many mothers. I worked for it and it was given to me in the words of the mamas who came before me, and through the privilege I have of staying home with them. It was also given to me by my daughters, who helped me stack these months upon each other. We did this together.
I am proud of myself. I have been braver and more resourceful, I have had more faith than ever before in my life. You should see me stand tip-toe over a carseat with one breast out to nurse an upset baby on a roadtrip. Super. Freaking. Woman. My body is beautiful and wonderful and strong. I never knew it like I do now.
I'm thankful I get to do this. The woman at the blood drive last month reminded me that I wouldn't have had these babies if it weren't for modern medicine. I have a negative blood type. My girls both have positive blood types. Without a special shot I got both times, Rhogam, my body would have attacked the fetuses as if they were invaders. And I wouldn't have known these girls. This has been the most supreme gift.
Motherhood has transformed me into a woman I respect. I respect myself and my resiliency, my strength. I respect the time I have given up, the person I gave up to become this other person. I am happy with what I have worked for and what I have been given.
Thankful to be the supply. And to have the demand.