Yesterday I Cried
I was kind of embarrassed about it, but then again getting a little misty is nothing new for me lately. Somewhat stoic by nature and not generally prone to bursts of emotion, I've been exceptionally teary these past eight months. Hormones have so much power that I never realized, at least until I felt their full force during pregnancy--not just emotionally but physically, in my morphing body that felt like it belonged to someone else. And I guess it did. The hormones, also responsible for milk production, continue to rage as I breastfeed. Songs, sappy commercials and moving news stories all bring on that unmistakable stinging behind my eyes.
Yesterday I cried because I've decided to actively start weaning Johnnie. Called "mother-led weaning" by some breastfeeding groups, it's generally not viewed as an ideal approach among breastfeeding advocates -- which I am, though informally and unofficially. Johnnie has thrived on my breastmilk nutritionally, and I am tearing up again just thinking about the bond we've created through our nursing relationship. Her dad even occasionally likes to watch her nurse, noting that she seems her happiest, sweetest and most relaxed curled up against me. I really don't know if her beautiful skin and pleasant demeanor can be attributed to nursing, but she is the picture of health and contentment, and I fully believe that the choice to breastfeed her was probably the best decision I've made as a parent so far.
I've been fortunate to have incredible support along the way, starting with my husband and including an amazing support staff at the hospital where we delivered, my mother-in-law (who babysits Johnnie while I work, and works hard to coordinate with me on scheduling and feeding), my own mother, and my workplace. As a working mother, I can say that I would not still be breastfeeding eight months in without that support system. Contending with the daily washing of pump parts and bottles, scheduling meetings around pumping sessions, etc. is a lot for one person to do on her own. Before I had my baby, and even sometimes since, I've admittedly been judgmental of women who choose not to breastfeed; now, while I would still encourage everyone to at least try for a couple weeks, I can see how it can quickly get overwhelming.
The first 8 weeks or so, Johnnie would nurse for almost a solid hour, take a break for maybe an hour and a half to two hours, then nurse again. Then repeat, around the clock. I was a zombie, and my memories of those first few months are definitely obscured by a thick fog of exhaustion. I do remember how Johnnie could smell me across the room and start smacking her lips in hunger, and how my body would automatically respond by letting down milk. (Hormones!) It seems like that's all we did for the first two months. (Note: not all babies nurse for that long each session or even that often.) Fortunately, in later months we fell into a pretty predictable 5x a day schedule with roughly three-hour breaks in between, with longer and longer stretches at night. I have kept a pretty accurate tally of each nursing session (pumping not included), and I am pretty interested to see how many days (weeks?) it will add up to once we're all finished. It will be significant. I will celebrate it.
I decided to start weaning, four months ahead of schedule, for a variety of reasons. First, I am going to Korea for a week at the end of the month. While all along I have been willing to take my pump with me, I realized that my absence will be hard enough on Johnnie. If she's suddenly expected to cope both without her mother and without nursing, all at once, that week could be hell for her and her dad. (And, admittedly, not having to pump every 3-4 hours on the trip would be nice, though that is still secondary to me.) Second, my work schedule is getting less and less flexible. I'm taking more day trips into Washington DC, where it's not as easy to find the time to pump let alone a quiet place. It's tough enough on an ordinary day in my own office, having to interrupt my day multiple times to pump. Third, I'm prone to plugged ducts. Though I do everything by the book and am careful to get fully emptied, wear non-restricting clothing, etc. I've had at least a dozen, maybe closer to a dozen and a half duct problems. When I wake up with one, before I even feel it with my hand or get painfully engorged, I can tell I am plugged solely by the feeling of panic and desperation (blame the hormones again) that race through my body. If you don't address a plug as soon as possible, you risk infection or abscess -- neither of which I particularly want to deal with. So when it happens, I go through a rigorous regimen of anti-inflammatories, soy lecithin supplements, hot shower, massage, heating pad and endless pumping or nursing until it releases and brings relief. I had three plugs just last week, one of which manifest itself during a morning meeting in DC, when I couldn't just shove a heating pad down my shirt. It was a full eight excruciating hours before I could dedicate any attention to it. Finally, I am used to being active -- running, tennis, high impact exercise. I need it for my sanity (hormones again). Anything more than a brisk walk (which I find painfully unsatisfying) gives me a plugged duct. So, no running till we wean.
Taking all this into consideration, I recently decided it was time to start weaning. If you look for information about weaning on my go-to breastfeeding resources, Kellymom.com and La Leche League, you'll find more commentary about the benefits of continued breastfeeding and encouragement to soldier on rather than actual tips for transitioning away from nursing. It was a giant blow to my pride to be seeking practical support for this decision, and not finding what I really needed from sources I trusted. But I eventually found what I needed and devised my plan. Since milk production is based on supply and demand, if you gradually cut back on the amount of milk you express, your supply will gradually decrease as well. Since Johnnie still gets most of her nutrition from milk and will continue to do so for the next couple months, that feeding will be replaced with formula (or breastmilk from my frozen stash). I will eliminate one feeding at a time over the course of the next few weeks, until we're down to just mornings and evenings... or just evenings... or none at all. I don't know how long the last one or two feedings will last; I guess I will let Johnnie (and my milk supply) have some input on those. But sooner rather than later, we will box it up and pack it away, in case we have another baby some day.
So yesterday was the first day of Operation Smooth Transition. Unfortunately, from a logistical standpoint the first feeding that made the most sense to cut was the lunchtime feeding -- the one where I actually go and see Johnnie and feed her myself, rather than pumping. I dropped her off at her Gramma's yesterday morning, and let my mother-in-law know of the plan and that I wouldn't be coming at lunch. That's when I started to cry (yep, the hormones again). Looking down at Johnnie tucked innocently in her carseat, I felt a wave of selfishness, because I know how much she loves and thrives on nursing. I don't want to yank the rug out from under her and lose the connection that we have, though I know that I'm her mother and we'll have other connections. My mother-in-law, God bless her, cried with me (she's sweet like that) and told me I'm a great mother. I called my mom, who reassured me I have done well at giving Johnnie a great eight month foundation. My husband was his normal amazingly supportive self (and reminded me that I can still go see Johnnie at lunch sometimes whether I feed her or not). I know it has to end sometime, and that it's my choice to end it now. And, while I think Johnnie might want to continue breastfeeding long into the future, overall it will be best for our family to start the process now. I just did not expect to be so dang emotional about it.
I really thought becoming a mother would mean I had to be a strong pillar for my child at all times, knowing exactly what to say and do to help her survive, thrive and grow up into a quality human being -- and having the capacity to say and do it. Now I realize what an unrealistic, unfair aspiration that is for me. I'm an overachiever and a perfectionist in many ways, so knowing that I absolutely will not be able to live up to my own standards as a parent is sobering. But I often have no idea what I'm doing, and I'm figuring it out as I go... and sometimes I'm a puddle of tears and hormones, pumping for my life to clear a plugged duct, getting by with the help of my wonderful support system. It's hard to be a parent, just as it's hard to be a wife, and hard to have a busy job. When you're trying to do it all, you have to cut yourself some slack. Yes, I will continue to make the best decisions I can as a mother, but as it turns out, sometimes the best decision for you and your family is not the one you planned for or anticipated.
I don't know to what extent I will really miss nursing once we're all finished, whenever that will be. It's been an important, challenging and rewarding journey that I would do all over again for her if given a fresh start. I do know that I will never forget the strong sensation of my milk letting down, which feels a lot like the sting of tears welling up behind my eyes.