M.B. is a breast man. There’s no two ways about it. The boy loves his Mama — that would be me — and he loves his mama’s milk. My milky secret is that I love nursing, too. And, even though M.B. is pushing 16 months, I’m not ready to stop.
Of course, there were the initial weeks of sore and scabbing nipples, and feeling incompetent when the lactation consultant came over on a house call and had me feed M.B. while she watched, weighing him before and after on the sad little portable infant scale, telling me it really shouldn’t take the baby forty minutes to get through a breast. (What can I say? M.B. is a natural for the slow-food movement.) When the pediatrician and the lactation consultant agreed we had to supplement, at least a little bit, I cried hearing my husband Neil feed the baby with a medicine dropper. As much as I knew — and know — there are a hundred ways to love and nurture a child and that breast milk is just one of them, I couldn’t have felt like more of a failure.
But M.B and I, as Randy Jackson from American Idol says, we worked it out.
M.B. began to keep his weight steady, and then to gain. My milk supply increased and my nipples became sturdier. When M.B. was about two months old, he started asking me for milk by moving his fingers up and down one after the other, in a wave-like motion. I didn’t teach him this baby sign for milk — I promise I was too exhausted from being up all night to undertake anything as industrious as baby sign language lessons. He did this on his own, perhaps from day after day of trying to press the milk out of my breasts. This was our first language-like communication. Milk was an essential element of our relationship, and of our days together.
I never learned to pump. I couldn’t manage it — even when the lactation consultant said I should pump to increase my milk supply. Sitting at the kitchen table with a second-hand pump while M.B. cried in the next room didn’t make much sense.
In those first exhausted, worn-out and exhilarating days, when he was weeks and then months old, breastfeeding time was the one time I could sit down and just be. Not exactly a spa treatment, but I could read a magazine or book, send an email (balancing my laptop on the breastfeeding pillow), watch television (M.B. became familiar with Oprah’s voice in the way other babies know Mozart’s music), or just soak up the feeling of M.B.’s skin against mine.
Later, once we moved from sublet to rented apartment to our own house and M.B. moved from our bed to a crib we set up for him in the closet to an actual nursery room of his own, I bought a rocking chair and lamp from IKEA. At long last I had my nursing corner. The breastfeeding sessions became more special, at moments, even something like a meditation. Or at least as close to one as I was going to get.
M.B. is growing up and doesn’t request milk every couple of hours like he used to do. And I’ve learned how to tell him, “Not now, but later,” when he makes the sign for milk. We’ve come to the point where I can pretty much safely wear a dress out in public with M.B. — his nursing schedule just went from four or five times a day to three times, with the occasional bonus milk for comfort.
My friends who nursed their children for six weeks, six months, a year even, ask me when I’ll stop.
“Soon,” I tell them.
But really, I have no idea. Breastfeeding has become such a part of how I parent M.B. — how I mother him — I can’t imagine what it’ll be like once he weans. What will happen when my magical power to put him to sleep, to brighten his mood, to feed and nourish him even when I forgot to pack a snack, to experience the kind of connectedness I’ve never felt before . . . is gone?
There’s something else, too. Something deeper and more true at work here. My mother didn’t nurse me. What I mean is, like many 1970s babies, I was given formula rather than breast milk. But what matters much, much more: she didn’t offer me the magical place in her arms I hope M.B. will have with me as long as he needs — the place on the green nursing pillow, in the rocking chair, in a corner of a nursery painted just for him. So for now, if it means never leaving home for more than four or five hours at a time, if it means more months of nursing bras and tender breasts and the occasional blocked duct, it also means a few more months of essentialness, of experiencing the sweetest sort of mother love.