Breast-feeding mothers looking to troubleshoot the weaning process will find no shortage of advice on parenting websites, which warn of everything from babies’ decreased appetites and sleep changes to the plague known as “fish-fussiness.” Those same resources will plunge into the “enormous sadness” that some weaning mothers feel, but few delve into what troubled me most when I was weaning my second child: What if the predominant emotion is impatience and relief? Because I really wanted to stop nursing my daughter, much more and much earlier than I’d wanted to wean my son, and I felt awful about it. Why did I mourn the loss of a sacred experience the first time around, only to feel over it and done four years later?
Partly, it was the shift in perspective that comes with more parenting years logged. When I had my first child, nursing was a challenge. My son was born very small, and remained tiny long after most babies start packing on chub. (After six years of hypotheses, his small stature was finally diagnosed as the genetic condition Russell-Silver syndrome.) I had to nurse him every two hours before weighing him on a baby scale to check his ingestion, so every ounce of “liquid gold” he gained felt hard-won, like a victory for both of us. There was one thing I could do to answer my own anxiety as well as the super-helpful comments—such as “You should feed that baby”—from the world’s many amateur pediatricians: I could become an extraordinary breast-feeder. I could feed that baby.
I was completely single-minded about breast-feeding my son; after all, my parenting guide of choice was Dr. Sears. When our first pediatrician suggested I might try formula to help my son gain weight, I looked at him like he’d recommended Red Bull. As difficult as it was to get started—I needed nipple guards, visits to a lactation consultant, droppers, special scales—I never thought to stop. This was something I could do for him, something I was good at, something we both needed and loved, something that made me a nurturing and loving mother. Moreover, the time we had together nursing was everything the cult of breast-feeding promised. It calmed us both. I looked into his eyes and sang. I watched all seven seasons of Gilmore Girls.
By breast-feeding my son, Sears told me, I could make my child into someone who was “more independent and self-confident,” who “gravitates to people rather than things,” who “experiences less anger” and “radiates trust.” But by the time my daughter was born, I’d become a lot less rigid in my ideas about breast-feeding, and a lot more annoyed with Dr. Sears (and not only because he thought my husband and I should share our bed with our children). I actually knew bright, healthy, confident kids who’d used formula and great mothers who hadn’t breast-fed for a variety of thoughtful reasons. There was no practice or habit that could ensure something as ineffable as being a “good” mother. It’s normal to want such reassurances—to say that if I have a drug-free birth, nurse my baby for X number of months, and never allow him screen time, then I AM GOOD MOTHER—but the guarantee-defying reality of parenthood laughs at them.
My mindset was also different on the second run. Breast-feeding didn’t feel like the one thing I could control or do for my baby anymore—I had an entire repertoire of impressive mothering tasks I could show off. (Watch me leave the house fully prepared in less than 20 minutes!) My daughter was born with no size issues, and she was an amazing eater. (She was probably just a normal eater, but compared to my son, we saw an eating prodigy.) She wasn’t as vulnerable and in need of the reassurance of breast-feeding, probably because I wasn’t projecting my own vulnerability and need for reassurance all over her. I’d loved nursing her, though after we introduced purées at 6 months, she was less interested in it. She was bolder than my son, less fond of cuddling. My son’s eyes looked for mine during nursing sessions; my daughter’s wandered, seeking out the world. She grew bored; she grew teeth.
I could relate, because I wanted autonomy; I wanted my body back. In my most exhausted and harried moments, I felt like my life had become my children’s possession, and I wanted at least to claim my body as my own. The pulling—at my hair, my neck, my breasts—started to feel less like need than harassment. I wanted to be able to wear blouses without peek-a-boo flaps and bras designed without easy access to milk supply in mind. I wanted to drink without dreading the pump-and-dump session to follow—to know that my poor choices would affect only me. I wanted to travel without my wheezing breast pump and its many accessories, to not have to time activities around nursing and pumping. Our family was complete, and I was ready for my body to stop being a baby service provider. During the last stages of nursing my son, who weaned at 15 months, older women would occasionally grab me by the elbow, look into my eyes, and tell me to “treasure it.” They made me misty. When I got these same kinds of comments with my daughter, I felt nothing but annoyance. With her, I was counting down the days until the magical one-year mark. I felt relief that I’d soon be done. Then I felt guilt for feeling so much relief.
I had learned to be skeptical of Sears, but I couldn’t get certain lines out of my head. “A child who is weaned before his time may show anger, aggression, habitual tantrum-like behavior, anxious attachment to caregivers, and an inability to form deep and intimate relationships,” he writes on the Ask Dr. Sears page on weaning. I had breast-fed my son several months longer than my daughter—did this mean I loved her less? Was I a sexist monster? Was I consigning my daughter to a life of anger and aggression, a life bereft of deep and intimate relationships, by only nursing her for almost a year?
Ultimately, my brilliant, deeply unanxious daughter helped me through all this useless weaning paranoia by leading the transition herself. By 11 months, she was refusing the breast entirely. She was weaned. It’s a chicken-and-egg question: Was she born bold and independent, or did birth order, environmental factors, and her mom’s anxieties foist boldness and independence on her? Either way, I’m tremendously grateful. My girl and I were ready for something new.