Saturday, September 9, 2006

Last Night

Last Night
Andria Brown

“Mama’s milk is almost gone, honey. Like when we run out of orange juice.”

I’m trying to explain the end of our nursing days in a way my two-and-three-quarters-year-old can understand, but I suspect that her agreeable nodding is just her way of saying, “Okay, mama, stop talking so I can have my bedtime snack in peace.” She seems to know something’s up, though. She’s pretty perceptive when it comes to our moods, lately learning to verbalize emotions like mad, sad and happy. I wonder if she can comprehend more complicated feelings, like relieved-but-guilty.

“Remember when we talked about Mama’s trip to see Aunt Kelly? When I come back, my milk will be all gone, and we won’t have nursies anymore. But we’ll still have lots of special time together.”

It’s dark, so I don’t think she can see the tears in my eyes, but it’s hard to keep my voice from cracking. I’ve been thinking about weaning for months, but now that it’s actually about to happen, my heart hurts in a way I didn’t expect. I try to sing her special good-night song, the modified Celtic lullaby I personalized during those restless nights walking in counter-clockwise circles around the dining room table. The nights before I mastered the side-lying nursing position that saved us both from wee-hour wanderings.

“Oh me, me and my Meredith, sky watch over us both …”

It wasn’t always so peaceful. I remember the night, just before my milk came fully in, when she was nursing so vigorously that my spine froze up and I had to resist the powerful urge to swat her away. Even with a supportive network of family and friends, even with a truckload of knowledge about the benefits, even with the power and satisfaction that came from nurturing my baby, I still heard a voice in my head saying (if not screaming), “Why are you doing this?!” But within hours, my supply and her demand came to a mutual agreement, and within a few weeks, the pain and awkwardness subsided. We found our groove.

“Oh me, me and my Meredith, moon watch over us both …”

The first year passed in an unpredictable mix of slow motion and fast forward. Because we were too tired to get around to reading the pump instructions until well into Meredith’s fourth month, she never bothered to accept a bottle, so it was my body or nobody. We were invisibly locked together, driven by both of our physical needs never to part more than a few hours. At the time, I rarely stopped to consider the true depth of our breastfeeding bond. I was usually too busy trying to figure out the most comfortable nursing spot at the zoo or how I was going to find a Snickers before my post-feed blood sugar drop knocked me on my butt. Nursing was part of our routine, as mindlessly ingrained as diaper changing and far more consistent than napping. It wasn’t generally the soft-focus, linen-draped, dewy-eyed scenario seen on book covers and magazine ads, but what ever is? It was natural and challenging and affirming and frustrating and even occasionally mesmerizing.

“Oh me, me and my Meredith, trees watch over us both …”

Something changed when my nursling began walking and talking, and not just the faces of people in the mall. The relationship became more two-sided, involved more diplomacy and negotiation. The word “wait” entered my vocabulary. Aside from broccoli and string cheese, solid food held little interest for her, and her rapidly developing body demanded even more nutrition from mine. I was always tired, always hungry, and always on the lookout for signs of self-weaning. But as she became more involved in the world around her, nursing was an increasingly important part of our lives. It was the way we reconnected after the anxiety of separation. It was her protection against the exciting new array of germs she encountered on her floor-level explorations. It was her pain relief during the seemingly constant efforts to forge new teeth. Even at my most exhausted, I wasn’t ready to take away this amazing natural tool.

And then I was. Two months before Meredith’s second birthday, I couldn’t cope with waking up whenever she reached a light sleeping cycle. We were nursing four or five times a night, but it wasn’t doing either of us any good. Not enough good, anyway. For three weeks, Jeff attended to her wakings, and ever so slowly, she caught on to the idea that she could get back to sleep without me. From that point, it was easier to talk about when we could and couldn’t nurse, and eventually we were down to naptime, bedtime, and a sunrise snack. When Meredith started pre-school at two and a half and got used to napping on her own at school, daytime feedings disappeared entirely. We held onto the ones that worked, though. Our bedtimes were relatively easy and our wake-ups were pleasant, all because nursing got her to sleep at night and kept her there in the morning. I knew that weaning not only meant an end to this strong bonding period, but would also thrust us into living our lives in the rooster hours. And as a woman with a serious crush on the host of The Late Late Show, I knew that would be no fun. So we waited.

“Oh me, me and my Meredith, earth watch over us both …”

I never set a weaning date in my head, but when I bought the plane ticket to San Diego to attend my sister’s baby shower, I knew I was looking at the official cut-off. Jeff had made it clear, quite reasonably, that he didn’t intend to go through the struggle of comforting our daughter through milk withdrawals more than once, so my first days of freedom were also a bittersweet send-off. I booked a 6am flight so that I could slip out before Meredith woke up. Less than twenty-four hours before, as she was unknowingly dozing through her last morning nursing, all I could do was stare at her ear and think about how much I would miss it. Not that her ear was going anywhere, of course, but my unrestricted access to that tiny little curl of peach-fuzz was coming to an end. She was not a snuggly child. She wanted me around, sure, but not too close. If I reached for her - smoothed her hair, rubbed her back, outlined her cheek - her usual first reaction was to bristle and scoot away. I knew that the end of nursing would mean an end to that easy, relaxed physical closeness.

“Oh me, me and my Meredith, sea watch over us both, sea wash over us both …”

As we lie in her room, the blackout shades blocking all but the edges of twilight, I have a startlingly cinematic flashback to our first days together. I can see her swaddled newborn body snuggled next to me, feel her wrinkly rose petal head tucked perfectly into the IV-bruised curve of my arm. I’m not sure if I’m smelling the neighbor’s barbecue or the burned-dry aroma of hospital sheets. Tears seep out of me as steadily as a Pitocin drip. I realize that I’m not ready to wean, and I never will be. How does a mother ever stop wanting to comfort, protect and nourish her child? The methods may change, but the goals stay the same. As she drifts to sleep with her hand on my heart, I kiss her cheek, tell her I love her, and promise I will always be near.

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