January 25, 2014 by Leah
Before I had my son, I prepared really well for breastfeeding. I read books, I watched videos, and I talked to friends in person and watched their thriving babies latch on. So when Elias was born, our big problems were: waiting 4.5 days for my milk to come in (which, while stressful, really wasn’t a problem because he was a big baby and colostrum is the perfect food for newborns) and a clogged duct that recurred maybe once. And then there was the week-long nursing strike at four months where he would only nurse if I was standing in the shower. And the recurrent biting. But whatever. I was pretty much planning on nursing him for two years, because that seemed like long enough to get my dyed-in-the-wool tribal earth mother card without being so long as to get nasty comments from the grandparental generation. And everything went as planned until a couple of months ago.
Around the time Elias was 18 months (which was, probably not coincidentally, around the time my fertility finally returned), I found myself starting to really resent nursing. I would hold my breath and look away when I saw him look at me or come toward me, and I would cringe when his chubby little hand would reach into my shirt and wend its way into my bra. “Neh? Neh?” he would ask, looking up at me with his gorgeous eyes, and I would think, “Oh my god, go away. I can’t take this anymore.”
We night-weaned. Twice. (Super effective, that.)
I stopped sitting down because he’d view that as an invitation to nurse.
I started doing the thing I’d done when he was a newborn, where I’d wake up even when he was asleep, and then be unable to get back to sleep for fear he would wake up.
I talked to friends, asked for advice, and was doing what I thought was a decent job of putting it all together. I wasn’t offering nursing. I was having Daddy do bedtime with him 90% of the time. I was keeping busy, staying on my feet, never letting him see me without a shirt on, and making sure he wasn’t bored. I took to wearing toddler-proof sports bras 24/7 so he could not “help himself.” But, because of his penchant for waking up at 10, 12, 1, 3, and then getting up at 4 or 5, I had a sneaking suspicion he was never going to sleep through the night or start actually eating food unless we weaned – fully.
This past week, something snapped. I was nursing him before nap one morning and then he was like “surprise! I don’t really want to nap, I was just using you for your boobs” (except he can’t say much other than “mom,” “dad,” “dog,” and “bubbles,” but you get the idea) and got out of bed to play with the dog and then turned around and bit me and I was so angry that he’d played me and pissed about the bite that I slammed the door to his room and walked out on him, which scared the hell out of him and he cried, but also scared the hell out of me, and I cried for a lot longer. Through like six episodes of Curious George. Because when you’re wondering if you’re about to suffer a mental breakdown, you don’t care about suggested limits on screen time for the under-2 set.
Some wise friends gently pointed out to me that these are not normal feelings about nursing and that all of this was pretty out of character for me and there were suggestions on all sides that we needed to be done. So I decided we were done. And we had a very calm and sweet last nursing session before he went to bed on the day he turned 20 months old.
But then the next day happened and he needed a nap and I told him gently but firmly that there was no more nursing. So that day was his turn to cry for two hours. Crying so hard he kept choking himself, sobbing “no, no, no” over and over to himself as I lay next to him trying to comfort him and unable to do so. I started to doubt my decision.
I turned to my trusty nursing books and websites that had gotten me through the early stuff, and they talked about how marvelous it is to breastfeed your toddler until he’s ready to stop because it makes for a “self-assured and independent” and well-nourished child and how real tribal earth mothers nurse until their kids are between 2.5 and 7 years of age. “Keep in mind that ending breastfeeding will not help your child sleep through the night, improve your relationship with your partner, make you less tired or less bored, or make your child less dependent on you,” crowed “The Nursing Mother’s Companion.” Subtext: “You’re a selfish bitch for even thinking about this.” But then, hidden on the next page, was this glorious little sentence: “Full weaning…may also be best if you are starting to resent nursing.” It was the first clue that maybe I am not, in fact, a terrible mother. I had been feeling so completely awful over the previous couple of days that I was starting to see that place where mothers get to when then think their children would be better off without them, and I felt like I was getting dragged into a black pit of despair. While my brain was dropping me into the black pit, it was also furiously analyzing what was happening (thanks, I assume, to years of therapy) – was I pregnant again? No. Was it possible to get DMER (dysphoric milk ejection reflex) after nursing for 20 months? Probably not. It wasn’t post-partum depression. Was it the fact that after three weeks on an elimination diet, I had added back eggs? (That actually may have had something to do with it as it turned out eggs did not agree with me. I’m all for doing more research on the gut-brain connection, but it seems a little far-fetched to think that three eggs to cause me to get so suddenly and severely depressed that I thought about checking myself into a mental ward – or would have, if we had one here.)
I talked to my husband. I talked to my friends. I talked to my mom. They were all reasonably sympathetic, but I don’t know the friends well enough to let them fully into the crazy, the husband’s a guy, and my mom said it was hormones.
I finally got up the courage to see what the internet had to say today, and I found this great page on Kellymom called “Comfort measures for mom during weaning.” It was like someone reassuring was saying to me “Hey! You matter, too.” Which my mother-in-law has straight up said to me and which I never believe because it is so hard to absorb that idea once you have a kid and become a stay-at-home mom and lose your identity and spend all of your time trying to make it as though you don’t exist – spend the least amount of money (couponing!), take up the least amount of space (weight loss!), have no impact on the environment (we’re green!).
Turns out, there’s an extremely strong correlation between weaning and depression. Particularly in mothers who have had problems with depression in the past. I had been so ready for post-partum depression – I talked to my doctor and my husband, encapsulated my placenta, and knew to be gentle with myself – that I didn’t even really get a blues blip until around the time my placenta pills ran out (which was during one of the many, many stretches of Elias’s young life where he was waking up every hour at night). At which point I got a prescription for something that I never used because we started sleeping a little more. But weaning? I had no idea that the gentle weaning steps I was taking were lowering the levels of prolactin in my body (Mom was right, it was hormones) and that that was contributing to my feeling like a completely worthless human being. Then going cold turkey made things even worse. I was in severe pain and spent most of this morning feeling high because of the Benadryl I took to try to help “dry me up,” but have also been feeling like I have the flu. It’s been so long since I dealt with a Class A mental breakdown that I forgot there is often a physical component to depression. (Or falling levels of prolactin. Or Benadryl consumption. For whatever reason I feel like shit and can’t deal with anyone touching me.)
It also turns out that there is no reason to be in pain during weaning. Yes, breastfeeding is a supply-and-demand relationship, but as long as you’re offloading just enough milk to stay comfortable instead of as much as you were using to actually feed a child, there’s no reason to cause yourself pain and possibly plugged ducts, mastitis, or abscesses. So, here I sit, having learned a few things, having pumped some milk, and with cooling cabbage leaves in my bra. I am not currently in pain, which definitely helps with the emotional stability thing. My kid is fine. He may have a crazy mom, but she’ll be better in a few days. He also has a dad who loves him and takes good care of him and he got to go to a birthday party at a trampoline park and eat a cupcake today, so clearly, his life doesn’t suck. Which is really all I want for him right now. We’ll get back onto a schedule and off excessive amounts of Curious George, but right now, we’re just going to get through this weaning business like we get through the rest of life – minute by minute.