Some Thoughts After Weaning My Toddler

Yesterday morning, for the first time, my daughter didn’t ask for milk. It was a relief. It was a tiny heartache. An hour later, she handed me her half-eaten apple, complaining of a sore throat, and said, “Maybe milk can help me.” She poked my breast, checking for contents. I offered a hug and some vitamin C spray. (I still can’t say whether it’s really over, whether she is “officially” weaned.)

Thirty-three months is a long time to breastfeed. I would’ve nursed even longer if I hadn’t felt so physically drained. It took me a while to make the connection and to begin the weaning process. There seems to be very little in the way of literature or discussion around breastfeeding and its impact on energy levels and stamina.

Promoting breast-is-best requires a positive spin that doesn’t always include the complexities and demands of breastfeeding, truths that are more often revealed in conversations among nursing mothers. Still, no one out there said to me, you’ll feel so much better once she’s weaned, except for a best friend who nursed her child into toddlerhood. I witnessed her energy spike after her son weaned; she was more animated and even spoke more quickly. I realized we’d been occupying a sort of cocoon, a space where everything slows, and she’d broken out of it.

Breastfeeding necessitates a slow pace; it casts a biological spell allowing the mother to connect with her infant. For me, breastfeeding was at odds with returning to a “normal” pace. In the beginning, it was almost immobilizing. There were also other factors slowing me down, like recovering from a long and traumatically painful birth. (An essay I want to write: the postpartum mental health gap in our system.)

While I admire women like the artist Hein Koh, seen here nursing her newborn twins while working on her laptop, I have mixed feelings about these kinds of photos because they are misleading. They perpetuate the notion that women can and should do it all, that professional ambitions can never be temporarily tabled and that taking time off means sacrificing a career, that the postpartum period of recovery and mother-infant bonding only lasts a short time and is the same for every woman, and that breastfeeding and caring for children is not valid (and exhausting) work in itself.

Don’t get me wrong, I want to double high-five Koh, a mama who is breastfeeding twins and multi-tasking, a woman who is brave enough to show the world what is possible. But let’s not confuse what is possible with what is typical. I consider Koh exceptional; she inspires the same awe I feel watching an Olympic gymnast catapult her body into the air. It’s spectacular, but it’s the furthest thing from average.

At five-weeks postpartum, I was breastfeeding my infant as naturally as Koh appears to be in her photo. I, too, gave the appearance of physical ease with this task. Less visible was the mental drain and exhaustion. All of my energy was spent on the daunting work of caring for my infant daughter; I was hardly capable of composing a coherent email, let alone returning to work. For so many other women I know, breastfeeding wasn’t easy at all; it was challenging, difficult work. Every feed required singular focus and tremendous perseverance.

Singular focus is dismissed by our culture and multi-tasking is glorified. We must always be doing at least three things simultaneously. And we wonder why we’re perpetually overcome by anxiety. What happened to doing one thing very well and moving on to the next thing? (Says the woman currently negotiating a toddler tantrum while typing these words.)

This piece on ScaryMommy addresses the disservice of perpetuating these myths around “having it all” and calls for reform of U.S. Family Medical Leave Act. I couldn’t agree more.

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Stay the Course

Thoughts spider in different directions. Distractions. Self-doubt. Imposter Syndrome. The push-pull of mother vs. writer. The search for self. For beauty. For truth. Is it worth it?

Writers write about this stuff all the time. I could link to a hundred essays, recommend podcasts, pull from the stack of books on the shelf.

One thing I know is, beneath all that noise, is a steady heartbeat thumping stay the course.

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Stories Want Telling

Oh the swirl of disconnected ideas… stories that return again and again, nudging at me to write them.

Standing in my grandmother’s kitchen, my small hands covered in powdery white flour, pressing the biscuit cutter into the soft dough. My grandmother’s sleeves rolled up neatly, the smell of Dove soap and the morning’s coffee. A feeling of pure contentment. The way she would dip a spoon in the jar of dark, thick molasses and hand it to me. Rich and slightly bitter, I sought and savored all its sweetness.

How you know it’s something that wants to be written: the catch in your throat as you type, the thump-thump as your chest tightens, the single fat tear on your cheek. Or in the car at night on the way to pick up diapers and nail polish (that red wine shade you love), the rush of the song you need to sing. The urge to keep driving until the landscape splits wide and the sky opens up.

The autumn chill, the red-orange maple, brilliant, and the few leaves that float, suspended in the crisp air, a moment almost long enough to hold, like cupping water, before they fall and skitter across the street. My 20-year-old self rises like a ghost, urgent youth. My first apartment. A fresh school year starting.

How writing stops rumination, halts the unsolvable cyclical thoughts: if you are mid-story your brain works out sentences, tunnels through the question toward the answers to fresh questions. How best to ask? How best to answer?

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NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) typically occurs to me in mid-November, when Twitter explodes with NaNo hashtags and writers posting about their progress. This year, I was reminded in advance thanks to Rachel’s latest post. But, this morning, as I’m sifting through the site and the blog posts on prep work and tips, I realize that I probably would’ve needed to participate in the bootcamp back in July in order to properly prepare. Or, at the very least, I should’ve been outlining a novel over the last two months.

Part of me just wants to go for it. Another part of me, the one sitting here writing while my toddler repeatedly interrupts my train of thought, thinks get real. And yet another part of me has to acknowledge that I have so many writing goals, both short and long-term, that don’t align with NaNo, it could result in just one more distraction, another unfinished project to add to the heap. And yet…

The goal of NaNoWriMo is to write 50,000 words in 30 days, which breaks down to 1,667 words per day. I’m thinking about using this word-count goal for the month of November, while remaining focused on essays, short stories, flash fiction, and poetry.

I signed up for NaNo this year as a way to learn more. Has anyone out there participated in years past? I would love to hear about your experiences!

Update (10/17): Oftentimes I ask a question in this space, and the universe answers back. It turns out I joined a NaNoWriMo group two months ago and completely forgot about it. Yesterday a group member posted “Getting Ready for NaNoWriMo,” which outlines strategies for diving into next month’s challenge even if you currently have no idea what you want to write. I’d love to try this strategy because it’s not at all the way I write or approach writing or think about writing. But I think it will have to wait until next year.

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The Sunny Side

Happy Friday, folks!

Have I mentioned this week has been wonderful? Jam-packed with birthdays and busyness. A well visit for my girl that went very well. We were smiling so much as we chatted with our gentle pediatrician, she said in her lovely Russian accent, “So, it looks like she is very easy to parent.” Afterward we stopped at Trader Joe’s, one of our favorite places. My daughter was in the cart and an elderly woman played peek-a-boo with her and then bent to kiss her bare foot.

Mid-week, when I was a little stressed trying to juggle things, I texted my sister. Really I was trying problem-solve, but my tone was one of complaint. I recognized it immediately, and typed back, “Wait. Let me try that again. Today is a beautiful, sunny day. I feel great and I’m so lucky I have free time to get all this stuff done! And I’m so excited to celebrate birthdays this week!”

When I’m trying to solve a problem or accomplish a task, my vision tends to become myopic. An unhelpful hyper-focus, an emotional one. This week I tried to pull back the lens whenever I felt overwhelmed. What else does this day, this week hold? Sunshine, hugs, apple cider donuts, birthdays, time with friends, my daughter’s first try at gymnastics, kind and thoughtful messages about my last essay. For every to-do list, there should be another that runs alongside it, a list of all the good stuff.

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I think my baby has finally weaned. It hurts a little to write that, but I’m mostly okay with it. She only asked four times today. We may nurse again, we may not. It’s a slow letting go.

One of the things I love best about mothering is the way it hones instinct. Our natural response, that innate sense, is so often disrupted by the noise of modern life; being in tune with my child connects me to the truest part of myself, that deep knowing.

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Amidst the Noise

I’ve been feeling stalled, resistant to staring down the blank page. There are some publications I’m aiming to pitch and a deadline looming, but I can’t seem to generate any solid ideas. So, I return here, to this little space that feels like home, with all its daily nagging and familiarity and kind voices answering back. Just write one dang blog post. Just do that one thing. Words like bridges, like ladders.

Some of the distraction, the swirl that leads to spidering thoughts, is the relentless noise of the election blasting through my social media feeds. Facebook is where I interact with my writing groups, ask questions, attend events, promote my essays, read other people’s work, and interact with friends. It’s become a regular part of my writing life and personal life. But threaded through those positive interactions are memes and soundbites and crazy commentary. It’s reaching an unbearable level, and I’m not the only one feeling it.

Last night two people texted me at the same time, one on the East Coast, one on the West Coast, with similar sentiments about feeling the weight of this election, an actual physical heaviness. There’s an instinct to retreat, but a stronger will to hold ground, as well as a desire to consume carbohydrates and take a really long nap. I haven’t wanted to write about it here because I don’t want to add to the noise. As my friend said, it’s like they’re all trying to drown each other out. So I’ll say it softly. One candidate is out there proposing policies. The other is telling people to vote on November 28th. It’s okay to laugh.

I don’t know if I’ve built the bridge to any new ideas here, but I’ve gotten these thoughts down, so at least they’re no longer pin-balling around my brain. I think a brief social media hiatus might help too. Breathe. Stay the course. Write the words. Look for levity. And as Cheryl Strayed’s mom used to tell her, put yourself in the way of beauty.

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