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.

(Post 276 of 365)

Almost

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.

(Post 269 of 365)

The Joy of Age 2: 59/365

I love age 2. Exactly where we are right now at 26 months old. I love my daughter’s laugh, when her heart-shaped mouth blooms into a smile and her head tilts back and she laughs so hard I can see … Continue reading

The Truth: 27/365

Coffee. Below zero February morning. The truth.

The truth is my last few posts have been a struggle. You can hear it, right? No wind in my sails. The truth is we were sick and sleepless for two weeks with racking coughs. I don’t go to the doctor unless it’s dire, like broken bones or stitches. It’s all lemon water homeopathic cough syrup tumeric cinnamon bone broth humidifier wet sock treatment herbal tea around here. Between the sick and the snow, I’m feeling housebound and a little stir-crazy. We make our little outings… Yale Peabody Museum to see the dinos on Thursday afternoons when admission is free. The library. The grocery store, always multiple trips as I can only ever seem to buy two days worth of food. We made it to the playground those few warm days before the temperature plunged to subzero. But Lordy, being home in the winter with a little one requires creativity and imagination. Play dough and books and dress-up and hide-and-seek and dining room table forts. Little 25 month old nursling commands, “Sit on the couch, mama. I need milky!” I give in, and while she nurses, she flings her toddler feet into my face and says, “My socks are orange!” and I say, “Yes, your socks are orange.” And she says, “My socks are orange. It’s like red. But it’s not yellow.” And I think, she’s a color genius! I go on a brief hunt for my watercolor paper, which has to be somewhere in this house, because if I can’t get my writing done, then I ought to add some painting to the heap of unfinished projects. My sneakers look like a dog chewed the heels out. (We don’t have a dog.) I don’t buy anything for myself. Minimalism is good for you. Deciphering between necessity and luxury is good for you. Not buying into our culture’s compulsive over-consumption is good for you. Last week I binge-read The Chronology of Water and had a reading hangover. The writing entrances while the content guts you. And how did she write a book of short stories and a novel during her child’s first year of life? C’mon Lidia, please tell me you had a nanny. Things like that make me feel hopelessly inadequate. Like how am I not getting more done? (If you’ve read that book, you’re thinking, seriously, that’s your takeaway?) But even this paragraph, I’ve been writing it in five minute spurts for four hours, and I ask myself, is it even worth it? That’s how things happen with a toddler, in five minute spurts. Nine minutes if you’re lucky. Sometimes I think I would like another baby. I wonder if my sweet girl is missing a companion. And then I think everything is perfect just as it is. I think about my body going through pregnancy and postpartum again and my brain shouts, NO WAY! And then I remember it’s not up to me anyway. The universe waves its magic wand. Or it doesn’t. I want to write a novel. I want to write and illustrate a children’s book. I want to finish one damn essay. I think about homeschooling and veer off into Waldorf curriculums. I want to raise backyard chickens. What else having I been meaning to say? That Anne Lamott talk from a few posts back. She quantifies writing time and it makes perfect sense. She says if you’ve got three hours, that’s two hours and ten minutes of writing time. Ah, so true! Little light bulb moment. I would like to quantify writing time + toddler. After I painted that Phoebe Wahl valentine I listened to an interview with her on the podcast While She Naps, and while the conversation is mostly around running a small creative business, it drifts into feminism and motherhood and miscarriage and homemaking. It struck a chord deep in my heart, the love of homemaking and childrearing and creative project making and being there for ordinary moments. And I was surprised to hear Phoebe, this young RISD grad, declare, “To say that domesticity is synonymous with submission is to dishonor the thousands of years worth of strong and independent women who have acted as homemaker, and the men and women who continue to passionately fill this role of their own volition.”

Now, instead of getting self-conscious and editing the heck out of this post, I’m going to hit publish and go look for that watercolor paper again.

The More I Write, the More I Surprise Myself: 7/365

Yesterday I used all my sporadic spare minutes to write, longhand in the last pages of my beat up green notebook. A Lidia Yuknavitch writing prompt. She’s generous enough to put a few prompts in the videos on her YouTube channel. I haven’t written from a prompt in years and years. Lidia’s are so different – they crack you open.

There are so many things I want to write about in this space that flew through my mind yesterday: the crushing weight and the letting go of perfection (those self and/or societal and/or familial-constructed ideals, which are really just myths), longterm/extended breastfeeding – or as I call it, breastfeeding, feeling like a counter-cultural freak sometimes (a lot of times), the happiness of having a local writer friend, the gift and privilege and sacrifice of being home with my daughter, never finding my footing in the corporate world, fear of not knowing what comes next, the way my thinking becomes blocked – until it finally occurs to me that summer will come again, green and warm and happy.

I put off yesterday’s post until 8pm, and after filling those notebook pages, I had nothing left in me but two sentences.

The more I write, the more I surprise myself. There’s what we think we want to write, and then there’s what actually spills out onto the page.

Talking Myself Into It: 1/365

I’ve wanted to do this for a long time, but I’ve always found a way to talk myself out of it. That’s what I do: I talk myself out of things. Rarely do I ever talk myself into things anymore. In my twenties, I was impulsive. I moved across the country on a whim. I flew halfway around the world with barely a plan. I’m still not much for planning, but I’ve become a second-guesser. I weigh and measure, deliberate and ruminate. Hesitate. Procrastinate.

This year is different. January 11th, my daughter’s birthday, marked two years of motherhood for me. And in five months, I will turn forty. These numbers feel significant. I feel an urgency, a desire to move forward – even if I don’t know where I’m going.

The year after I gave birth, I couldn’t read or write. I had to re-learn how to drive a car. New motherhood was all-consuming and self-annihilating. It still burns through my energy and time, and at night I’m left wondering where the long, long day went. Long days, quick years of wanting to drink in every drop of my daughter competing with my increasing desire for just a little autonomy, not letting my dreams escape me in the whir of playing, potty-training, singing, tantrums, breastfeeding, the discovery and wonder, the mundane, the minutiae, and the trying so hard to get every single thing right.

I’ve emerged from these first transformative years of motherhood like someone who’s gone abroad and been immersed in a new country, a new way of seeing and speaking and being, only to return home and find things strange, the strangeness that comes from a dramatic shift in perspective. I feel foreign to myself. I’m not always sure exactly who I am or what I believe. I fumble in conversation. I have notebooks full of scattered thoughts and unfinished essays. I feel untethered from myself, adrift.

This project is an attempt to capture who I am now. One true thing about me, every day for 365 days. A daily practice to stay connected to myself and to my writing. During those sleepless months of my daughter’s infancy, my mother would encourage naps, repeating my grandmother’s wisdom, “sleep begets sleep.” I believe the same is true for most things in life, especially writing. Writing begets writing.

I’ve tried talking myself out of it again and again, but signposts keep pointing me back to this project. Mostly the words of other writers and artists. My inner self-critic nips at my heels, but I run toward the words that amplify my spirit.

I’ve had a peripheral awareness of the 365 project trend, but wasn’t really interested until I read this. These small but daily projects yielded surprising results, like career shifts and opportunities, increased self-awareness, and connection to others. I knew my project would be writing, but I couldn’t decide on my subject until I stumbled onto the beautiful and inspiring Catching Days, where the writer Cynthia Newberry Martin has reached the end of  365 True Things. This project felt like just the right amount of scary-and-challenging-but-manageable. Then there was the live taping of Dear Sugar in Cambridge that I dreamed of attending but didn’t, and the amazing performance by Amanda Palmer, who also happened to be 8-weeks postpartum and breastfeeding her son on stage. And finally, this passage from Patti Smith’s M Train gave me the perfect image for the project and the blog title.

We seek to stay present, even as the ghosts attempt to draw us away. Our father manning the loom of eternal return. Our mother wandering toward paradise, releasing the thread. In my way of thinking, anything is possible. Life is at the bottom of things and belief at the top, while the creative impulse, dwelling in the center, informs all. We imagine a house, a rectangle of hope. A room with a single bed with a pale coverlet, a few precious books, a stamp album. Walls papered in faded floral fall away and burst as a newborn meadow speckled with sun and a stream emptying into a greater stream where a small boat awaits with two glowing oars and one blue sail.

I should mention it took me over a week to write this single post, and just as I was about to hit “publish” this morning, my daughter climbed into my lap to nurse and smacked her head against my coffee cup, which poured all over my keyboard and killed half the keys, so I’m finishing this up on my mom’s computer. Daily posting already presents an adventure. A messy beginning, but in the spirit of discovery and connection, I will float my words out into the world.