Tuesday, September 1, 2015

National Breastfeeding Awareness Month is Over.

All last month I read blogposts and articles about breastfeeding and have wanted to get in on the conversation. I have pages of handwritten thoughts on the matter. But the month has come and gone, and I've struggled to edit those thoughts.

I've been wanting to write about my boobs for quite some time. I wouldn't have guessed I would ever feel this way. Before having children, I'd have put my money on me being the kind of mom who would want to nurse privately, discreetly, out of sight, who would go to great lengths to make other people feel comfortable. But here I am, wanting to write about boobs. Breasts.

This is a conversation I have with my daughter. We have a book aimed at preparing older siblings for the arrival of a new baby. The book talks about how the younger baby sibling is going to be drinking milk from mom's breasts. And every time we get to that part, she asks me again, "Breasts?" "Breasts." "Breasts?" Like, "am I saying that right?" She laughs, "Okay, but I call them mama milks!" She'll be 3 years old in November, and she is familiar with breastfeeding because it is something she does everyday.

I've been stressing about what to write about breastfeeding, because I have felt some sort of pressure to "make a case." When I flip through those handwritten pages, I find defenses, apologies, explanations, and proof.

Last December, when I was quite pregnant with my son and my daughter had recently turned two, I found this article circulating in some of my circles about a woman who was nursing her six and a half year old daughter. Despite the article's many examples of positive results from her full-term nursing, her story garnered only a bit of support. It felt to me that the whole of the online public was appalled with her choice, calling her lots of things from "extreme" or "disgusting" to "completely insane" and "sexually abusive."

A few weeks later, an NPR piece came out called What's Right About a Six-year-old Who Breastfeeds. The story included scientific and anthropological evidence for why "extended breastfeeding" is beneficial and quite normal throughout much of the world. An anthropologist interviewed for this piece, who breastfed her own children until they were 3 and 5.5, acknowledges that the information can be hard for people to stomach in the moment, and thus encourages others like herself to “shout it from the rooftops once their children are grown.” After this article came out, I found silent solace in the fact that I could one day, decades from now, shout from the rooftops that I had nursed my child into toddlerhood (and beyond?).

But a couple decades is a long time to wait to talk about something that is such a big part of my current everyday.

I don't share my story in order to convince, or persuade. I am not interested in judging anyone's choices as a parent. I am honored, and incredibly fortunate, to have the opportunity and ability to do what we do. I'll put these thoughts on the page, relieving myself of the pressure to find the most important or compelling things to say. My story is not unique. I am joined by mothers in my local community, and by thousands of mothers in online communities who do what I do. My simple goals are to contribute to the conversation and to come out of the tandem nursing closet.

I've hardly been completely secretive about nursing both my kids simultaneously. But in those moments when I have shared it, I have felt myself apologizing for it. And I hate that tensing in my neck, and the way my voice gets high, like I'm embarrassed or ashamed. I hate hearing myself joke, "Ha-ha, I'm sorry! I guess, I've turned into one of those weirdo hippie moms!" I'd like to stop prefacing my story with "I'm sorry," because I am not sorry.

I used to joke with a dear friend about how the time to stop nursing was when your child could start asking for it in his own voice with his own words.  It seemed reasonable at the time, from where I stood, childless and very unaware of my breasts.

My daughter started to ask for "mama milk" a little past her first birthday. A few months later she started to say "other side milk." She was just learning to walk, and it felt like a bad time to stop. I think both she and I were excited that we could so clearly understand one another. Around that time, we found that we were expecting her younger sibling.

It's the case that many mothers lose their milk supply when they are pregnant, and that many babies self-wean because they lose interest due to the decrease in milk, or the changing taste. I thought it was likely that would happen to my daughter.

That was over a year and a half ago.  My son was born a couple months after she turned two. I'm sure there were changes in my milk, but they didn't affect my daughter's interest in nursing.
                                                                                                                                                                These days, there are certainly many times (i.e. in the middle of the night, when we're out in public) that feel inopportune to nurse. I ask her, more than a little exasperatedly, "Why do you need mama milk, right now?"

And I can see her gearing up to answer; thinking carefully about her words. She doesn't want to mess it up for herself. Her voice is steady and slow, but quickens a little, the way mine does when I'm nervous I won't get something I really really want.

"But mama!" her voice and face are bright. Then, "mama," low and calm. "Because I really really love mamamilk sooooooo much!"

"Why do you love it so much?"

"Because!" Brightly again and a little incredulous. "It makes me so so happy! It makes me feel very happy!"

Nursing my toddler daughter is taxing at times. When I'm full, nursing her feels like a wonderful and great relief: the world's gentlest and most effective breast pump. When I'm tired, or depleted, nursing her feels like an icky skin crawling chore. But then I ask myself how many times I have been able to identify so precisely and verbalize so clearly, that something I love brings me happiness. It doesn't feel right to me to respond to her pure and straightforward desire and request, with termination. It doesn't make sense to me to stop now either.

Nursing my seven-month-old son is sometimes like offering a warm and soft coconut to a tiny, hungry, very soft, and squishy chipmunk. It's like curling up in the softest, coziest hammock, and letting the barely-there breeze swing you to sleep. And other times I am being sucked up by a baby beast, who yanks at my hair or tries to remove my lips from my face with his very strong tiny fists as he drinks. I remember hearing about how breastfeeding is a special way to "bond" with your baby. Yes, I think that is true. But never did a word feel so inadequate to describe the experience. Nursing, feels to me, like the closest I can get to my kids while still remaining a separate person.

When I was pregnant with my son, we talked about how "Baby Junior" (his in utero nickname) would come out someday and would want to have mama milk too. My daughter would cup my opposite breast while she was nursing, then take a break to tell me, "this one is for Baby Junior." My husband and I wondered how much she was understanding about my pregnancy. The idea that she'd be joined by a new tiny person, who would one day take her toys, and share her milk, seemed to us a very abstract idea for a two-year-old to grasp.

I'll never know how much she truly understood, but on the day she met her baby brother, she demonstrated that there was some part of what we'd been saying for the past nine months that stuck with her. When she heard him cry for the first time, she jumped up next to me and patted one of my breasts. "Maybe he wants mama milk," she said. She stood by my side as we urged a 36-hour-old Baby Junior to latch. She actually took hold of my boob and pressed it toward his mouth, offering it to him while he cried. When he had latched, she sat down on one half of my lap and joined us, nursing on the other side, like it was something she'd done a million times.

I don't nurse them at the same time everyday, it's something that happens from time to time. Often times my daughter wants to join, when she sees me nursing her brother. And lately, my son wants to join when he sees me nursing his sister, especially in the afternoons on the days she's at daycare. It's a way we get to all say to one another, "Hello, it's nice to see you again. I missed you today"

Nursing them at the same time is like being in on a sibling secret. They lock eyes, and from the very moment my son was home with us, the two of them have had this opportunity to communicate intimately. When he was days old, she would reach out and touch his head, or stroke his back. As he got older, he would eventually start to reach out and touch her face, or tug on her hair. She laughs at this, which makes him laugh, which in turn makes me laugh. There is no possible way to not laugh when you have two giggling children latched onto your breasts. They hold hands. It is not something I taught them to do. They reach for each other and laugh, and their little hands are saying "I'm here."

Breastfeeding awareness. I am so aware, so so aware of my breasts these days. They are so presently a part of my life, They have a big job to do.

I've been asked, "but aren't you looking forward to having your body back?"

And this is what I think. Nobody took my body from me. I never did lose it. I love this awesome body, that birthed two babies like a champ, with breasts that fill with milk and make my children feel so so happy, that have the power to make two screaming children cuddle, coo, and sometimes fall asleep within seconds. I love my breasts that never let me forget that my kids are here, even when I'm not with them. They tell me when my kids need me, or when I need them. Right now, this body can squelch loneliness, soothe "owies", calm tantrums, ease upset stomachs, silence monsters, and ward off sickness.   This magic body is mine, all mine.

National Breastfeeding Awareness Month may be over, but I don't see why we can't keep the Breastfeeding Awareness spirit alive, all year long.