Weaning Willow

“Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.”

— Dr. Seuss

IMG_0056Willow nursed for the last time the night before her third birthday. My mom friends shook their heads in awe. They praised and congratulated me for my accomplishment.

“Our hero,” they called me. I replayed the title over and over in my head. Me? A heroine? I didn’t feel any bit the part.

At one point, I had no intention of initiating weaning Willow from the breast. I was under the impression that I would nurse her until she told me she had had enough and was ready to move on.

I told myself I would nurse Willow through my pregnancy with Iris and beyond, and I did. Although it was slightly painful and beyond uncomfortable, I persevered.

Willow and I endured an awkward start to breastfeeding.
Willow and I struggled through an awkward start to breastfeeding.

I persevered because I am responsible for keeping Willow healthy, and breastfeeding is the foundation of her health. I persevered because I selfishly wanted to tandem nurse my toddler and newborn and hoped for Willow’s untroubled transition into sisterhood. I persevered because I was afraid we would never sleep again if I took away her naptime and nighttime nursing sessions. Above all, breastfeeding made everything easy. I didn’t know how to parent without it.

Eventually, Willow and I compromised and limited the duration of our nursing sessions during my pregnancy. I began by counting out loud but that irritated her, so I silently (and quickly) counted to 30 on each side. My toes curled, my jaw clenched through every second. It took so much composure not to flick her from my breast. Nothing was distraction enough to take my mind off the once pleasant and desired, now horrid sensation of breastfeeding.

Although deviating from my original plan to allow self-weaning, I had to put an end to it. And then this happened:

One night after I had finally gotten both girls to sleep, I crawled into bed next to my husband. He was engrossed in whatever game flashed from his gigantic TV looming over the bed. Exhausted, I rested my head in the crook of his neck and curled my heavy arm around the girth of his chest. Just as my body began to melt against the warmth of his, I felt him recoil.

“I’m sorry, I just can’t have you on me right now,” he explained.

My heart, heavy with rejection, sank. Never did I want my daughter to feel this way. I assumed if I took breastfeeding away from her, she would feel just as rejected as I did– even if I explained myself as gently as my husband did. So my toes continued to curl, my jaw continued to clench.

Willow started noticing changes in our breastfeeding relationship early on in my pregnancy. She wondered what happened to the milk. That’s when we started talking about colostrum production and at just 22 months old, Willow began requesting the liquid gold. She often talked about the arrival of her baby sister, because she knew that with baby, a copious milk supply would arrive too.

When Iris was born our family changed forever, and yet again the dynamic of my breastfeeding relationship with Willow changed. I only managed tandem nursing once; the sensation was too intense for me to handle. But instead of dodging any opportunity to nurse, I found myself requesting Willow’s assistance. Having a seasoned nursling around, alleviated any concern that I wouldn’t establish an ample milk supply for my newbie. Even more, Willow could quickly rid my breasts of any engorgement without any effort on my end.

To my dismay, as Iris and I established our own feeding relationship, the aggravation of nursing Willow returned.

Officially a mother of two, I no longer had the energy to wait for the ending of an indefinite breastfeeding affair.

Sometime over the winter, I decided I would wean Willow in August when she turned three. Three seemed like an adequate age, and it presumably bought me enough time to explain my decision to Willow. As soon as I made that commitment to myself, I started prepping her for what was to come.

I struggled with the discussion. I couldn’t bear to hurt her feelings, so I couldn’t tell her how I really felt when she came to nurse.

I thought about telling her that my body couldn’t make anymore milk for her, that Iris needed it all for proper growth and development. But that was a lie, and I couldn’t do that either. Instead, I told her I was running out of energy or something like that. She seemed OK with this vague explanation.

As the snow came and went and Willow’s birthday approached, I had mixed feelings about our pending weaning. I was looking forward to it, but I was angry with myself. Our entire breastfeeding relationship became my obsession with weaning. I had forgotten about all of the delightfully sweet moments we shared.

IMG_1532I forgot about the first time her delicate fingers reached to touch my face while nursing. A gesture that said, “I love you Mom” and more. I forgot about that devious, little glint twinkling in her eye right before she playfully tried to bite me; my pride the first time she signed milk; the impressive positions she mastered while nursing as a young toddler; the tears that magically dried while she was at the breast; the warm reassurance of her soft hand on my side; the milk that often dribbled from her lips; the flutter of her tongue as my precious baby drifted to sleep.

The last time I nursed Willow, I remembered all of these things. I smiled at her while she enjoyed her last breastfeed, and she smiled a toothy smile back.

The next morning, we celebrated my Birth Day and Willow’s birthday. To Willow’s surprise, “fairies” came and left her a weaning gift– a breastfeeding doll.

She was ecstatic. That was until I denied her request to breastfeed that night. Tears. Guttural sobs. Broken hearts.

In a total emotional frenzy, I resorted to dipping my nipple in red wine vinegar when Willow wasn’t looking. I offered it to her.

“You can try to nurse,” I said. “But I don’t think you’re going to like it anymore.”

She lunged toward me, only to retract immediately, almost gagging.

I hated myself for putting her through this.

Then, like a little weaning fairy of my own, my dear friend Anna’s words resonated at just the right moment.

Days before, I told her how proud I am that Willow is learning and expressing boundaries for her body. She nodded and said, “You know Jess, you are allowed to have boundaries too.”

Sometimes when I struggle with my decision to wean, Anna’s wise words are answer enough.

And sometimes I still look for answers. Why, despite my best efforts, did I feel so antagonized by my sweet little girl? I want to blame it on hormones. I want biology to back up my decision to wean.

unnamed-3Near the end of our breastfeeding relationship, I intently watched Willow nurse. Her features looked so harsh and chiseled. Gazing down at her– no longer my round-cheeked baby– I wondered, “Was I falling into our culture’s obsession with independence?” I like to think that I am not a product of our culture, but I couldn’t help but question if I was subconsciously adhering to these odd standards.

As time passes, I’m coming to terms with my decision to wean Willow against her will. I’m lucky to have friends who sympathize with my struggle, friends who acknowledge that weaning is hard to do no matter when or how it’s done.

I’m starting to give myself for credit for what I did do, not what I didn’t do.

Willow stopped asking to nurse only two days after we weaned. I was grateful for her relatively quick transition, but it still left me feeling empty and unimportant.

My feelings were unfounded. Even after we weaned, Willow asks me for kisses to heal the bruises on her lanky legs. She still asks me to dance with her. She still requests lullabies before bed. And when Willow squishes my cheeks between her busy hands, looks me in the eye with radiant energy and says, “Mama, I love you,” I know that she has forgiven me. Now it’s time I forgive myself.

5 Replies to “Weaning Willow”

  1. Very beautiful and poignant writing, Jess. I share your bittersweet moment in that today at this moment, my baby (youngest daughter) is leaving home to drive 1500 miles away, back to living with her boyfriend in Louisiana, and starting school. Both of them come North to spend the summer here with me and my husband, because they have so many music jobs up this way that it saves them both money and time to make our house their home base. This is the 3rd year of this pattern. I love it; last year’s leaving was easier because I knew they would be back when Spring came.

    This year is different; they are planning to move to Nashville so they won’t need a home base outside Philadelphia. This lovely pattern is broken. They fill my house with such life and warmth; they take the fullness away and leave echoes.

    There is nothing more precious than daughters and we are both blessed with two.

    This weaning is a big step, the second major separation after birth. It is also a natural life progression, the way of all mammals.

    A relationship works only when it is good between both people; I remember the surprise when breastfeeding that used to be so wonderful became annoying, and then I started feeling resentful about it. When the balance tipped so that every feed was a nuisance, it was time to stop. I wanted to do baby-led weaning, but I couldn’t because breastfeeding no longer served me enough to want to continue.

    You have done your best. Being a mother means honoring your word and taking care of yourself, within the context of nurturing and nourishing a baby into adulthood. You are modeling important things for your daughters. At the same time, there is loss of a special intimacy when separations such as this one evolve, and they do evolve because they are a natural step in life.

    Along with the loss comes the openness and splendor of a new relationship. The LOVE is always there, the foundation for everything no matter what happens as our babies travel from within us to without us. They always stay in our hearts.


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