My son is a year old as of last week, which means I have officially met the American Association of Pediatrics' recommendation to breast-feed for an entire year and I can walk away whistling into the sunset. My son could live without me now. He can eat almost anything, drink from a cup. He could ask for the cup, the milk, the food himself, almost. He will certainly point and shout syllables until you give it to him. My tits are no longer life and death. They’re shifting back to their old role: just a really good time.
When I imagined, in the thick of it, one day making it to this milestone of milestones, I didn’t imagine (had no idea, in fact) what breast-feeding a 1-year-old would really be like. I had no idea what breast-feeding at all would be like. For all our talk and debate and “breast is best” sloganeering, very little is written in the books about breast-feeding as a day-to-day experience.
What it’s like, lately: He smacks my chest and says something unintelligible with growing urgency. If I don’t act, he cries a practiced cry of total betrayal, before which I am powerless. He tries to lift up or pull down my shirt, depending. I tug it down, maybe. He screams. I relent, pull out a boob, he lunges toward me with his mouth open wide. He latches onto me and then starts flinging his body from side to side on my lap, doing the dance of the satisfied. He stands up on me with my boob still in his mouth. He claws at my cleavage, pinches my other nipple with his tiny fingernails if I don’t keep it hidden. If I do, he tries to get at it, too, yanking at my shirt and my bra. He likes to pop back and forth between them, to collapse and fling and laugh and grab at my stomach. I try to read Twitter, mostly, while he does this. I move my phone from hand to hand while he squirms around; sometimes it catches his interest and he grabs at it. Sometimes I give in to this, too, and then find I’m lying back on the couch with my tits out long after he’s crawled away with my iPhone, tapping at things as if he knows. Other times I try to engage with him, try to enjoy our moment, our time, this phase, but then consider it isn’t me he wants. It’s my tits. The other day I said without thinking that I really have to stop wearing cleavage around him, it’s too much of a temptation.
I’ll never again wonder at our cultural obsession with breasts. People get freaked out by breast-feeding because boobs, as we immediately think of them, are a sex thing, or a sexy thing, but odds are most of us quite literally sucked our mother’s tits first.
A year ago, when I was in the hospital about to give birth, they asked me the same question a hundred times: “Do you plan to breast-feed?” Yes, I said. “I hope to.” Good, they said. Exclusively? “Hopefully!” I tried to sound cheerful and determined. They wrote this down on my chart, nodding. Great. I cherished having the right answer, even though the question itself struck me as absurd. Were we really theorizing about a bodily function I couldn’t control, one that my own body had never done before? I felt how some men must feel before sex, hoping to God their bodies will perform.
When it came down to it, my boobs got it up. My baby knew what to do. Early on, though, lactating is all supply and demand. You take a break and it’s more or less signaled to your brain that your boobs don’t need milk right then. So even if you don’t have to be, you’re vigilant and worried and eating lactation cookies when your kid is sputtering on your milk, getting sprayed by the Super Soaker of your left tit (this, an “overactive letdown,” my new band name, is its own problem). Feeling like you can’t take a break, can’t go four hours without a baby on you or a breast pump, is a real mindfuck. It’s part of the claustrophobia, the feeling that you can’t stop spinning the plates; they’ll all come crashing down.
If they cry, if they don’t sleep, if they get a rash — it all comes down to you. It’s something you ate or your milk comes out too strong or not enough. There are many websites dedicated to troubleshooting these problems with you, and they are invaluable, though sometimes I wished that instead of a million things to try they just said, OH GOD I AM SO SORRY. IT SUCKS, I KNOW. I’d suggest they add in a smaller font, right below that, something like “Give it some time. It will probably pass,” but what new mother would believe them? Your baby, not-alive so recently, has yet to prove its resilience.
There were times, times when I was on deadline and my thyroid had shut down without me knowing (“I guess I’m just tired and fat and my hair’s falling out because I have a baby!”) and I couldn’t pump any milk and my kid was always hungry — times like that I wished for nothing more than the plates to fall. I fantasized about waking up one day and finding that my milk had dried up, that my stint as a mammal would be, blessedly, over.
And now, soon, and with any luck, it will be. So I want to say that while breast-feeding often felt oppressive, it made me feel powerful, too. I could change my son’s mood immediately, and change mine, too, both of us awash in hormones. I could get him back to sleep at 6 a.m. for another hour. I could calm him down when nothing else would, get him to eat when he wouldn’t eat anything else. I could feed him anywhere and for free. It didn’t make me lose weight, it destroyed my sex drive, and I don’t believe it raised his IQ or magically cured him of allergies, but I did enjoy the automatic bond I got with my son, which in less vague terms means he likes me better than anyone else and it’s not necessarily for my personality. I was undeniably maternal, whether I liked it or not. Our bodies were tethered to each other, our separation was a problem to be solved, or at least planned for; he relied on me in the most obvious sense.
And now I am going to spend the next month or so distracting him, wearing high necklines, feeding him snacks, and carrying around sippy cups, hoping he forgets this thing he might love most in the world. Tonight I gave him cow’s milk and read books and tickled him and cuddled him and he pulled at my dress a few times and tapped me on the chest but went to bed without nursing. He didn’t cry; he forgot to freak out. He was totally fine.
I, however, am feeling like the person who is — pardon the comparison — worried a new guy she’s seeing won’t be as into her when he really gets to know her. Once the walls come down, or the boobs get put away, will my son, the toddler, still like me as much? Or, probably more accurately, will I be able to do the thing all parents who aren’t breast-feeding do without having to, which is bond, tether, depend, love, show up without the physical mandate?
I will; I know I will. I already feel more able to breathe and miss him and be more and more of his mother. I want to be done breast-feeding, just like I wanted to be done being pregnant. I’m sure I’ll be nostalgic about it when it’s over, in awe of what my body did, but I can’t wait until it’s over. I want all the breast-feeding hormones, not to be discounted, out of my body. I want to see if my thyroid levels right themselves. I want to want to have sex again. I want to show up and be there for him more voluntarily and not because I feel expected to. I want my body to myself. I want to remember what that’s like.