Virgin Mary breastfeeding Jesus

Virgin Mary breastfeeding Jesus
Nursing Madonna (wikimedia commons)

Sunday, March 19, 2017

A Mom's Experience Ecologically Breastfeeding and Tandem Nursing by Andrea Nease

My middle child is getting close to weaning. There are some days he only nurses once now. I'm guessing he will wean sometime this summer. I've been nursing consecutively since my oldest was born almost eight years ago. At the height of it all, I was nursing two children and pregnant with our third. The weirdest part of my middle child weaning is my body will only be supporting one child directly with nourishment from my body for the first time in roughly six years.

Each time I conceived and was still nursing another child, the thought of weaning came to mind. I couldn't possibly know what the future held. Would I regret it if I didn't wean? Would it be too much? Am I really going to be able to handle it? Still, it never felt right to forcibly wean. So I stuck with it, and it all worked out for us.

When I had two nurslings, it helped so much being able to simultaneously meet both kids' emotional needs. There was no competition. It helped soothe upset toddlers. During tantrums, I often had to calm them down before I could reason with them (as much as you can reason with little ones). Nothing calmed them down more quickly than nursing. I could explain the situation, correct them, and pray with them in the silence nursing provided us. The noise reduction also helped me keep my sanity, even if nursing was a physical drain for me. 

By the time my third child was born my oldest had weaned. However, he still needed a good amount of physical touch and affection throughout the day. I noticed as he grew older he would act out negatively to get that physical touch if his needs weren't being met. I often had to find ways to nurse two kids and cuddle him at the same time. Imagine nursing a baby in cradle position, nursing a toddler on the other side with his head in my lap and his feet going toward my back on the side, and a kindergartner curving around the baby's side toward the back to cuddle. Other times, it was like Mommy's Musical Lap as I was stuck in the same spot and children rotated in and out. It was difficult and unpleasant at times, but worth it. I saw how much comfort and trust it instilled in all of them. When a need is met it goes away, and that has proved true for us. Whenever we tried to rush our kids, it always backfired. If we were patient and persevered, good fruit came. 

I can't help to think if I had weaned my oldest early to prevent tandem nursing, it only would have made my job harder. His emotional needs would not just disappear, and it would be even harder to satisfy them without the tool he really needed. Unless I had just neglected the needs until he gave up trying to come to me to meet them, it wouldn't have lightened my load at all. I can't imagine chasing and entertaining a toddler and having to prepare more food and snacks for a non-nursing child would be less challenging than being able to sit and rest nursing children.

However, I want to take a moment to address the difficult times. I was fortunate that my youngest child, our daughter, was a good sleeper. Not sure if it's anecdotal, but I noticed my girl slept through growth spurts and my boys woke up to eat more during growth spurts through the night. Therefore, for me, my most difficult time was after I had DS2. I had two children waking to feed at night, and the oldest actually woke up more than the baby. It was tough. We had really bad nights. There were times I let my husband take our oldest because I felt I couldn't go on. Sometimes I got angry and yelled at the situation. I felt horrible about it later. Even if my husband took our oldest downstairs, he would cry and cry. My maternal instinct couldn't ignore it, no matter how hard I tried. Even if I couldn't hear anymore, my heart knew. I couldn't sleep until my child felt safe. It didn't do me any good if I wasn't sleeping anyway, so I nursed him. Then we all went peacefully back to sleep. 

Now, I have often heard people say that if the mother is no longer enjoying nursing then it's better for the child to be weaned than to have an unhappy mother. In my experience, this was not true. Even in my worst, shameful moments, my child still wanted me.  When I had lost my temper and yelled, they still wanted to be with me. When I was crying and upset, they still wanted me. If my imperfect moments were so traumatizing, they wouldn't have continued to come to me or seek me out- they would have been perfectly content with Dad because he wasn't yelling or upset. But they weren't. Even when I cringed through nursing aversion with gritted teeth and a grimace, they happily nursed. I was a wreck, but forcibly weaning would have made them a wreck, too. Besides, I don't know a single mother, nursing or not, who is always happy. There are always temptations no matter your state in life. If you want to never show unhappiness around your child you'd have to adopt your child out or you're already a saint!

We are human and imperfect. We are all called to be saints and work towards perfection. I realized I couldn't throw in the towel. I had to persevere, as Scripture tells us to do. Yes, we have bad days. Bad nights. Bad moments. Maybe bad weeks or months. But we also have bad moments with our jobs, our marriage, and other things. We don't quit our jobs or separate from our husbands just because we sinned or made a mistake or are no longer a happy employee or wife. We ask for forgiveness. We ask for more grace. We try again. 

The other thing I noticed was how even if temporarily it seemed best or convenient to refuse to nurse, there was still a consequence. Especially as my toddlers grew, it became easier to say "Just a minute....wait to nurse until I'm done loading the dishwasher". This was fine many times. But other times, I would secretly hope they would forget and then I'd be off the hook. Sometimes, they did forget. The result was usually a melt down within an hour. Compare it to being hungry. Sometimes, we don't want to stop to eat because we are busy working. We put it off. It works for awhile, and then we start snapping at people eventually because we are "hungry". Or, it's time for us to go to bed but our work is not done. Our body is forced awake and we get a second wind. It's hard to fall asleep after that so we are up even later, then feel terrible the next morning. There is always a consequence. I feel if I had prematurely weaned my kids, we probably would have gotten through, but the emotional damage would have reared its head at some point. The trust and security would have been damaged on some level, even if not completely. 

It may not seem like our children can really grasp it when they are three or two or younger. But as your nursling grows, they build on a foundation. Seeing you fail in your weakness, asking for forgiveness, and reconciling sets a huge stage for them to understand better the Sacrament of Reconciliation and God's mercy, and our unconditional love for them. It's easy to love God when it's easy, but it is through our trials, like Job, we prove our love. I want to love my children with the same mentality. I want to meet their needs when it is easy, but also when it is difficult. If I mess up, it keeps me humble and models humility for my child when I come back and say "I'm sorry. Please forgive me. What can I do to make this right?" 

If a child is not emotionally mature enough to wean on their own, it's also logical to assume they won't  have the capacity to fully understand any reasoning we give them for weaning. The message may be lost or misinterpreted. When it's natural for a child to have the need to nurse but are not allowed, they may internally feel as if there is something wrong with their desires. Weaning could send the wrong message that the child is hurting the parent. When I continue nursing despite my failing moments, I send the message of my accountability and responsibility to grow in virtue. They still may be too young to comprehend that, but all of these lessons can be passed down to my children later in life. When they want to get into a certain college or get a certain job but are meeting adversities, I can tell them about my roughest struggles and how I stuck with it and God helped me through. 

I won't say I believe it's always the prudent choice in every situation, but for me I am happy with my decision to stick it out. Sometimes, when I was completely exhausted, I thought about Jesus telling the apostles "So you men could not keep watch for one hour?" I learned I can push myself much farther than I thought I ever could by the grace of God.

Written by Andrea Nease