I lie in bed with him, cementing the details in my memory. The way the morning air is heavy and green. The sound of last night’s raindrops continuing to drip from the overfull gutters on the roof. The insistent stab of a single-note bird song in the air. His head nestles in the crook of my arm the way it has done every morning for three years. Blond hair against my nose, breathing in the slightly baby smell of him. “This is the last time,” I whisper softly. “We are all done after this. This is the last time we will have nonnies.”
This is not the first last time for me, but it is the last, last time. The first baby was born 14 years ago and gathered to my breast with all the tenderness and uncertainty and instinctiveness of a first, first. “Do you want nursies?” I whisper to that new little boy, and we begin the next steps in our bond, nursing for nearly three years, until one day, six weeks away from the birth of the next baby boy, the first little brother in our family, I decide that we truly have to be done. I am a breastfeeding counselor for other nursing mothers and I feel like I should want to tandem nurse my two boys. I fondly envision their hands joining across my body, the easy love and camaraderie between them blossoming through this shared time with their mother. But, I feel an intense irritation with nursing while pregnant, nearly a sense of revulsion and the almost irresistible urge to shove away my sweet little boy as I prepare to greet the life of another. I talk to my midwife about my feelings and she explains that with her own two daughters, the agitated feeling at nursing the older one did not go away with the birth of the second, but instead became dramatically worse.
After hearing this, I feel panicky and I decide we do, in fact, have to wean. He is a very verbal and precocious toddler and I am easily able to explain to him that it is time to be finished nursing. One night though, he lies in bed with me crying and begging to nurse. He says he really needs to. I tell him, “remember, we’re all done, but if you really, really need me, if you really, really still need to have nursies, you can.” He doesn’t nurse, but instead falls asleep, reassured that while our nursing relationship might be over, I’m still here.
The second baby boy nurses the longest of any. Beginning while still attached to me by his umbilical cord, after a short and intense birth in my living room, nursing is the comfort tool that soothes the powerful emotions and hot temper of this baby. To him, breastfeeding is “na na’s,” a word he learns to say at only six months old, reaching towards me from his father’s arms and calling, “Mama, na na! Mama, na na!” At nearly three, when snuggled in my lap for comfort after an emotional meltdown and burst of fiery, destructive temper he explains: “Mama, when I’m not with you, I feel like I’m in lava. When I’m not nursing, I feel like I’m in a dragon’s mouth!” When this boy is 3.5, I nurse him for the last time. I am pregnant again and feeling the same aversion and revulsion towards our once-treasured bond that I felt with my first. We talk and I tell him we are all done. I wonder if I will be sorry that I have weaned him if something happens to the new baby, will I be sorry that I cut him off and then don’t have a new baby to nurse? I decide that no, I will not be sorry. In fact, that I am truly desperate to be done nursing him.
This third baby, a third boy, does not ever make it to my breast. He dies early in my second trimester, less than two weeks after I nurse my second son for the last time, wondering if I’ll be sorry about weaning him. Though I am overcome with grief at the loss of my baby, I never regret the decision to wean the toddler. What follows is the only three months in more than fourteen years in which I am not pregnant or nursing anyone. A short fourth pregnancy, less than six weeks in duration this time, fills in another month, and then, I am pregnant with my daughter.
My only girl is born in one sudden moment, whole and healthy, into my hands as I kneel on a futon in my living room. The wild, sweet relief I feel at seeing she is actually alive is the most powerful emotion I’ve ever felt in my life. She is gathered to my breast in the coldness of this January morning and continues to nurse for the next three years, until I am pregnant with her little brother. “Na na’s” become “nonnies” with her and she is finally weaned in the sunny days of spring. We sit in the field by our house, kites flying on a windy day. She cries on my lap when I tell that we have to be done, “remember, this is our last time. We’re all done now.” My second son comes over to us, he of the big feelings and the lava of emotions. “What happened?” he asks. I tell him that she is feeling sad because we are all done having nonnies now and he reaches out to touch her leg. “I’ve been where she is,” he says compassionately, “I know what she feels.”
Much later, as I complain about still nursing her little brother and exclaiming that I just need to be done, she asks me: “why don’t you get a kite?” “What on earth are you talking about?” I ask her, “Why would I need a kite?” She stares at me as if I’m foolish, “so you can fly it and then be done nursing Tanner!” she exclaims.
Tanner. The last baby. The baby I wasn’t expecting, the first pregnancy of six pregnancies that took me by complete surprise. The baby that taught me that blogging about how I was done having children was not, in itself, an effective means of birth control. The baby that challenged me to re-open myself, my heart, my body, and my family after I had mentally and emotionally shut the door on being pregnant again. The baby I whispered to as I knelt in the birth pool in my living room, “We want you, baby, we really, really want you. You can come out now.” It is finally with this baby, become toddler, that I realize that it is not nursing during pregnancy that I find so incredibly agitating, it is simply that I don’t really enjoy nursing someone after they reach about two. I always blamed the subsequent pregnancies on the agitation, the anxiety, the tense unrest, the canine or feline-like urge to nip and snap at my pesky offspring and to stand up, letting my overgrown baby plop to the ground, watching after me bewildered as I walk away, waving my tail. In truth, I simply do get done nursing. This is the first baby for which I have to admit that I am done simply because I am done, not because I am expecting the birth of another.
I do not always feel like a good mother, in fact I have often felt very badly about myself as a parent, and yet on this morning when I nurse the last child for the last time, I do the math and realize that I have put a child to my breast approximately 32,200 times over the last fourteen years. Maybe there are more than 32,000 ways to say I love you, I reflect, and each child has felt that from me day in and day out, in this embodied dance of interconnection, this weaving of cells into souls into life.
I stroke the soft little arm of my youngest son, here in my bed on this August morning as we nurse for the last time. I notice how my thumb and forefinger easily meet around even the uppermost portion of it and my eyes pinch with tears. In the last month he has lost his sweet yogurt-smelling baby breath in the mornings and instead smells a bit sour and in need of a tooth brushing. He unlatches and peers at me in the darkness. “I’m done,” he says, and rolls away from me. I cup my hand on the back of his head, the way I’ve done with each of my kids when they were newborns, feeling the curve of their skull under my palm and marveling how that head rested so easily in the cradle of my pelvis. My cells, my blood, my milk, made flesh. And, I cry.
This is the first time my body will be wholly my own, sustaining no one else’s life force but my own, in fourteen years. My body at 24 years old weighed just 159 pounds the day I gave birth, full-term, to my first eight pound baby boy in 2003. My body now 38 years old, weighs 160 pounds, and is pregnant with no one but herself.