Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Waxing, Weaning

As I sipped my morning coffee, my sixteen month old daughter nudged my leg and handed me the instructional manual for my breast pump. I don't know how she ever got her hands on it, but like so many innocuous household objects it's become one of her cherished "found" toys. And she wasn't content to have me say, "Thank you," before promptly handing it back. She actually wanted me to read it to her. "Okay," I said as I pulled her to my lap, "here goes-"

"Congratulations on your new Swing breastpump! Swing is small and lightweight, and easy to carry anywhere. Swing is a single electric pump ideal for..."

I paused, expecting her to demand some other form of amusement. She remained still, her eyes fixed upon the page. I continued, describing the various pump features, as well as the scientific basis behind their patented two phase expression technology. Her attention was steady.

Then we got to the diagram - motor unit, body, breast shield, tubing, valve, membrane, etc. That was when she began to lose interest, just as I was overtaken by bittersweet nostalgia. I remembered the first time I assembled the pump, when that diagram overwhelmed my sleep-deprived brain. Everything is new when your only child is seven weeks old because their growth outpaces the establishment of standards. All that change, all at once... it's terrifying. I distinctly recall sitting in the wicker chair across from the Christmas tree, stunned to see the three ounces of milk I'd just expressed, then realizing I hadn't sterilized the equipment as I should have. In other words, I had to dump it. Considering the many pints I've pumped since then it seems silly that I cried, but I felt so incredibly frustrated. Why didn't I read the entire manual first? Or had I? I couldn't remember.

And here I am now, missing that moment. Okay, not exactly. That moment was bad. If there was one constant in her little life, one touchstone to organize those wild, unscheduled days, it was her breastfeeding patterns. When she called, I responded, and my body was always ready. Suddenly, there was this other element. What about those three wasted ounces? Would my breasts be ready the next time? What if they weren't and what if she kept crying and then what??

Turns out, I was ready. She was fine. I learned how to manage the pump and it quickly became my reliable sidekick. Through it, I fully embraced my role as a milk machine. I was good at making baby food! I even researched wet nursing, wondering if I'd missed my calling by a couple hundred years. When I think back on the early months of 2012, it's mostly a nursing blur - feedings punctuated by circular walks around the house and Beatles karaoke, pumping during episodes of "Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations" as she napped in her vibrating chair, eating, drinking water, feeding some more. My life centered around lactation. I don't remember many of the details. Why should I? It was such a simple existence.

It is now a year later. She feeds once in the morning and sometimes in the afternoon, too. Approaching the end feels weird, though I'm honestly surprised weaning is even mildly mournful. I never understood when other moms talked about missing it, especially in the beginning when I was feeding her twelve times a day. "This sucks," I thought. "Ha ha. No, really. I'm glad I'm nourishing her and that I have the opportunity to make this the center of my life for six months, but why would anyone long for this? I can't leave her for more than a couple hours. I leak. I have to wear a bra and nursing pads 24/7. There's this mini person appendage stuck to my chest half the day. It's just plain bizarre." Of course it got easier, less demanding. But even now, I wonder if I experience the loss the same way other women do. I agree that the sense of intimacy is like no other human relationship and I'll always cherish that memory. But I enjoy physical autonomy and a quick morning session to her occasional hour long jamborees. It isn't the cuddliness I miss so much, I get that in other ways. And geez, it isn't the hormonal shifts, either. Pregnancy and breastfeeding are like puberty with perspective. It's disturbing enough going through all those emotions without having the rational wherewithal to know such feelings have nothing to do with the external events of your existence.

I suppose I miss nursing for the noble endeavor it was. I've never operated with such a clear purpose or felt more needed. I'm not an especially altruistic person. I enjoy being helpful in little ways, but I don't do much to better the lot of humanity. Given that, it's still crazy to me that for her first half year, my daughter's entire sustenance came from my mammary. I don't intend to have that experience again, but I'm so grateful I had it once. Motherhood seems to be making me a better person. Perhaps that utter submission to her need was part of my improvement.

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