Thursday, 4 October 2012

Creating a Ritual for Weaning at Four

I'm aware that the title of this post makes me sound a bit whacky, and, to be honest, I quite like that. I'm hoping you've already got a mental picture of me, hair matted, eyes rolling, dancing naked around a ceremonial fire with my tits swinging in the breeze. Or perhaps, worse still, you've got me eyeing the camera sexily as my daughter stands on a chair for a bit of 'extreme nursing'. Of course, none of it was really like that.

Let me tell you the actual story.

Like most mothers who breastfeed beyond one, or two, or three, I didn't set out with that plan, it just happened. My daughter loved nursing, and so did I, well, most of the time, and when I didn't, I loved her, and could see that she loved it, so kept going anyway. In many ways, nursing a child who no longer needs you as their main source of nutrition is easy, compared to the frantic dependency of babyhood. It becomes more flexible, more negotiable: a mutual loving experience that is almost entirely about comfort, which can only be a good thing.

And so we went on. Through her first year, her second, through my next pregnancy, and then 'tandem' nursing with her baby sister for another year and a half. Like many other aspects of motherhood, nursing two children together contained some of the most exquisitely lovely and darkly terrible moments imaginable. At times, I wished I had weaned her before she even knew of her sister's existence. Having two such dependent creatures felt stressful, fraught, tearful, claustrophobic, irritating, draining. And then they would nurse together, and silently lock eyes, finding each others hands and holding them across my body without breaking for a second their deep sisterly gaze.

In the year she was three the nursing sessions began to diminish and just one feed a day became a comforting part of the bedtime routine. Some days it would feel like a chore for me, already tired from nursing her sister to sleep, and I would be secretly glad on the nights she fell asleep with her dad and we skipped our 'boobie'. As we moved towards her fourth birthday, we were only nursing about three times a week. And then something funny happened, that I hadn't anticipated. She stopped being able to do it. She told me, 'Mummy, I can't - I can't get the milk to come out!'.

Unusually, I couldn't seem to find any information online, so I posted in a forum. 'Yes! This happens', came the response. Apparently (and this is anecdotal evidence so I can't give you a reference!), a combination of a growing jaw and less frequent nursing sessions can mean that a child loses their ability to latch on, and can no longer get you to 'let down'. I was surprised to hear this, and also slightly relieved, as I felt ready to stop, and this seemed like a bit of a 'deus ex machina', an intervention by fate that took the onus off either of us to decide it was time to wean.

My daughter, of course, was less impressed by the news, but we had already talked a lot about weaning, so she was not completely unprepared. In her sadness, she suddenly had an idea. She remembered that 'babies who can't have boobie have a bottle instead', and asked if I would get some of my milk out and give it to her in a bottle instead! I agreed to try, if only to give her the message that I cared about how sad she was feeling. We sat by the fire with an old breast pump I had lurking in the cupboard, and I gave it my best shot, but I was just as useless at expressing as I had been when she was a baby, and only got out about half a teaspoon. At this point it was my turn to cry, holding her and repeating how sorry I was that we couldn't nurse any more.

Typically, my partner read the situation at a more practical level, and got busy in the kitchen with a baby bottle, which he filled with cows milk, sugar and horlicks, telling her it was 'formula'. She was thrilled to bits with this, and still asks for it now sometimes. I, on the other hand, wasn't so easily comforted, and suddenly felt nostalgic for her lost babyhood and reluctant to move forward into the next phase of life. It was then that I remembered Ritual.

Across cultures and throughout recorded time, humans have created and participated in ritual to mark and celebrate pivotal moments in life. In today's world, many of us are no longer religious, taking part in hardly any rituals apart from the odd wedding or funeral, and I think we feel it's absence, a sort of 'ritual shaped hole' existing deep in our psyches. Ritual brings meaning to times of transition and change, it is a way of pausing to decorate the threshold between one phase of life and the next, rather than simply rushing forwards and paying no attention or respect to past, present or future. Like roses around a doorway, ritual is at once utterly pointless and fundamentally significant, a beautiful and life enhancing waste of time.

So I made one for our daughter. We set off on a wintry day to a field where we had planted a tree when she was born. I carried a little bag containing two beautiful bracelets, sent to me along with a candle and a little sachet of dried herbs by a wonderful blogger and artist in America called Susan Betke. My partner carried a bluebell and a big spade. We invited my daughter's best friend and her parents to what became known as a 'Weaning Party'. Oh, and there were chocolate eggs.



In the cold field we planted the bluebell under her tree and I noted that it had four flowers, one for each year of her nursing. I gave her a bracelet and put on a matching one myself. We stood around the tree and the children ate chocolate. After the planting, I gave them some ribbons to decorate the tree and the children spontaneously declared this a 'May Pole', twisting the ribbons in patterns as they danced around. We lit a little camp fire and my daughter thoughtfully went back to her tree alone and sprinkled it with herbs. The whole affair was understated but everyone in their own way seemed to enjoy filling their 'ritual shaped hole'. Then we went to the pub.

That was over six months ago. In the past few weeks my little nurseling has started school, and it's not insignificant that I've chosen this particular moment to finally take the time to write about our weaning. As she disappears each day into her new world, I find myself on another threshold, and am often consumed with the usual human reluctance to cross over to the next phase of life. In purely selfish moments, I want my baby back, and long to run into the school and scoop her up and take her home. But of course, she is not 'my' baby; she does not, and never has, 'belonged' to me, and my task now is to make the transition with grace and celebration; to decorate the doorway rather than keep banging my head on it. Perhaps a return visit to our tree is needed, or at very least, a trip to the pub.











27 comments:

  1. This was beautiful -- thank you. LOVE the bit about your girls holding hands across you while nursing together. I'm simultaneously looking forward to -- and dreading -- when my daughter weans (now 22 months and going strong). She's the youngest of three, and our last, so it will be the end of a total of something like 8+ years of lactating. *sigh*

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    1. Wow, 8 years! That is impressive! These little endings can all be pretty big 'mortality hits', can't they? *sigh*
      Perhaps this post might inspire you to make your own ritual when she finally does wean...it sound like it will be a momentous occasion for you all.
      Love to you and thanks for your comment x

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  2. One day, when my younger brother was four, he looked at our mom and said "I don't need to nurse anymore, I'm a big boy now." My mom had been tandem nursing for two years, so she was relieved, and she threw a party. He got a fun little toy, and was of course referred to as a Big Boy from then on :)
    Sammy Greer

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    1. Thanks Sammy, that is a sweet story. x

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  3. Beautiful - “There are only two lasting bequests we can hope to give our children. One of these is roots, the other, wings.”

    It's a lot easier on a mother to nurture roots than winds though isn't it? We often forget the 'good enough mother' role means letting go as much as it does 'holding' our little ones.

    Sx

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    1. That is such an appropriate quote Sarah, thank you.
      Yes, the letting go bit is very hard. :(
      I have to constantly remind myself that it is a positive and essential thing for them, for me to let them 'fly', and only then does it feel a tiny bit easier! x

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  4. aw this was beautiful..made me cry! I have another problem, my DD self weaned at 3 years 2 months, and now has a sister who feeds at a year. Shes just started school and is asking me to feed her again! i feel bad for her, but its not a path i really want to backtrack on!

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    1. Well...perhaps you need a ritual?!
      Good luck with it, and thanks for your comment x

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  5. I'm in tears now. My little girl also 4, also just weaned (for the same reason and she also just started school. I wish I'd had something we could have done together (that wouldn't have left her older sister out, who was forced weaned at just 15months by some 'emergency' medication). After 4 years of nursing her I thought I was ready to let go but I guess just like losing a long ill elderly relative, despite the 'blessed release' I still grieve. It's all part of my growing up too.
    Well done on giving your child a brilliant start to life!xx

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    1. Thanks mumjuice.
      I wonder if there is something all three of you could do together - there's no reason why your older daughter would have to be left out? A lovely celebration of your breastfeeding time for ALL of you!
      Keep in touch and thanks for your comment x

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  6. What a beautiful piece. Thank you for sharing.

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  7. Beautiful, thank you so much for writing this. My daughter still loves nursing at 14 months, but when the time comes, you have inspired me to have a ceremony like this!

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  8. You have inspired me as well, thanks! Sending your warm wishes Louise x

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    1. Brilliant to know. So glad I wrote it now x

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  9. Thank you for writing this, there truly are days when I feel very alone in nursing my 2 1/2 yr old twins. It is also nice to be reminded that this phase in life will end, no matter how wonderful it can be sometimes. Also, thank you for the idea of creating a ritual of your own to mark this time and its passing, it is not something that should be forgotten (at least by me, even if my boys aren't as interested down the road). A well written and endearing story if you ask me :)

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    1. Thanks Jessica. Yes, the ritual could just be for you if your children don't want to join in.
      I am in awe of your achievement nursing 2 1/2 year old twins.
      Love to you and thanks for your comment x

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  10. I found your post so comforting. Just this week I wrote a post about my recent aversion to breastfeeding my 20 month old twin boys, Spud and Sprout. It seems my mind has decided that it is time to wean but my heart wants to continue. Spud and Sprouts need for boobie milk is greater then my need to stop breastfeeding so I'm plodding along. It's nice to hear how a breastfeeding relationship develops and it's encouraging although heartbreaking to hear how it ends. What a beautiful ritual to commemorate it by.

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    1. Another amazing mummy, nursing twins!
      I do find i go through phases of aversion and then it comes good again.
      Good luck to you, and thanks for your comment x

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  11. Thanks for posting this. It's timely. My 4.5yr old is self weaning, one boob dried up totally, other pretty much, lost his latch this summer, hurts me when he tries now, and gets frustrated. I wanted to go as long as he wanted to, after two there seemed no point in trying to wean him, what was the point, he loved it and I loved the closeness, I never thought it would be as hard for me as it is when it started drawing to a close. Been feeding him for so long, I'm not sure what my role is now, and am scared about how it may change our bond. I'm in tears about it at least once a day at the moment. he has no idea, as he shouldn't. I'm a breastfeeding supporter, you'd think i'd have a clue how to reassure myself but I don't.

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    1. Thanks for your honest story anon. I hope you find a way to make peace with the transition. I know I will find it hard when my last child weans. Breastfeeding has become such a big part of my life and my identity, I don't know how or who I will be without it.
      Sending you a big hug through cyberspace x

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  12. Thanks for posting this - it's very moving. We will do something similar, I think, when the time comes, now you've given me the idea. Probably more for me than for him! What a great blog this is. Thank you.

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  13. From making me laugh out loud reading your first paragraph to getting a big lump in my throat by the end of this post, it brings home to me that my youngest, now 22 months and I will at some stage have this journey to take together. Like you, I never really had a definte plan apart from trying to breastfeed until 2 yrs. My first, Sophia, sadly self-weaned (after a difficult time using me as a teether) at 8 months and I expressed after that for as long as I could manage, but with Jess it is quite different, no firm plan, just taking it each day as it comes. I have days when I would like "me" back but then I know that the bond we form when she feeds is truly like no other. I feel truly blessed that second time around I have had the chance to experience this amazing connection with one of my children for longer than just months. Thank you for your heart felt post xx

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  14. Oh I loved this post from top to bottom. I only breastfed till 13 months but cried myself to sleep as I missed it so much.

    I dread him going to school.

    He is on 3 bottles a day still. At two and a half! Which is frowned upon by some (mostly, ironically, people whose 3 year olds are still using dummies when Aaron never ever has).

    Letting go of our babies is so tough. Makes me want another.

    Liska xx

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  15. Oh, I've just found this post and it's just what we need. My 3 going on four year old feeds just once a day in the mornings but I feel the time is coming for us to move on, but I'd love to do it in a way which recognises what a significant step this is for the child and the mother. Thank you.

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  16. Thank you so much for this. I found it as I was looking for rituals as the sacred experience of nursing my newly-turned-4-year-old is winding down. Like you, it is a bittersweet time. I am ready to have my body back, yet I have cherished that we have shared it in this way for so long. Thank you again for sharing so beautifully.

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