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The Gift

Elrena Evans
Phoenixville PA USA
From NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 25, No. 1, January-February 2008, pp. 10-12

The magic time is upon us. The clock has struck, the hour tolls, and quietly my daughter slips from infancy into toddlerhood. Amidst a flurry of cake, balloons, and presents, she unknowingly achieves what many consider to be the biggest milestone of her life thus far. She is no longer a baby, in the dictionary sense. She is one year old today.

We arrive late for her party, hosted by my parents out of kindness for our "transitional state" and temporary, small housing. It is our first baby's first birthday, and if my enthusiasm admittedly exceeds my free time I am, still, only minutes late. My husband and I have in tow not only the birthday girl, but the prerequisite pink-and-white frosted cake, a photo collage we made of pictures of her at every month since birth, a slide show containing even more pictures, a large bag of thematically appropriate creative decorations, and a couple dozen or so brightly colored, helium-filled balloons. The driveway is already full of cars, people, boxes, and bows as we pull up, and the second I release my daughter from her car seat we are surrounded with all the enthusiastic outpourings of love that tend to overwhelm my little one, making her cling to me, fingers digging into my soft flesh with all the urgency she can muster. Today is no exception, and I dump the cake and balloons onto my favorite aunt and whisk my baby upstairs, murmuring to my husband, "Make our apologies, we have to nurse."

The party is already in full swing as I close the door to my childhood bedroom and sigh. I have reconciled myself to the fact that today is going to be stressful for my daughter. It's ironic -- the party is happening to celebrate her and commemorate her birth, and it's going to end up stressing her out. An ideal birthday celebration in her world would probably consist of an entire day spent crawling around pulling books off shelves, eating the pages, and supplementing this rare treat with unlimited nursies on tap. As I paw through her diaper bag looking for her party dress I mentally resolve to give her this version of a birthday party later this week, perhaps without quite so much chewing on my books as she would desire. But now as she glances around my old room, bewildered by all the noise below, I move to change her diaper and dress her in her party clothes. And what I assume is only the first meltdown of the day begins.

My daughter hates having her diaper changed; she hates clothes of any kind, and the crimson velvet party dress with the flounced skirt is just too much for her. I wrestle her chubby arms into the sleeves, pleading with her to please just cooperate for one more minute, and then attempt her tights and shoes. Ten minutes later the birthday girl is fully hysterical, clothed in an erstwhile beautiful dress, now covered in drippy snot and profuse tears. My stress level is also escalating as my mind races back and forth between guilt about not being downstairs at her party, and guilt for putting her through this in the first place. But love for my daughter trumps all as I mentally put the party on hold, and scoop her up to nurse her. With a deftness formed by thousands of repetitions, I snuggle her in close to my body and we connect.

And sigh. As my milk lets down I feel the familiar calm of tension draining away, the restful sense of peace sweeping over me in this haven the two of us have found. She is gulping noisily, her pudgy fingers wrapped in a death grip around my own, but as she nurses I can feel her starting to relax. She is overwhelmed by the party, confused by the noise, and frustrated by the dress, but if she can have her nursies, she knows, as do I, that everything is going to be all right. I stroke her hair as she swallows my milk, loving this moment together with her. In a rush of what I'm sure are nursing hormones, I no longer care if we are late for the party, or if she clings to my chest the entire day and ignores everybody else. We have everything we need, right here. We are content.

I've been dreading the would-be joyous day my daughter turns one, dreading the panoply of milestones all clustered together on this single day. "She's going to be one!" friends happily announce, and what inevitably follows is a cacophony of advice centered around her birthday. "She's turning one...you can let her sleep on her stomach now. She's turning one...you know you can feed her honey? She's turning one... I'll bet you can't wait to turn her car seat around. She's turning one...I guess you know it's time to wean her!"

For whatever reason, I am wired to resent the pushing to make my baby grow up any sooner than she needs to, especially the suggestion that now is the time for her to wean. We've been charting new territory for both my and my husband's relatives as a nursing family, and as part of our ambassadorial status I have spent the past year staunchly flying the flag of the American Academy of Pediatrics: "It is recommended that breastfeeding continue for at least 12 months, and thereafter for as long as mutually desired." Now, with this magical hour approaching, I curse myself for being a coward, for hiding behind the AAP instead of simply stating that we're nursing because that's what is best for our family. I feel as if I have been leaning on the AAP, but now when I need them the most my crutch has gone wobbly. I have been deserted in my hour of need.

The AAP does say "at least," I will point out, just as I will highlight the second clause of the statement and their official nod toward extended breastfeeding. I swallow a laugh even as I think this: what a dubious moniker. "Extended" breastfeeding? Extended in comparison with what? The nursing needs of a rabbit? Or perhaps a field mouse? But I know that, in the eyes of my critics, this second part of the sentence will carry considerably less weight. I relied on the AAP to get us to year one, where am I supposed to turn now? My attempts to invoke the World Heath Organization's policies have been met with resistance at best. The policy specifically states itself as a "global public health recommendation," I protest, emphasizing "global." But my remonstrations fall hard on stubborn ears that have already decided what to think, what to believe. And a part of me knows that even should I be successful in invoking the WHO to carry us on through to year two, I will only again be deserted as my daughter approaches her second birthday.

The shuddering sobs of minutes ago now a quickly fading memory, I gently wipe my daughter's nose as she continues to nurse. She is holding her little foot up over her head waiting for me to kiss her tiny toes. Although they are currently tucked away inside her party shoes, I nevertheless oblige and smother her baby foot for a minute in kisses. I know that she is actually finished nursing for now, know it in the intuitive way I have come to know all the many moods of my breasts over the past year, but she continues to suck and not let go. It's a game she plays, when she somehow senses the end of nursing means the beginning of a less desirable activity, such as a trip to the doctor's office, a ride in the car seat, a birthday party. I begin to sing her one of her favorite silly songs, and she struggles not to laugh, not to lose her hold on my breast. I pretend I'm unaware of her, singing softly as I look around my old room, letting my eyes alight on anything but her. Finally, I pop a quick glance at her, my eyes wide open, and she explodes into giggles and lets go. We laugh together, peace fully restored. And we saunter downstairs to rejoin the party.

Fortified by my milk, my daughter sails through her first birthday. She allows herself to be passed from guest to guest like a favored jewel. Having made her peace with the flounced dress, she now focuses her attention instead on the many balloons scattered around, bouncing from room to room. With transparent delight, she pulls and tugs at their colored strings, watching them jostle and dance across the ceiling. I am proud of her, relaxing, and beginning to remember how much I love parties. I chat with family and friends as she cruises around the living room, pulling up to stand on anything she can find, and I bask in the compliments paid to me in praise of my daughter. The softness of her skin, the pinkness of her cheek, the sweetness of her disposition, the roundness of her thigh -- all are taken somehow by our guests as evidence of good parenting, and my husband and I share a private smile together as the guests enthuse. Our daughter is blissfully unaware, pulling off mounds of wrapping paper to uncover toy after toy after toy, and even this orgy of excess does not unravel her. For three hours she is the belle of the ball, brought low only for a moment at the end by her inability to shake the sticky birthday cake frosting off her pudgy hand. A quick wipe-down and a cuddle is all she needs to restore her mood, and as the sunlight wanes and guests begin to look for their things, we retreat upstairs once again to nurse.

She latches on happily, and I hold her, cuddle her, love her. I tell her how proud I am of her, for being so brave in the face of all these new experiences, for dealing with the people, the balloons, the cake, the presents. As her eyelids grow heavy and dark lashes flutter against pink cheeks I realize that, in the rush to arrive on time, I forgot to bring her my present. It is still sitting at home in a cupboard. Moments later, she slips off my breast, pink tongue still sleepily mouthing the air. A pearlescent drop of my milk trickles slowly down her cheek, and I realize that I do indeed have a present for her. Holding her right here, in my arms, as she fills herself with my milk: this is my gift. This is the very best present I can give her.

As we make our way to the car with the sleepy birthday girl, my father and I briefly discuss the merits of turning her car seat around forward-facing versus letting it be. We talk for a few minutes, compare notes, and then decide to let it alone. She's safe, she's happy, and there's no need for a change. I think about breastfeeding, now past her first birthday. I realize I don't need anyone else's approval to know I am making the right choices; all the validation that I need is sleeping in my arms. "So here is my gift to you," I murmur in her ear as I buckle her into her seat. Another year of nursing, another year of milk and cuddles, another year to fortify your little body with my own. Happy birthday, my dearest one.

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