When Babies with Teeth Nurse and Sixteen-Year-Olds Drive
From NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 18 No. 2, March-April 2001, p. 69
Imagine my surprise to find I'm suddenly the shortest member of my family! My three breastfed babies have disappeared, and in their place I find them young adults - one out of college, one in college, and one still at home in high school. My oldest is an artist and a teacher, living many miles from home, successfully patching together an assortment of jobs to support himself while pursuing the creative urges. Number two, my only daughter, is finishing up a semester in London where she learned she can navigate the tubes, shop for and cook a three-course dinner for four, and plan a spur-of-the-moment weekend in Paris all on her own, without me to hold her hand. But it's my youngest I want to talk about - my fifteen-year-old six-foot-tall high school student. I may have to stand on tiptoes to kiss him now, but he'll always be my baby - the last warm bundle to hold my nipple so gently between his teeth as he paused from nursing to smile up at me.
Recently, David's school had a program for sophomores and their parents to prepare us for the rapidly approaching moment when our teens will be driving - age 16 in our community. The program was mandatory, making attendance required. David didn't want to go and to tell the truth, neither did I, having been through this twice before with no problems. But I believe in obeying the rules. So that's how I found myself one Wednesday morning sitting next to fidgety David in the auditorium, listening to a family educator telling us that she'd brought us together to address our fears about our children becoming drivers.
But wait. I don't belong here. I'm not afraid. Really I trust David to drive as carefully as any 16-year-old is able; I trust him not to drink and drive; I trust him to obey the law (Haven't I taught him to obey rules?). I nursed his big brother and sister before him, and my trust was rewarded with safe driving and responsible, law-abiding behavior. Now I will trust David. But first, I have to trust myself to know my child and to judge what situations are or are not safe and appropriate for him, just as I once trusted myself to know when he was ready for weaning, for potty training, for nursery school, for riding a bike. If I don't think he's ready for the responsibility of driving I won't take him for the test. When I decide he's ready, and he passes the test, I'll gladly hand over the keys, trusting him to live up to my expectations.
And that's when I started thinking about breastfeeding - right there in the high school auditorium, surrounded by blue-jeaned kids shifting restlessly in their seats, tapping their oversized sneakers, girls flipping back their hair, boys hopefully feeling for stubble on their chins. The metallic smell of teenage hormones overpowered my memory of baby powder and freshly-washed bottoms and sweet-smelling breast milk, but I knew that breastfeeding (and La Leche League) had prepared me for this moment. Back when I trusted my baby to tell me his needs, and I trusted myself to fulfill those needs (the most basic needs for nourishment, for life), I was preparing for the time when I'd have to trust him to grow up and trust myself to let him.
So when the speaker advised the parents to hide the car keys so our new drivers wouldn't be tempted to sneak away with the car and break all our rules, I patted David on the knee and we got up and left. I knew I'd be giving David his own set of car keys as soon as he passed the driving test, just as I'd done for his older brother and sister. Don't get me wrong. I'm not planning to close my eyes and set him free. I'm just trusting him to know that along with the keys come rules and responsibilities. Ask permission before you take the car. Tell me where you're going. Tell me what time you'll be home. If I say come home sooner, do. If I say don't, don't. Of course, no drinking, no driving under the influence, and no handing those keys over to any of your friends. Most important, if you're ever in trouble---even if you've broken any of the above rules - call me!
No matter how good a parent you try to be, you never know how things will turn out. You might still end up with children whose problems cause you heartache. I believe that the reason I've been so richly rewarded as I've watched all three of my children grow up is, at least in small part, because I've always trusted them.
Oh, and by the way, remember all those times I trusted three-year-old David to hold my nipple ever so gently between his teeth while we nursed? Well, he did bite me once, and I used a tip I'd learned from La Leche League. Just hug him in closer, so he has to open his mouth for air. He never bit me again.
One more thing. I hope that when that instructor has children of her own someday, she'll find her way to breastfeeding and she'll discover - as did I - that we can learn as much from our children as we can teach them.