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The Next Step

Dawn Edwards
Aurora IL USA
From NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 18 No. 6, November-December 2001, p. 213

Cradling my 33-month-old son, Julius, in my arms, I marvel at every inch of visible skin caressing mine. His sweaty curls frame his pink face as he nuzzles my breast before falling asleep for his afternoon nap. For a few precious moments I manage to forget the unfolded laundry sitting in my bedroom and enjoy what is becoming an increasingly rare event-nursing. As he drifts off, I hold my drowsy boy for just a minute longer before placing him gently in his bed. Watching him sleep, I secretly wish that this special relationship would last just a little bit longer.

But he's growing up, and despite my clinging to his babyish ways, before me emerges a fiercely independent toddler with his own particular opinions. And that includes weaning. Like it or not, my tiny bundle of joy, so tender and new just a scant flicker of time ago, is set upon a course that I must respect and cannot alter. So why do I have such mixed feelings?

I think my misgivings stem from my need to nurture. It's so hard to let go of the baby part of Julius. He is developing into a little guy and those first steps toward growing up and away from me hurt my heart. I feel as though I now understand the feelings of the world's mothers when they see their young venture further and further away. As Julius takes fewer nursings, I struggle within between my irrational wish to keep him a helpless infant forever and the recognition that he must eventually grow up. But I am comforted in the realization that he will always be my son, my firstborn, and my special boy. As the nursings become more sporadic, I try to connect with him in other ways to maintain our bond.

I never gave much thought to weaning when I gave birth almost three years ago. Having attended a lactation seminar, I felt prepared to handle the technical aspects of nursing a newborn. I studied the various holding positions and consulted books on the proper way to burp my baby. When Julius arrived one hot July afternoon, I put him to breast upon delivery and he latched on perfectly. At that miraculous moment, a swell of love enveloped me such as I had never experienced before. Here was my beautiful son, three minutes old and still covered in vernix, nursing at my breast. I had created life with my husband, carried this life within my body, and my body was now providing him with all the nutrients he needed. I felt powerful and humbled at the same time.

After he came home from the hospital, I set out to nurse him on his schedule, day or night, whenever he seemed hungry. Those first few days were a blur of what seemed to be a nonstop nursing session. I was exhausted and exhilarated. I was feeding my son and he was thriving. I recall beaming at his obvious growth during his doctor visits. "That's not skim milk!" my husband would joke.

We survived those first few months. As we developed a pattern of nursing and I learned to understand his cries, breastfeeding evolved. My confidence grew in direct proportion to Julius' continued development, and nothing seemed more beautiful or natural than nursing. He was a smiling and cheerful baby, and on more than one occasion people commented to me that he seemed so contented because we clearly were so tightly bonded. We were so tuned in to each other that I could anticipate his needs almost before hearing him cry.

As his first birthday approached, I began fielding questions about my plans for weaning him. I was taken aback. It soon became apparent to me that I had not put any energy into weaning whatsoever. It seemed as if Julius had no immediate intention in his 12th month to suddenly stop nursing, so neither did I. My mother-in-law, a maverick who chose to breastfeed in the 1950s and '60s, offered nothing but understanding for my predicament. The questions of strangers, however, unnerved me. "Still nursing that big boy?" was one comment made by a lady sitting near me at a shopping mall. For a flash I felt strangely out of place; maybe I was doing something wrong! Confused and for the first time questioning my parenting skills, I decided to consult some experts in the field.

A call to my nurse midwife confirmed my suspicions. It was not necessary to wean just because Julius was one year old. She advised me to contact La Leche League International for further support. A subsequent call to an LLL Leader was a real eye-opener for me. Having only been aware of La Leche League in passing before becoming a mother, I soon found a wealth of helpful information. This served to reinforce my prior conviction; I would let Julius wean when he was ready, in what was referred to as a "natural weaning."

My beliefs were further bolstered by reading the book, How Weaning Happens (Available from the LLLI Online Store) by Diane Bengson, a La Leche League Leader. Within its pages I found solace and strength to keep the course and allow Julius to decide when and how he was going to stop breastfeeding. I realized that I was not alone in my conflict.

Vowing not to bend to pressure, we continued on. I noticed that Julius was becoming an active toddler and losing interest in nursing. Not pressuring him, I allowed him to nurse when he asked, but stopped offering. He still breastfed before naps, at bedtime, and on first waking, but the in-between times stopped. Other activities were proving to be more interesting to him than nursing, not to mention nursing meant stopping his boundless energy for more than a few moments. I could still cuddle for story time, but he definitely could not be persuaded to pause long enough to nurse.

I knew we were well on our way to weaning when one night, after Alex started rocking Julius, I bent in for my usual nighttime kiss. Julius reached one chubby hand out, patted my face away, and curled back into his father's chest. Heart wincing, yet respecting their special nightly bond, I closed the door and retreated to the bedroom.

And so, almost three years since that first nursing session, we go on. Julius sometimes nurses for his naps and once in a while will come to me, pulling at my shirt, murmuring "mama." We are taking it one day at a time, and I let each day unfold as it is meant to be, nursing or not. When the time comes to close the door on our last nursing, I will release him to the next step in his journey toward manhood. Nobody could be more proud.

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