Published on March 29th, 2018 | by Christina Yovovich4
When I was pregnant, my psychiatrist asked me if I planned to nurse. I said I didn’t know. I was willing to try. But it wasn’t very important to me. And I’d only try if it was safe. Was my bipolar medication safe? She said she thought it would be safe for me to nurse, in her confident, gentle tones, leaning back in her chair. I put a hand on my large belly and said, “Well, then I guess I’ll try.”
When my son was four and three quarters years old, I announced that his weaning day was coming up in two weeks. That meant no more mommy milk. We prepared by cutting out his bedtime nurse, leaving only the morning one. There were no tears, no protests. He was promised a weaning day cake and present. But he stopped sleeping for those two weeks. He’d wake in the night and come to our bed, which was usual, but then would roll and toss, awake, for hours, which was not usual.
My son was born in March. In May, the day after Mother’s Day, he truly nursed for the first time. I sat down in the nursing chair with him in the morning. Beside us was the pump, set up and ready to be hooked to my body. Beside us was also a bottle, full of milk I’d pumped the night before. I put him to my breast, expecting the half-hearted latch followed by the wails of protest which would only be soothed by the bottle. Instead, he latched on and stayed latched. His eyes met mine, and he held my gaze as he nursed and nursed and nursed. He nursed on that side for fifteen minutes, then nursed for ten more on the other side. His eyes were this lovely swirl of green and brown and golden which I didn’t have a good name for, though I called them hazel. The pumped milk was put back in the fridge.
He stopped napping entirely when he was two and a half. I’d battled to keep his nap for a year prior, and over that year the naps came less and less frequently, until finally I gave up. Instead, around one every afternoon, I’d sit on my leather chair and put my feet up on the ottoman. My son would climb up on my lap, I’d lift my shirt, and he’d nurse, eyes locked on mine. Sometimes I would look back. Sometimes I would read my phone. Sometimes I would lean my head back and try to take a little nap of my own. He’d nurse for twenty minutes or so, then I’d read him book after book, the two of us cuddled up and still together.
His first few days of life, he starved. I put him to my breast and he’d suckle. I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t know what milk coming in felt like. I didn’t know what a satisfied baby looked like. I just kept putting him to my breast and he kept suckling. He cried a lot. His lips grew chapped. We brought him in for his check-up a few days into life and he’d lost several pounds. His doctor looked concerned, insisted we visit a lactation consultant that day. We did, and she weighed my son before he nursed, and after he nursed. That way, she said, we could see how much milk he’d gotten. He weighed the same after he’d nursed for fifteen minutes. Exactly the same. She grew tense. She rushed to get out a bottle of formula, handed the bottle and my son to my husband. My husband held the nipple to my son’s lips, and he latched on and sucked, and his eyes grew wide as planets. He sucked and sucked and the whole bottle was gone in a few minutes.
He was slow to speak, and even slower to say words beginning with M sounds. So at two, he didn’t call me Mama or Mommy. Instead, he called me Dada, and his father Deedee. And he couldn’t say milk, but he knew the sign–holding out a hand and squeezing it shut over and over, milking an invisible nipple. He wasn’t shy. When he wanted milk, he’d hold out a hand and squeeze and squeeze.
By four, he was down to two nurses a day, one first thing in the morning, and one right before sleep. All mornings began with him sitting up next to me in bed and chirping, “Time for mommy milk?” And all days with him ended with me lying beside him in his bed, him nursing until, near sleep, he’d unlatch, roll over, and drift off. I was ready to be done, by four, but he did not seem to be ready. Not until he was four and three quarters, at which point I seized on his flickers of independence and announced the upcoming weaning day.
The lactation consultant put us on a regimen. I began by allowing my newborn son to nurse at the breast. This never lasted long. Then I’d offer him what milk I’d pumped the time before by bottle. This also never lasted long. Sometimes I had 5 milliliters to offer. On a good day, 10 milliliters. Then I’d offer him a bottle of formula, which was how he actually got fed. Then I’d put him down, and pump both breasts for twenty minutes, saving their few drops of milk for the next feeding. I’d generally put him down between my feet, and I’d cuddle and rock him as best as I could with them while the machine went pump pump pump.
It was my psychiatrist who fixed my milk. I reported the new milk regimen to her when my son was a few weeks old. And so she switched my medication. She took me off the one I’d been on all through my pregnancy and put me on one which she said had once caused one of her teenage boy patients to lactate. She looked it up, and said she thought it would be safe. And she thought it would make me have milk. A few days later, I pumped 20 milliliters. Soon, I pumped so much I no longer measured in milliliters. Within a couple weeks, I pumped so much that I no longer needed to give my son formula by bottle, just my own pumped milk.
Slow to speak at two, my son qualified for speech therapy. Once he qualified, he began to speak. The first time the speech therapist visited him in our home, he told her he’d seen a chim-pan-zee at the zoo, and she turned to me and said that there was nothing he needed from her. I signed a form, and she stopped coming. Despite assurances, in the middle of the night I always wondered if my milk was safe. There were little things about him. His being slow to speak, a little slow to walk (which happened at 16 months)–could it be my milk? The conclusion I always came to was that there was no way to know, but that I knew he loved nursing and I wasn’t about to take that away from him.
I considered quitting the pumping regimen many times in those early days when I measured my milk in milliliters and then again when my milk was plentiful but he would only take it by bottle. Pumping six to eight times every twenty-four hours wasn’t sustainable. I knew I couldn’t keep it up forever. But I kept going. One more day. Then one more day. I would hold him, and think how I was the only mother he had, and it would always seem like I could do it one more day. And then, when he finally latched and nursed from my breast at two months old, he loved all of nursing so much, it seemed worth it. He never went through a nursing aversion. Never lost interest as he reached the toddler years. All of the difficulty was in those first two months, and then the difficultly eventually became that it seemed he’d never stop. Nursing was his best comfort at two, at three, at four, and I didn’t want to take it away from him until he could handle the loss without tears. He and I had worked so hard to make my milk work; I didn’t want to end the story with heartbreak.
The morning of his weaning day, my son woke beside me, sat up, and chirped, “Time for mommy milk!” I reminded him it was weaning day, and that he didn’t have mommy milk anymore. He bounced up and down with excitement, and we rushed to get dressed so that I could give him his weaning day present, a playhouse tent for his room. He also got to choose where we went out to lunch that day, and in the afternoon I put candles in a chocolate cake and my husband and I sang “Happy weaning day to you! Happy weaning day to you!” He was so proud. And that night I lay beside him in bed, and kissed him, and he smiled, rolled over, and drifted off into sleep. When he joined us in the big bed later that night, he rolled over again and went to sleep. The mysterious wakefulness in the night was over.
He stopped asking for milk in the morning by the third day of his weaning. By three months later, he spoke of nursing, when he spoke of it, as a long-ago thing. I used to give him mommy milk from my nipples. The right side tasted like mommy milk. The left side just tasted like cow milk. When he was a baby, he had milk whenever he wanted. When he was older, he had it before sleep and then before morning. I would agree, and he would smile, remembering the long-ago milk. “And I liked it,” he would say.
Family photos courtesy of the author