Breastfeeding Stories: Willow’s Weaning

Submitted by Cristy Russell

In the months leading up to Willow’s weaning I decided to keep a few diary entries so I wouldn’t forget how it felt and the priceless conversations between us.  They have been sitting on scrap paper stuffed into my bookshelf for nearly two years.  Starting my blog has inspired me to pull them out and turn them into something special.  I am reluctant to share this, as ‘full term’ breastfeeding is sadly often frowned upon, misunderstood and seen as something repulsive.  I am a very proud breastfeeder but when Willow weaned I actually only told those in my inner circle. The occasion was definitely worthy of a Facebook status update as it was one of my greatest accomplishments, but I could feel the judgement lifting off the keys of my computer before my fingers had even touched its surface.

We grow and change and 2 years later I am ready to not care.

4 years 2 months old:

Willow came running into the room and announced with confidence, ‘Tonight Mum, I won’t have a breastfeed to sleep, I want a book instead’.
My heart skipped a beat and a part of me became defensive of our special relationship and I wanted to say in an accusing tone, ‘But why?’ Instead, I left little time between my response and replied, ‘Ok sweetheart whatever you want’. I walked out of the room and it hit me, it hit me really hard! The realisation that Willow would actually one day soon decide to wean.

Up until this point it had always been a long way off as she was a baby that fed every 2 hours around the clock and did so for the first 20 months of her life. When she was 18 months old I became pregnant and my husband and I decided we would introduce Willow to her own bed for the first time and her Daddy would resettle her.  This ended up being a very long process (in fact it was done very gently and took my entire pregnancy) and was the beginning of her cutting down her breastfeeds. I never worried for a second that she would wean during my pregnancy, she was an avid feeder and breastfeeding was her number one comfort. During this time breastfeeding was extremely painful, it made me feel extra nauseous, her attachment regressed and Willow often told me I didn’t have much milk. I was determined to keep feeding even though it was very taxing on my body. I felt it wasn’t Willow’s fault that I was pregnant and I had a strong feeling that it was her birth right to be breastfeed until she chose otherwise. The thought of it ending on my terms bought me to tears. So I dug very deep and found a way to push through.

By the time Lottie arrived, Willow was 26 months and she was feeding when she woke in the morning, before and after her day sleep, when she went to bed and when she was upset for whatever reason. We had done lots and lots of talking to Willow in preparation for the arrival of Lottie and this heavily involved the notion of sharing her milk. She was a dream! She was oh so patient in the early days when Lottie and I were learning our new dance, she was gentle with Lottie when they tandem fed in the mornings and would finish when I asked her to hop off.

As the months rolled on, Willow cut out her day sleep and stopped her day time breastfeeds. By her 4th birthday she was still a very eager feeder and her love for my milk and the comfort that the action of breastfeeding offered had not altered from her newborn self.

I went about my day and held my breath that little bit longer when I told her to go to the toilet and climb into bed. She had a pile of books ready next to her bed in preparation. We snuggled in together under her doona, with the pillows fluffed up behind us and she said, ‘Mummy, you have to read me 2 books then turn off the light and I will go to sleep.’
As I started to read the first book I could feel Willow wiggle her body so it melted into my curves like hot wax finding the edge of a hard surface. She giggled and interacted with the story and asked questions as we went along. When we neared the end of the second book she started to get restless and fidgeted awkwardly with the edge of the doona. I finished the book and put it down next her bed, preparing myself to tuck her in. Her wide blue eyes peered up into mine and I knew it before she spoke.
‘Mummy, I think tonight I will have the books and a breastfeed!’
I calmly responded with, ‘Ok Willow’ and climbed back into her bed.  I turned off the lamp and her head found the inside of my arm and her hand cupped my breast, she quickly began to drink and I laid there listening to the little noises of pleasure that she often made when first attaching. After a short time I could no longer hear any suckling sounds or feel the gentle tugging. She was asleep.

Her plan of just reading a book before going to sleep was short lived.  In fact it was off the agenda the next night. But I knew that it was the beginning of her developing brain processing the possibility of saying good bye to the comfort that only my breasts could provide.  I also knew it was also her way of preparing me for the change in our relationship. Over the next few months it wasn’t just Willow that was working her way up to ‘letting go’, it also gave me the time to learn and explore new ways to connect with her and grieve the loss that was inevitable, natural and healthy.

4 years 7 months old:

Five months later I had noticed that on the odd night Willow had forgotten to have her night feed. Dave had taken over getting Willow to sleep. Her nightly routine was a breastfeed on the couch at 7ish then a couple of books in bed with her Dad and he would lay next to her until she fell to sleep. I decided it was a good opportunity to have a discussion with Willow about where we were heading. I started by asking Willow which breastfeed she enjoyed the most, morning or night. She felt the morning feed was the best because she got to snuggle in bed with me and breastfeed with Lottie. We talked about how she had skipped a few night feeds and hadn’t even noticed. She gave me a surprised look that said, ‘Oh yeah, how did that happen?’ I said, ‘Maybe this is a sign that you are ready to let your night feeds go?’ There was no response but also no sign of devastation. I decided the conversation was going well so I asked, ‘When do you think you will be ready to finish breastfeeding altogether?’ She put her finger to her chin, pondered for a minute and said, ‘When I turn 5!!’ She came into my space put her arms around my neck and gave me an extra tight cuddle and then trotted off to play with the cat.

That afternoon when Dave came home from work she made the very important announcement of her plans. I studied her face as it beamed with pride as she told her story to her father. At that moment I could see a change in her. It wasn’t just the physical changes of a growing body but an independence reaching out with both hands ready to conquer the world. I didn’t feel any sadness, I actually felt a sense of complete pride. Proud of who Willow was becoming and proud of myself for providing my daughter the opportunity to wean when she was ready and for giving so very much of myself to her. I was ready. If she had weaned before this time I would have accepted it, been happy for Willow and moved on but it would have taken some time to process my feelings. But at this time I was ready for the new relationship ahead with my first born.

In preparation she decided that she would have a breastfeed every second day. This was a seamless transition. However, on the day of her 5th birthday Willow decided with teary eyes that she wasn’t ready to stop. She was all jittery in her seat and wasn’t sure what words to use. I could tell by the way she was biting her lip that she didn’t want to go back on her decision but at the same time the loss was far too great to say a final good bye. This was painful for her.  We were so close but I couldn’t end this without her permission. I immediately lightened the mood by tickling her stomach. She nervously giggled. I smiled and said, ‘That’s OK, when do you think is the right time then?’ Her eyes softened with relief and then after some thought she proclaimed, ‘When I am six!’
I pretended not to be phased by her answer. I wrapped up the conversation, walked out to Dave and with a loud sigh as I collapsed onto the couch announced, ‘Bloody hell, I think I will be officially breastfeeding a child in primary school.’ He didn’t miss a beat; he wiped the kitchen bench that looks over the lounge room, called me a freak and then continued to clean. We caught each other’s eyes and started laughing.

5 years 2 months and 2 days old:

The day had come. The summer holidays were good to Willow. They kept her busy, we did lots of talking about starting school and she seemed to turn into a young girl with the independence to match. She had completely cut out her night feed and was going a few days here and there without her morning feed. At some time in the holidays she had decided to stop breastfeeding before she started school. I think there was a part of her that wanted to feel grown up before setting off to school and letting go of this final significant attachment was the last piece of her puzzle.

There was only a week until school began so I decided to prompt a conversation about it with her. We chatted about there only being a week to go and if she wanted to stop feeding then she would need to consider doing it soon. She was much more relaxed this time and I could see the resolve in her facial expression. She was ready. She said that tomorrow morning would be her last breastfeed.

It was a strange day and I did a lot of reflection as the day ran its course. I sat down on my computer and looked through some old breastfeeding photos and wrote down an intention and stuck it on the wall above my desk in the office. It read – ‘I will make a conscious effort to continue a physical relationship with Willow, which will include lots of cuddles and touch’. Sticking it on the wall gave me direction and a step towards finality. We didn’t talk about it as I didn’t want to make it into something she couldn’t back out of if she decided she wasn’t ready.

The next morning when Willow came in Lottie was already having her morning breastfeed. I didn’t say anything out of the ordinary to her as she climbed up onto our bed. Her body shrunk a little into itself and I put my spare arm out for her to fall into me. Without a word spoken we had a shared understanding of what was happening. I relaxed back into my pillows and breathed in the moment. Lottie and Willow played briefly with each other’s fingers as their eyes locked. I wondered what was going through Willow’s thoughts. I broke the silence by asking Dave to take Lottie for a shower so Willow could end her journey just as it began. The two of us. Every now and then Willow would look up at me and I would briefly get lost in her blue eyes as I had done a thousand times before. I stroked her wild little curls back from her forehead and ran my hand gently down her back…and then just like that she sat up.
I asked her if she was ‘done’ and she responded with, ‘Done!’ Her nervous smile flashed across her face and I asked her if she was OK.  Her pursed lips twitched from one side to the other and her eyes welled but not a tear dropped. She leaned down and we embraced and I think it was the most meaningful embrace I have ever received. We had walked a very long road together, much much longer than I ever anticipated. Even though we had reached the end of this road I felt completely confident that Willow was stronger and more capable to embark on the next road without me. At that moment I had a deep sense that the time, patience, love, attachment and commitment that I had given and shown her on our special journey together would armour her to flourish in her new found independence and navigate this challenging world.

I was not disappointed!


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