Let me be clear: I do not miss breastfeeding a week-old baby or even a 1-month-old baby. That's hard work! I had been duly forewarned that nursing during the newborn stage would require a nearly continual round of nighttime feedings. But no one told me I'd actually have to stay alert (let alone awake!) to concentrate on getting that still precarious latch just right. Or that our feeding sessions would be followed by a wee-hours fireworks display of poop and a pilgrimage down to the laundry room to grope the inside of the dryer for a clean romper and sleep sack.
What I'm talking about is the breastfeeding sweet spot, which I consider to be between 2 and 6 months. It's a brief window, really, although I didn't recognize that until I was nursing my third and youngest daughter, Phoebe. By this point, I could breastfeed in complete darkness, half-asleep in my rocking chair. Or at the kitchen table while eating the pasta Bolognese I'd made for dinner. Before calling it a day, I'd feed the baby and simultaneously peruse the stack of books at my bedside table. In other words, Phoebe and I were so perfectly in sync that breastfeeding felt like breathing. We simply did it without appreciating what we were accomplishing. And she wasn't yet old enough to want to pop up and sample the meat sauce. If we were at the park, the sound of kids running around didn't distract her. She wasn't cruising or even crawling, and the end of babyhood and the considerations of weaning still seemed so far off that I imagined they might pass over us.
Before I knew it, though, Phoebe was no longer an infant but a feisty baby who liked to grab for her older sisters' Polly Pockets. We still nursed, but it wasn't as snuggly.
What I loved most about this older baby stage was the comic potential of her wandering hand. Phoebe loved to feel around my chest and face, especially my mouth, while nursing. Eyes locked with mine, she would suck, suck, then grab one of my teeth, give a big gotcha grin, and keep on sucking, aiming next for my lower lip. And if I tried to nurse in public with my blanket, her hand would bat the cover away until I conceded. (Currently, my nursing blanket is stuffed in a closet. I see life as a pillow in its future.)
"Congratulations," my pediatrician said at Phoebe's 9-month well check-up. "Only about 10 to 20 percent of women who start out breastfeeding are still doing so now." I smiled, but my chest tightened. Reality gripped me. The nursing finishing line was plainly in sight. My husband and I had both agreed that Phoebe was our last baby. This was the beginning of goodbye.
First, I started drinking more coffee, and it didn't matter. At 10 months, Phoebe's primary source of nutrition was food, not me, so caffeinated breast milk wasn't a concern. She loved jars of sweet potatoes, containers of blackberries, and my Indian chicken. If she was on my hip while I was snacking on an apple, she'd peck at it like a baby bird, each time her face registering surprise, as if to say, "Why didn't you tell me this stuff was so good?" Meanwhile, I could go hours without my breasts filling up. I didn't need to walk around with my arms slightly crossed to protect my boobs from spontaneous bear hugs that could lead to an embarrassing spurt. That hard-as-rocks, about-to-burst feeling didn't hit me much anymore.
I also finally stopped wearing nursing pads -- the unsung heroes of manageable breastfeeding. One afternoon I was sitting with a friend watching the dress rehearsal of our kids' upcoming dance recital. She sneezed. Did I have a tissue in my bag? No, but I had a handful of unopened pads, and I offered her one. She had nursed both of her kids, too, but she gave me an embarrassed "I guess I really don't know you" look. So I passed my box of leftover pads along to my pregnant younger sister. Then I went to a fancy lingerie shop and got measured for a real bra, you know, with underwire. And I nursed only before bedtime. Phoebe and I stayed like this for a while, until she was nearly 14 months. The end was anticlimactic. My husband and I were out one evening, so the sitter put her down. The next night we had friends over, and she collapsed into her crib, deliriously tired. And the third night, she didn't tug at my shirt. So I let her go, and we haven't looked back.
And yet. I live with the ache of leaving nursing behind. So if you're breastfeeding your baby at the park one day and you see me -- or someone like me, a mom with "big" kids clamoring all over the slide and swings -- and I keep sneaking you wistful, empathetic smiles, I'm not crazy. I'm just happy for you.
Grab your hanky! Moms confess: "What I'll miss most about nursing is..."
Originally published in the October 2011 issue of American Baby magazine.