Breastfeeding: When the Second or Third Time Really Isn’t a Charm

By: Lisa Donovan

The firstborn typically has the privilege of doting and passionate parents who are eager to do all the right things. We study vehemently during those nine months to ensure that, upon their arrival, nothing will be out of place or left a mystery. We prepare ourselves for the best of times and the worst of times and most of us are, literally, willing to do anything and go that extra mile.

I knew that I was going to nurse Joseph, my eldest, and decided along the way that I would let him wean himself. I did and we ended up with a very mutual and amicable wean when he was 22 months old (yes, that is almost two years old - I know.). I became a stringent advocate for long term breastfeeding and saw several things within Joseph's first few year of life to support the theory. They were all the typical breastfed baby characteristics: he seemed healthier, stronger, more acutely alert than the formula fed babies we knew. Truly, he didn't have his first illness until the age of 3 1/2 years old — not even so much as a head cold. I still, to this day, am pleased that I could do it and feel it was one of the better decisions of my adult life. But there's an ugly side to this. I became a scoffer of women who gave their babies a bottle full of formula and often found myself offering my opinion when it wasn't being asked about the matter. You could say that I was a bit of a breastfeeding snob — trust me, they exist. I am apologetic and have since realized that it is one of those plights of youth — the kind where you think things work in absolutes and that you have all the answers to the world's problems (I was only twenty two at the time). There is a point in my divulging this previous flaw of mine — it has something to do with the birth of my second child Maggie.

As much as I understood the wonder and benefits of breastfeeding your child, I realized during my second pregnancy that I was not at all prepared to venture into that state of complete codependence again. This pregnancy was what we like to call a big "surprise". And there were so many things that would make the free-for-all nursing experience that my son had impossible for my daughter. I was in a different place in my life than my first pregnancy — I had a five year old that could use the potty by himself and was starting kindergarten soon. And then there was the fact that I had a career and was beginning to work on making art again. I was actually getting a taste of the world of my non-mother peers again and it feel liberating and exciting and age-appropriate (you do have to grow up quickly when you have children young). My wants aside, the biggest impediment was time. I worked full time versus being a student with a much more flexible schedule. Ultimately though, the newest and biggest time investor was that there were now two children to consider rather than just one to revel in — you don't have the luxury of indulging in the second child quite the way you do with the first for obvious reasons. I just didn't think I had the stamina — I was actually quite certain that I didn't. I knew I wanted to breastfeed but dreaded the longevity and self sacrifice the second time around. I just could not muster up the strength and energy to really commit to the idea. Then the guilt set in — the almighty guilt that becomes part of your DNA once you become a mother. I felt as if I were slighting Maggie by thinking about myself before her and by, by and large, depriving her of the same gift that I gave Joseph. What kind of monster was I?

So, as with any crisis in my life, I turned to my source of comfort and wisdom. Books. I began to read some really intelligent literature about working mothers and nursing — they helped ease the back and forth battle between the urge to do what is best for my baby with the unavoidable guilty associated with feeling that she was sucking the life out of me. And basically what I realized was this: breastfeeding is important but so are you. There is a way to find middle ground — it doesn't have to be all or nothing. Realizing that it will be different with each child — and not comparing — is an important first step. The second step is an understanding that guilt will get you nothing but a lot of sleepless nights. If you know you want to breastfeed but are not quite certain how long or if you have it in you (the latter will probably apply to women with more than one child) the best advice I can given (because it was the best advice I was given) is to take it in small increments.

If you plan out small three month increments it will be a lot more bearable. Once the first three months is up, evaluate how you feel and make a plan for the next three months. What I found through this type of structure was that the three month "sessions" were really a very small amount of time in which I had very willingly, happily and easily solely breastfed. Since I was not focused on the idea that I would be infinitely breastfeeding, the sessions were spent focusing on things that mattered, rather than my anxiety about weaning and being a food source for the rest of my life.

When things got frustrating — at about seven months — I started to make a plan for the next three months which included introducing a kefir milk and a Tibetan nut milk very similar to formula just without all the unpronounceable fillers that frightened me at the time. My snobbery had subsided but I still wanted to try out some homemade things that I felt a little more comfortable with. What I consider to be my last three month "session" (9-12 months) went rather unexpectedly and smoothly. She was a real trooper — at nine months she was only breastfeeding once a day. However, she hated the kefir milk and I just didn't have the time to make the nut milk (which she loved). So — and here's where I did a lot of growing up — we started using formula for the bulk (and eventually all) of her feedings. And you know what? She is healthy and beautiful and energetic and bright and all the things that I so solemnly thought were never capable of "formula fed babies" when I was a young milky matriarchal goddess so certain of the truth of my ways. And I realized that I was much more sane because of the wean — had Maggie and I gone any further in our breastfeeding adventure together she might have a much less amicable mommy right now.

Part of me feels that it is sad that I couldn't muster the self sacrifice but a larger part of me feels that I did the right thing hands down. I am thankful for age (the accumulation of it specifically) simply because it makes you realize that things don't, indeed, work in absolutes and that it is perfectly ok to make amends with your "nevers" and "will nots" without equating yourself as a sellout. Things do change and as long as we aren't compromising the core of what make us good people, it is not only acceptable but, sometimes, very necessary.

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