It has been eighteen months since I painstakingly helped Ayla latch on for the first time. In those first days and weeks, I was certain that I wouldn’t last past three months. But I made it to three, and implored the gods to help me make it to six. Then six months passed. And I set a new goal: Twelve months. After that, I swore I would be done.
But some things changed along the way. To begin, I reached a point where I forgot I was doing it. Pulling up my shirt and guiding Ayla to my breast became second nature. It’s the same thing that happens when I’m driving on an open road for long stretches of time. At some point, I realize that I’ve been driving (for minutes, or hours) without the help of my conscious mind. My mind would have been watching the vast sky or reliving a special moment in my life and all the while another part of me had been driving carefully, changing lanes and shifting gears. I can’t recall exactly when I stopped keeping track of which side Ayla was drinking from or whether it was time to switch from the Cradle Hold to the Football Hold. But when I could let go of the mechanics of nursing, it became a deeply meditative interlude in my day. And in those moments, I felt more spiritual than I have while sitting in meditation or praying or practicing yoga under the stars.
Another change was gradual disappearance of my enormous (bourgeois) guilt about nursing. I had read enough progressive parenting books to know that there wasn’t a bottle in the world that could compare to my breast milk. Ounce for ounce, my milk outpaced formula in every category. But while knowledge can liberate us, it can also erect tall fences around us. And in those early painful months, I felt confined by my decision to breastfeed. On the one hand, it was convenient not to have get out of bed in the middle of the night or rush home from the park to make a bottle. But once you start nursing, you can’t stop. I wanted to so desperately not to be needed all the time. I wished for a few days off now and again, to gain some perspective before returning to the job.
But once Ayla was eating solid food, need, so to speak, dried up. And so, nursing became a choice that we each had to make. At some point after the six-month mark, we both enthusiastically said, “Yes!” to nursing. This time around, I found many and varied reasons to want to nurse. Some days, when I felt enveloped by darkness, I knew that nursing would help me see light again. Nothing grounds me more than feeling Ayla’s tiny body in my arms and listening to the soft puffs of her breath. No matter what storms are passing through my life, I am reminded that they will pass when I’m nursing Ayla.
Similarly, I noticed Ayla seeking out my bosom when she wanted to reconnect or play with me (or my nipples), rather than when she was thirsty. Nursing is a means for us to reacquaint ourselves if I’ve been out for the day or away on a trip. I’ve grown to love all the gestures and movements that make up our breastfeeding body language. I can tell when Ayla wants to nurse by the way in which she reaches out to me. We have little rituals about how we curl up in each other’s limbs—how her head rests on my upper arm and how her toes seek out the warm crevice behind my knees. We both heave a silent sigh once the milk starts to flow.
What I like most about breastfeeding my toddler is that the dynamic has shifted. My breasts are no longer the great providers and cosmic soothers that they were in the early days. Nowadays, breastfeeding feels more like an exchange amongst equals—it is something we both choose day after day, because it enables us to share and reaffirm our love for each other.
Eighteen months ago, I thought breast milk was all about providing nutrition and immunity to my child. But I've since learned that "milk" is another a four-letter word for love.