When Weaning Doesn’t Go Your Way

When weaning doesn't go your way

Dear Mama,

I can only guess how you might be feeling.

Guilty. Overwhelmed. Relieved. Uncertain. Like a failure. Any or all of these feelings during each hour of the day.

We only want the best for our babies, and when we plan for something to go one way and it suddenly takes a different turn, the reality can be hard to swallow.

I know this because it has happened to me many times during my last eight years of parenting. But nothing hit me quite the same as the unexpected weaning of my third child.

I weaned my baby girl much earlier than I thought I would.  Please scroll ahead if you prefer to skip the gory details, but an awful nipple infection was the beginning of the end. No matter which creams, techniques or medications I tried – prescribed by doctors, recommended by lactation consultants, sworn-to-work by friends, or handed to be my the pharmacist – nothing worked.

I tried them all.

I hoped each time that this would be the solution. And I cried myself to sleep each night because I realised that I was getting worse.

The words “crusted,” “cracked” and/or “bleeding” were relevant not for days but weeks. It got to the point where I teared up whenever something brushed against my chest, and it was excruciating when I tried to express. I simply could not go on.

The guilt tore at me like my heart was being yanked from my chest. The negative self-talk crept in through my subconscious…

How could I breastfeed my first two babies longer than my third baby, didn’t I have more experience this time around? Shouldn’t a baby be able to wean on her own, whenever she wanted to, whenever she needed to? Was I a “bad” mother for not being able to heal myself? Or to make sure she had all the “liquid gold” she needed?

I finally admitted to myself that a longer breastfeeding relationship was just not meant to be.

One dreary afternoon, I clenched my teeth through the pain as I breastfed my daughter one last time.  I told her how much I loved her, knowing it would be my last time feeding one of my babies.

I had to wear my nursing bras for several more weeks before I had the time to get replacements. The oversized bras only reminded me what I was now lacking. All my milk was gone. Forever.

This was not how I expected, or wanted, it to turn out.  I was confused, angry, and frustrated.

As I talked to friends, the load I bore slowly started to lighten. I learned their stories of weaning, and I was reminded yet again that parenting does not come with a “how to” manual and there is no “right” or “wrong.” Many of their weaning stories were not planned. Most were full of varying emotions.

Some mothers weaned due to severe sickness during new pregnancies, others because of required solo trips for funerals or work. Some could not continue to nurse all night and needed to wean in order to preserve a positive relationship with their baby.

Each of the mothers had their own experiences, and I knew their babies turned out okay. These mothers loved their babies, no matter when they needed to wean. I didn’t hold a timeline for breastfeeding against them, so why do it to myself?

Breastfeeding is only one part of our parenting story. There are so many ways to secure a loving relationship with a baby, to show them how much you care for them, and to nurture them throughout the day. It seems obvious in retrospect but, when hormones and that awful parenting guilt came into play, I needed the reminders.

I finally began to forgive myself for falling short of whatever standards I thought I had not lived up to, and moved on. I recognised that it wasn’t my fault that breastfeeding took a different turn than I had envisioned, and told myself that this surely wasn’t the last time that it would happen during my journey as a mother either. Each phase of parenting, and life, brings new challenges to overcome. It is how we deal with them that is most important.

I could feel defeated or I could see the experience as a hurdle. I eventually chose to do the latter.

If you are struggling with the way your breastfeeding story turned out, stay strong and keep going. You, and your bubba, will be okay. 

From one mother to another: remember that tomorrow is a new day and there are endless ways to nourish our precious bundles, even if we cannot breastfeed anymore. I am a great mother and so are you. We can do this.

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Image: Chelsea Lee Smith