Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
Hilary Flower, Ph.D, Florida, USA
Photo: Adriana Mesec maj
Hilary’s adventures nursing two
Hilary’s adventures and how Adventures in Tandem Nursing: Breastfeeding During Pregnancy and Beyond was born.
Here’s the picture. My distraught two-and-a-half year old daughter is insisting on nursing lying down “like a baby,” on a favorite spot on the bedroom floor. I know that if I can just nurse her to sleep, her temper tantrum will be over. I realize that my best bet is to nurse her on my lower breast. This way, I can stack my three-week-old son on top of her and he can feed from my upper breast …
So there I was thinking, “Did I really sign up for this as a mother of two?”
In my fatigue, I gently lowered my baby’s drowsy head to rest on his sister’s arm. For a moment the house of cards stood, complete, perfect. Only for a moment. I may even have imagined it. My toddler’s objection to this imposition erupted resoundingly. We were back to square one. Something was very, very wrong.
Four tandem nursing surprises
When my baby boy arrived, I nursed both children together and felt like an earth mama. Peace, harmony, love, and sibling bonding at my breast: a dream come true. A few surprises followed the day after the birth.
Everyone expects a degree of regression, right? Surprise number one: nothing was more challenging during the early weeks than my daughter’s steadfast insistence on nursing cradled “like a baby.” There’s really nothing quite like having to sit with legs spread tailor-style to support the large, wriggling body of a nursing toddler, imagining your stitches in between popping one by one. Add to that her delight in pulling off, making me leak, only to root so I could “help” her back on. And did I mention her saying that she “couldn’t” hold her own head up? Now, add a tender but thankfully hardy newborn, on the other breast, while trying to keep the toddler’s feet and arms from doing you permanent damage, and you’re really looking at a job for a many-armed woman.
Surprise number two: testing of the limits, the age-old tradition of the unsettled sibling. The battle ground was my breast and, I must hand it to her, my daughter chose well. I had a lesson to learn there that I couldn’t have learned so well anywhere else.
If I said no to “na-na,” she wailed. If I said yes, she subjected me to an endless series of misbehaviors. She would never end a nursing session voluntarily. I was forced to recognize that my hitherto eager-to-please daughter was trying to drive me crazy—forcing me to draw the line where I least wanted to, at the physical symbol of our former intimacy.
The next surprise still shocks me in retrospect. Can it be that I really experienced a lapse in my love for my daughter? While I was pregnant I felt a little sorry for the child in my womb, even a little guilty, fearful that I could never find for a second child that intensity of true love and adoration I still felt, almost painfully, for my first. And yet, surprise number three: as I wallowed in love for my newborn, I found it incredibly difficult to relate (at all) to my first born.
I suddenly found her normal speaking voice loud, her very presence jangling, and her body huge and ungainly. She seemed unfamiliar, almost grotesque, as she nursed in my lap—as if I were nursing a teenager! I looked at her and tried with great concentration to recall what it was that had seemed so achingly endearing about her only days before.
My eyes, ears, and heart were playing tricks on me, like “fun house” mirrors. It was as if biology were plugging me into the newborn only by ripping the connection with my first child.
Within a couple of weeks, the bizarre distortions dissolved like a bad dream and, thankfully, I could see my daughter’s wholeness and beauty once again. Now I had to find my way back to her.
I stumbled headlong into surprise number four: my darling daughter was in on the conspiracy to put a distance between us. I was no longer Mama. I was just “NAAAA NAAAA!” To compensate, she began to pour herself into other relationships like never before. This strategy worked fairly well, until her godmother flew home and her father went back to work, something Mother Nature had evidently not been counting on.
Hilary’s adventures go from bad to worse
After particularly contentious days, I lay awake at night grieving for the lost intimacy with my daughter, feeling helpless to renew it, and yearning to curl up against her little body, so appealingly innocent in sleep, to make up for all the love I had failed to deliver during the day.
And somewhere in there, we both began to expect me to meet her emotional needs by nursing and on her terms, as if by meeting her Olympian challenges I could somehow prove my devotion to her once and for all, so we could both sleep easy at night.
I knew that she needed me to set boundaries. I had this vague understanding that when children test the limits, they crave the reassurance that secure limits provide. But I found myself stretching the limits, and stretching them, and streeeeetching them. When she tried my patience at the breast, I gave her third and fourth chances before finally taking her off my lap. I was so afraid of letting her down, at the breast. I said yes whenever I could. When push came to shove, I would have given anything to split myself right down the middle to give both children what they seemed to need.
From there it was just a few short hops to finding myself in the aforementioned ridiculous nursing position. I don’t think the “double-stacked side-lying position” gets a mention in any nursing manuals.
Setting the boundaries
Desperate, I tried a radical experiment: “I’ll give you ‘na-na’ when it feels good to both of us.” If I didn’t like a behavior at the breast, it stopped or we’d stop the nursing session. No fear. A clear boundary. Soon, etiquette came back. A warm feeling ebbed back in. Debates, scuffles, and wheedling about “na-na” continued, but I found it made a big difference that these exchanges existed in the dialogue dimension—the space between us—and not at the breast.
I continued to struggle for a conviction that we had what it takes to make it. And yet, all the while, an invisible something was at work, bringing us to safety. Slowly, it began to dawn on me, what my daughter’s purpose in limit-testing at the breast was.
If I could really say no to nursing—a lot—with no apologies or guilt, right in the middle of a family crisis, then I sure as hell must believe that we could both take it. I must believe that the important things, like boundaries, were still just as important now as before. I must believe that I was enough for her, even if I wasn’t able to do all the things I used to do for her. I must believe that our relationship could take our feelings, our sadness, fears, doubts, and anger arising as a result of the boundary being firmly preserved and, more generally, as a result of the new baby in the family.
And so, amazingly, by the end of the first month, the dust was beginning to settle. All that had been up for grabs—the very bonds that connected us having been doubted and tested—was being reaffirmed. Nursing, with both children together and separately, began to assume the character of the important, but routine. My daughter’s disappointments over “na-na” came into scale with her other skinned knee and toddler travails.
A new beginning
My daughter went on to nurse for another 18 months, and I have long since forgotten what it was like to have only one child. I remember our tandem nursing crisis as a screaming labor pain as I was birthed into being a mother of two. It’s funny that the truth I had to work so hard to find was right there in front of me, outlined in our nursing triangle, on the first day my son was born. One mama, two breasts. I have plenty to give both children just as I am. We are only human. And in the honest sharing of what is truly ours to offer, we are enough.
Hilary Flower is the author of Adventures in Tandem Nursing: Breastfeeding During Pregnancy and Beyond, LLLI 2003, and Adventures in Gentle Discipline, LLLI 2005. She lives with her three children in Florida, USA.