By Elrena Evans
Web Exclusive – June 20, 2008
A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.
~ Ecclesiastes 4:12
She loves him the moment she sees him, walking into my hospital room wearing her “Big Sister” shirt and clutching her daddy’s hand. At 22 months she is suddenly huge, grown up overnight while I birthed her brother. I reach for her and she climbs into my arms, heavier than I remember.
“What’s that?” she breathes, peering at the bundle of blue scrunched up beside me, sensing the magnitude of the moment.
“That’s your new baby brother,” I answer. She reaches out with one finger to stroke the impossible velvet of his cheek, the fuzz of his hair that is red just like hers.
“Gentle,” I whisper.
“She-shul,” she echoes, her wide eyes drinking him in. “Baby She-shul.”
He is Baby Gentle from that moment on.
The first few days home we are babymooning—I cuddle and nurse my newborn son while my daughter toddles around after her daddy, thrilled at this change in our routine, thrilled to have daddy home to play with her all day long. Friends and family bring food and presents; we are cocooned in warmth and love. My daughter nurses on her frequent trips upstairs to our bed, and nurses when I come downstairs to rest on the couch. I experience something of a seismic shock every time I switch nurslings—she’s so big! He’s so little!—and I wonder as I nurse, why my daughter feels so strange in my arms, or if nursing my son will ever feel as natural as nursing my daughter once did. But I trust in the wisdom a friend imparted to me before my son was born, a friend whose own tandem nurslings are now grown. “In time, the new baby will feel just as right when you nurse,” she said. “And your toddler will feel right again.”
My husband holds the baby while I nurse my daughter, my husband holds the toddler while I nurse my son. I don’t nurse them simultaneously; I ruled out that possibility while still pregnant because of my tendency to become sore and get cracked nipples. Nursing them separately means all I do is nurse, but it works, and we are content.
The fifth day of my son’s life I sense a change in my daughter. She doesn’t like this anymore. The thrill of having daddy home is starting to fade, and suddenly she wants only me. She wants me to hold her, wants to nurse constantly. “Go-gie,” she demands, nestling herself into my lap. “Go-gie, go-gie, go-gie.” Even nursing just one child at a time, my nipples are sore and beginning to crack. My body complains: too much nursing. But I ache for my daughter and the disruption in her life, and I know this familiar time with mama will comfort her. So we nurse. Then I nurse my son, wincing as he latches on—how can such a tiny mouth cause so much pain? I remind myself that he is brand-new, he doesn’t have the nearly two years of nursing experience my daughter and I now share. But nursing him really hurts, and I want to stop. He doesn’t feel right in my arms, and I find myself wishing I could just nurse my daughter. I worry that I’m not bonding with my son.
While sitting on the couch, nursing the baby, my daughter tries to climb on to my lap and steps on her brother’s head. I lift her off of my lap with one arm, trying to protect the baby, and she bursts into tears. “Go-gie,” she wails, writhing back toward my lap.
“I can’t nurse you right now, honey, I’m nursing your baby brother.”
She cries. And cries. She cries so hard she can barely breathe, gasping for air in between her sobs. “Go-gie,” she says pointedly, as if I have misunderstood her request. “Go-gie.” She scrunches her hands into fists; her entire body contorts with the effort of holding back her sobs so she can speak clearly, as if I am refusing to nurse her in punishment for sloppy speech. “Go-gie,” she says. She shakes and shudders and bursts into fresh sobs.
And I cry with her. The baby is hurting me, my daughter is bawling, and all I want to do is hold her. I try to reach for her, awkwardly around my nursing pillow, and suddenly she turns on Baby Gentle. “Take a break!” she screams at her brother, grabbing his head and yanking him off of my breast. “Take a break, take a break.” She collapses on the floor. My son startles and bursts into tears, and the three of us sob together, frustrated, hungry, wanting things we cannot have.
“Sweetheart,” I say as we cry, “sometimes mama wishes he would take a break, too.” I offer to read her a book: We Have a Baby, or Welcome, Little Baby! —books she loved before he was born, but she throws them to the floor in a rage. She doesn’t want to read a book. She only wants to nurse.
I set the baby down and reach for her, but she bats me away and runs off down the hall, hysterical. I hear a thud and find her, in the bathroom, curled up around the base of the toilet. She is rocking in her grief, hitting her head against the cold tile floor, screams ricocheting off the unhearing walls as she cries to nurse.
And I cry. I feel like I’m losing my daughter. Her early affinity with the baby is dissolving. And I don’t think I’m bonding with my son.
Should I have weaned her? The question looms in my mind. Should I have weaned her when I had the chance, before the baby was born? But I didn’t want to wean her then. I was so aware of the dwindling days, the end of our time together as just the two of us. Every moment was saffron-precious, and I couldn’t bear to waste it. Weaning was not an option.
But perhaps it would have been better than this, I think now. Every time I walk into the room she bursts into tears, screaming to nurse. Go-gie has become synecdoche for mama, one and the same in my daughter’s eyes. We no longer read books, or cuddle, or dance. When I am with her all we do is nurse, or she cries. My postpartum mind processes that she only cries when she is with me, and I conclude that I should go away so she will not cry. I tell my husband that I have to leave, leave because I love her too much, and so I cannot be her mama. I cannot bear this pain. I am teetering on the brink of depression. “You don’t need to nurse her, you know,” a friend says, and the words fall into my mind like stones in a hollow pail. I don’t need to nurse her. I shouldn’t be with her. I shouldn’t be her mama. And I don’t know what to do with the baby.
But somewhere in my mind a spark is stirring, a logical fallacy crying out to me. Why don’t I need to nurse her? I ask myself. If my children were twins, no one would say to nurse one and not the other. I rattle this around in my mind. It’s because she doesn’t need to nurse, nutritionally, I realize. The pressure to wean her stems from the fact that because she is older, her nutritional needs can be met through other sources, other ways. But what about her emotional needs? My mind is flickering, arguing with itself, coming back into its own. Claiming I don’t need to nurse my toddler simply because her nutritional need is less than her infant brother’s places a higher value on nutritional needs than emotional needs. I think about this for a while. I refuse to privilege one need over the other, I decide. I say her emotional need is just as great. And both of these needs, nutritional and emotional, I can meet. For both of my children.
I walk into the bathroom, and look at my refection in the mirror. My Irish temper is rising. So maybe all this nursing hurts. Maybe I’m not a good candidate for simultaneous nursing, or even tandem nursing. I don’t care. My children need me.
“Suck it up,” I say to my reflection, and suddenly I laugh. I feel better than I have in days. I am the weak link in this chain, and I am not going to let my children suffer on my account. I am going to nurse my daughter whenever she asks, even if it means nursing my children simultaneously, just as I would do if they were twins. And I will continue to mother my son the best way I know how: in my arms, at my breast.
And it hurts. It hurts a lot. But I will not say no to my children’s needs. I’m playing a tandem hunch: if my daughter stops fearing the loss of nursing, she’ll stop asking to nurse so often. And if I mother my son regardless of my feelings, the feelings will eventually come.
I play my hunch while both children nurse, my teeth clenched against the pain. I play my hunch while my daughter returns to exclusive breastfeeding, nursing like a newborn, like her brother. I play my hunch with tears in my eyes while I look at my son and pray with every fiber of my being. I play my hunch like it’s the last shot I’ve got.
I am nursing my children together one morning when I realize that it doesn’t hurt. The revelation catches me unaware—I don’t know when the pain left, but somehow it did, skulking away like a cat in the night. I honestly cannot say if this is the first time I’ve nursed them both without pain, or if it hasn’t hurt for days and I am just now noticing. I reach for my computer, my arms full of nurslings, and make a note of the day: Three weeks and one day old, I write of my son. Pain-free tandem nursing—we did it.
I am nursing my son on the couch one afternoon when my daughter comes running over to me. I move to help her on to my lap, then notice she is carrying a book. She stands in front of me for a moment, looking at her brother, looking at me, watching us nurse. I wait.
“Read book?” she says finally, handing me We Have a Baby.
“I would love to read you that book,” I say.
She climbs up on the couch, nestles in beside me, and we read. I cry silent tears into her hair, and kiss her head where my tears have fallen. My daughter and I are going to be all right.
I am nursing my son on the couch in the evening when suddenly my daughter lunges for him. I shield his head, and she pulls my hand away insistently.
“Share Baby She-shul!” she says to me.
I don’t understand what she wants me to do, but her earnest eyes are admonishing me.
“Share Baby She-shul!” she repeats. My son stops nursing, and gazes at his sister.
“Do you want me to share Baby Gentle with you?” Comprehension is dawning. “Would you like to hold him?”
“Yes,” she says happily. I settle her into our overstuffed rocking chair, place the baby gently in her arms. She rocks him slowly, kisses him softly.
“Baby She-shul,” she beams.
I smile until it aches. I take a picture of my children. They are going to be all right.
I leave the little ones with my husband and escape to a movie on a rainy Saturday. Giddy with freedom, I arrive too early and buy too much popcorn, which I consume in its entirety while watching the previews. I’m all but wriggling with anticipation as the feature starts, but without warning, during the opening scene, I feel as though I’ve been punched in the stomach. I don’t want to be here. I want to be home. I want to be with my baby. I can feel his weight in my arms, smell the scent of his soft head. His absence looms larger than the characters on the screen, and before I know it I am racing home, driving too fast on rain-slicked streets, out of my mind with longing for my son.
I burst open the front door and scoop him up out of my husband’s arms, press him to my chest, shaking with relief. My baby. Oh, my baby. I love him so much I am weak and nauseated.
After a long moment, I tilt him back so I can look at him. He’s losing his sense of ephemeral newness, those blurred newborn edges that are not quite yet of this world. He’s becoming a solid little guy; it’s starting to look like he might stick around. But his eyes still brim with newborn wisdom, that murky perception of one who knows far more than his days.
“I was so afraid we weren’t bonding!” I tell him. “How did I fall this much in love with you without even knowing it?”
He smiles, looks at me with those wise eyes. I wasn’t worried, he seems to say. And I realize the love I have for him has been growing all this time, so much a part of me that I didn’t register its presence until I felt its absence. I hug him tightly, kiss his fat, milky-smelling neck, and sit down to nurse. My son and I are going to be all right.
My daughter walks into the room. She comes over to sit beside me on the couch, plunks a kiss on my knee, and rubs her brother’s fuzzy, little head.
“Go-gie?” She says after a while.
I smile and make room for her on my lap.
The downpour outside presses glorious red and yellow leaves against the window as I gaze out over the grey, rain-washed world. Then I glance down at my lap, my two little redheads sprawled across each other, nursing contentedly. Eyelids flutter open and shut as they gaze up at me with milk-drunk stares, the wise, ink-dark eyes of my son and the sparkling, green-gold eyes of his sister. I stroke the fine down on my son’s head, then play with my daughter’s curling pigtails. We are all going to be fine.
When I nurse my daughter, she feels right again in my arms. When I nurse my son, he feels right, too. When I nurse them together I am overcome with love. Our relationship is a beautiful braid, a threefold tie that is strengthened and sustained by the bonds it contains: mother/daughter, sister/brother, mother/son. And a cord of three strands is not quickly broken. We did it. We are a nursing triad.
Elrena Evans is co-editor of Mama, PhD: Women Write about Motherhood and Academic Life (Rutgers 2008) and writes the monthly column Me and My House for Literary Mama. She lives in Pennsylvania with her family.