By Lisa Cohn
Issue 126, September-October 2004
Ally, my five-year-old daughter, greets me after school by burying her nose in my cotton shirt, between my breasts, and inhaling. “Smells like Mommy,” she says. “Nursie?”
As she climbs into my lap, I stroke her silky hair and take in her scents of herbal shampoo and fruit spritzer. Sunshine spills into our kitchen from the skylight above us, warming the smooth skin on her bare arms. “When do you plan on weaning her?” my close friends like to ask. There’s no judgment in their voices, only a question mark. I search for a response that conveys how I feel, but I don’t know how to answer. When do I plan to stop preparing Ally peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches for lunch? Exactly when do I think I’ll quit tying her shoelaces? Do I know which month and year I’ll no longer jog along beside her while she’s riding her bike? Ally shifts in my lap. “My tummy hurts,” she says. “Nursie makes me feel better.” She presses her nose against one of my breasts and breathes deeply. “Nursie has lots of vitamins. It’s good for me when my tummy ” she tells me.
Ally lifts up my shirt, checks my eyes to see if it’s okay. “Mama?”
I hesitate before inviting her closer. Any minute now a gang of teenaged boys could race into the kitchen with my 15-year-old son, grab spritzers from the pantry, then charge past us, through the patio doors and outside onto the basketball court. I’m not really worried about the teens’ reaction. If they see me breastfeeding my five year old, they may gawk a minute, utter a few words of surprise, then launch into their game of three-on-three basketball. But what if one of them spills the news to his mother? It’s the women I worry about. I fear that some of the mothers will reject me because of my breastfeeding, as my friend Sarah once rejected me. She didn’t approve of the way I attended to my kids, she told me. “It makes me uncomfortable watching you carrying them around and breastfeeding them all the time,” she said. I suspect some of the basketball moms, like Sarah, would feel uncomfortable if they heard that I breastfeed my five year old. They might ridicule me behind my back. Or they might really hurt me by prohibiting their boys from dashing through my house toward our basketball court and infusing our home with the sounds of laughter, behind-the-back dribbling, and tickles for Ally. Ally. She still holds the bottom of my shirt in her long-fingered little hand; her question still hangs in her clear blue eyes. She knows that when we’re outside her room, any place remotely public, it’s best to ask permission.
“Mommy,” Ally says. “Nursie?”
I cradle Ally in my arms, her long legs bob as they dangle off the side of the chair, hand stroke her head and ears while she snuggles with me in our bright kitchen. As Ally nurses, she traces the outline of my with a . She toys with a strand of my hair. She pauses a minute.
“The kids like it when you come visit for lunch and recess like you did today, Mama” she says. “They like having you in school.”
It’s true; the children often rush to me, hug my legs, then ask me to open their milk cartons or yogurt containers for them. But how do their moms feel about my kindergarten visits?
“Cut the cord!” one of the moms exclaimed to me the other day on the playground, pantomiming the big break. She executed a slicing motion with her right hand. “Shea’s five years old; she doesn’t need you here for lunch,” the mom said.
She seemed to be mirroring the opinion of my former friend, Sarah, who liked to say, “You make your kids so dependent on you.”
When Ally told me she needed me to be with her during her first week of kindergarten, was I making her dependent when I stayed by her side those first few mornings? When she begged me to be near her, said she loved kindergarten but felt lost at sea without me, was I forcing dependence on her when I said I understood her feelings? And later, when she felt comfortable at school but wanted me to join her for lunch, was I insisting on dependence when I agreed to occasionally sit with her while she ate?
How I wish my mother had honored my own pleas on my first day of kindergarten. I remember standing beside her in my newly pressed dress, feeling as if my center of gravity was about to be removed. I began to bawl when my mother moved toward the door. When I reached for her, she hesitated, then pushed me away. She quickly shut the door behind her. I can still feel the ache. If only she had loitered a few minutes, maybe an hour, while I tried to make sense of this new teacher, these new kids, this place that bombarded me with alien smells, foreign sights, and the unprecedented fear of not having my mom by my side. I just needed her there for a few hours. But she did what the other moms did; she nudged me toward the teacher and disappeared. And yet, in her moment of hesitation, I felt that she wished she were stronger.
From my mom I learned to pay some attention to other mothers when they yelled, “Cut the cord!” But from my mom I also learned that I could be stronger and simply ignore that advice, advice that now fills me with fear and anger.
I’m afraid my friends will judge me, as Sarah once did. First they’ll interrogate me about why I breastfeed my daughter; they’ll want to know why I draw her into my lap, stroke her soft cheek, and invite her to wrap her arms around my shoulders. They’ll ask how it feels to have a five year old with her lips pressed against my breast. Having gathered all the intimate details, some moms will criticize me: Why, they’ll say, she’s old enough to dress herself, to memorize the songs from entire musicals, to call up her friends on the phone!
With Ally in my lap, I search for signs of the dreaded dependence. Let’s see . . .
When I visit Ally at lunchtime, does she drag me into a dark corner and cower with me while I spoon-feed her yogurt and offer her a baby bottle?
No, she shrieks with joy when I arrive, pulls up a chair for me between two of her buddies, then continues cavorting with her friends. Now, for the dependent breastfeeding behavior. Does she prefer breastmilk to ice cream sundaes dotted with rainbow sprinkles? Does she prefer breastmilk to hot dogs smothered in catsup? No, mostly she pops on and off my breast once or twice a day to catch up with me. She twists my hair around her fingertips, takes a sip, searches my eyes, has if to confirm I’m still me, then trots off to sing, dance, visit with friends, and .
Now, about Ally’s jump-roping: Is that a sign of dependence?
Ally is the only five year old I know who jumps rope while Hula Hooping. Can the independent girls do that? Can the cut-the-cord mom’s daughter swing her hips just enough to keep a plastic hoop in motion, while at the same time leaping to the rhythm of “Teddy Bear, Teddy Bear Turn Around” While we’re at it, can the independent daughters ride a two-wheeler, as dependent Ally can?
“Maybe their moms need lessons from me in fostering dependence!” I want to shout. “Maybe they should sign up for tutorials in breastfeeding their kindergartners!”
Ally touches my lips and giggles. “Why are you making those silly faces, Mama?” she asks.
I try to calm the thumping of my heart. I gaze into her eyes, inhale her herb-and-spritzer scent. I luxuriate in the warmth of the sunlight pouring into my kitchen and the fleeting tenderness of a five year old who’s sitting still. I think, How fortunate I am to be the mother of a nursing Hula Hooper.
“I was making silly faces to go with my silly thoughts,” I tell Ally. I cradle her lovely dimpled cheeks in my hands. “You know, I don’t have to justify the way I care for you to anyone.”
At that moment, into the house stomps my 15-year-old son, Travis, along with most of the members of his basketball team. By the time he enters the kitchen, Ally has leapt off my lap to greet the boys. “Hey, Ally,” one of Travis’s friends calls. “Could you show us one more time how you do that jump-roping-while-Hula Hooping thing?” Ally smiles at me, lingers for just a second with her hand in mine, then skips out of the room to prepare her demonstration.
Lisa Cohn, an award-winning writer, is co-author of One Family, Two Family, New Family: Stories and Advice for Stepfamilies (RiverWood Books). Read her other articles by visiting www.stepfamilyadvice.com.