By Meredith Bowers
Issue 124 May/June 2004
I did not plan to breastfeed Isabel beyond a year, but, well, you know how it goes. She loves her “nursey,” and I love having a few calm minutes to snuggle with my otherwise frenetic toddler. The weaning of Isabel has become somewhat of a joke with close friends and family—mainly because I talk a lot about it. But I know that when Isabel stops nursing has much more to do with her timetable than with mine. Right now, she proudly tells me that babies nurse, and that she is still a baby. So I tolerate the occasional curiosity of strangers, and the surprise of friends who, on seeing Isabel reach inside my shirt, run down the predictable litany of comments and questions: “I didn’t know your were still doing that.” “How long are you planning to nurse?” “I have a great idea for how to wean her: you should just . . . ” But Isabel’s and my breastfeeding relationship and weaning trajectory was basically a private matter—until the Poison Ivy Incident of November 2002.
One sunny fall day in the park near our house, I was standing with my friends Mary and Amy as Isabel and my older daughter, Sophie (then three years old), played happily with the other children. At a certain point, Isabel wandered over to me and asked to nurse. Because I hate to disrupt a rare conversation with fellow grown-ups, I lifted Izzy and tried to distract her with a few minutes of “hold nurse”—her term for when she puts her hand in my shirt to hold on for security until I am able to nurse her. After a few minutes, Mary smiled and pointed to my shirt—Isabel had positioned her sippy cup between my breasts and was trying to drink from it. We all laughed and discussed the possibility of patenting Isabel’s unique weaning strategy. Isabel, a natural comic, enjoyed the attention and tried to keep the laughter going by placing her sippy cup at different angles in my bra and simulating nursing.
Forty-eight hours later, the itching began as a small rash on the side of my left breast. Assuming it was an allergic reaction to my bra, I changed bras. Later that night, the pink bumps turned red and began to spread across my breast. Guessing that it might be an allergic reaction to laundry detergent, I changed my towels and sheets. Then the bumps moved across my chest to the other breast. Surmising an allergic reaction to something I’d eaten, I ate bland food for 24 hours. Then the bumps became a fiery, scaly, shiny, intensely itchy band across both breasts, including my nipples.
“Contact dermatitis,” said my sister, a medical student. “Looks like poison ivy,” said my father, a doctor. I recalled Isabel running through the bushes at the park the previous week, then straight into my arms and into my shirt. I remembered “sippy-cup nursing” and Isabel’s hands all over my breasts. I got the definitive diagnosis the next day, when I noticed four small, red stripes on my side that were just the size of Isabel’s fingers. Just the place where she rests her hand when she nurses.
I tried a multitude of home remedies, but the rash spread aggressively and soon became unbearable. Although Isabel herself seemed happy and healthy, I thought it wise to have a doctor examine me in case there was something preventive I should be doing for my daughter’s sake—after all, she and my breasts are in pretty much constant contact. This was when the real pain began.
The first thing my doctor did was to prescribe heavy doses of topical and oral steroids. When I explained that I was still breastfeeding, my internist’s first question was Isabel’s age. When I told her that Izzy was 19 months, she exclaimed: “Enough! Time to stop. This is the perfect reason to stop nursing. You should wean immediately and have limited contact with your children until the rash disappears, because poison ivy is highly contagious.” I asked about alternatives. She was adamant.
I was stung. Limited contact with my children? My days consist of hugging, lifting, holding, nursing, rocking, washing, carrying, feeding, dressing, undressing, bathing, and cuddling with my children. In fact, when I tried to envision a day of limited physical contact, I realized that almost every activity with my children involved touching them. And immediate weaning? Wouldn’t that be traumatic for Isabel? Wouldn’t it be traumatic (and painful!) for me? The questions swirled around in my head as I tried to absorb exactly what my doctor was recommending. My visions of months of sensitive, gradual, child-led weaning were headed down the drain. I imagined going home and abruptly denying Isabel her primary source of comfort. How would I even begin to explain it to her?
My heart sank as I thought about the night ahead and the days after that, but just as I was about to dissolve in tears, my maternal alarm sounded. When confronted with a difficult parenting choice, I always rely on the notion that if something feels wrong, well then, it is wrong. I’ve repeated that credo to myself countless times—for instance, when I needed to change schools for my older daughter, and when I knew I wasn’t going to let my baby cry herself to sleep despite much well-intentioned advice. As my doctor’s words echoed in my ears, I knew her advice felt wrong—maybe not medically wrong, but wrong for me and wrong for Isabel. As my fear dissipated, a wave of anger rose in its place. Fear is paralyzing, but anger can be motivating.
I smiled at my doctor and thanked her for seeing me on such short notice. I then stuffed her poisonous prescriptions in my purse, left her office, and knew I would never see her again. From there, I went directly to my children’s pediatrician. Though she was gone for the day, I left a detailed message with a sympathetic nurse explaining what my internist recommended and that I was uncomfortable with the advice. Then I went home, where I hugged both of my daughters (against medical advice), nursed Isabel (against medical advice), and called every doctor I could for second, third, and fourth opinions.
Twenty-four hours and many phone calls later, I began a low-dose steroid compatible with breastfeeding. I continued breastfeeding, but limited Isabel’s nursing on my left breast, which was particularly inflamed. This was more for my sake than hers. Several doctors assured me that, following the initial contact, person-to-person transmission of poison ivy is rare. Moreover, Isabel had obviously already been exposed and had not developed a reaction.
Though always supportive, my husband was particularly kind over the next few weeks as I healed. Sophie and Isabel also surprised me with their empathy. They referred to the left breast as my “boo-boo breast,” and Isabel, usually a very assertive nurser, would not touch that side of me unless I gave her permission. While Isabel nursed, Sophie would watch my face for signs of pain. Even a quick wince would have Sophie cautioning Isabel to be gentle to “Mommy’s boo-boo.”
My children are really quite wonderful. They are caring, empathetic, and connected to each other and to their family. While I don’t pretend to take credit for their amazing selves, I do take pride in the fact that they are loved fiercely. By this I mean that sometimes, when I sense danger, I need to stand between them and the outside world and squawk loudly, like a mother goose. That’s easy to do when I’m protecting them from a rough child or a dangerous toy; it’s much harder when the danger comes in the form of professional advice purportedly offered to help my children.
A running family joke is that Isabel frequently will announce that she wants to “go back home,” sometimes even when standing in the middle of our living room. Though we all laugh at the silliness of her statement, I know exactly what she means at such times. What she yearns for, and has chosen to articulate in her limited toddler vocabulary, is that she wants to be in a safe place. Our home is that place for her. When we’re out somewhere and she requests “back home,” she’s usually asking for me to stop what I’m doing, sit quietly with her, and nurse her. To her, the comfort of her home is quite portable—wherever she can cuddle and nurse becomes, for a few minutes, home.
I know that, as the months go on—and like her big sister, Sophie—Isabel will learn more and more ways to be soothed besides breastfeeding. In the meantime, though anxious for a little physical autonomy, I am also delighted that, because of our breastfeeding relationship, Isabel considers me her home and that her home is a safe and predictable place. Mostly, I’m grateful that I did not take that security away from her by following “doctor’s orders.”
This is not to say that there are not wonderful, caring, professional, and open-minded physicians available. I am lucky to have encountered many of them. It’s just that I’m dismayed at how easily my confidence as a mother can be rattled when it is most required. My relationship with my children is complex, intimate, and powerful. I know without a doubt that I am the only person in the world who can tell the moment Isabel falls asleep, even in a pitch-dark room—there’s something inexplicable about the way her body feels simultaneously heavier and lighter the moment she slips into a deep, comfortable sleep. Similarly, I can tell with certainty if Sophie has a fever before I touch her, just by the slightest change in her scent. Ultimately, such self-assurance guides hundreds of daily parenting decisions and, I hope, will help me navigate the inevitable hurdles ahead.
Several weeks after my poison-ivy rash healed, as I was nursing Isabel to sleep, she looked carefully at my breast, then looked up into my face. “Okay now?”
My whole body relaxed as I assured her, “Yes, Isabel. Okay now.”
Meredith Bowers is a onetime attorney, sometime writer, and all-the-time mother of Sophie (5) and Isabel (3). She lives in South Bend, Indiana with her daughters and husband, Keir Lieber, and is expecting her third child this summer. She wrote this article over the course of numerous naps and nursing sessions.