The Most Difficult Promise
By Diane Selkirk
Web Exclusive, October 9, 2006
My labor was induced. I sobbed when I walked into the hospital room I had never planned to see. My midwife tried to reassure me that I could still have a beautiful birth, which I did, but she missed the fundamental reason for my tears. During my pregnancy I had begun to see childhood as a sacred journey—a journey that should progress in its own way, and on its own schedule. I believed that my pregnancy would end when my baby was ready to enter the world, not at an arbitrary hour deemed best for us.
Maia's early birth led to nursing problems, and more than once I sobbed myself to sleep, frustrated from the effort. With a supplemental nursing system strung over my shoulder, a lactation consultant on constant call, and help from more hands than I ever thought I would need, Maia and I slowly discovered how to breastfeed.
Nursing Maia became a joy. I loved the way her rosebud mouth would grow shark-like as she searched for my breast with an indelicate abandon. Her latch seemed vacuum powered as she narrowed in on the source of her nourishment. This fierceness would dissipate as soon as contact was attained: once connected to the flow from my breast, her soft eyes would seek out mine and her small hand would reach up for my hair.
Each day, as she grew, we were confronted by the calendar—she was early to sit and crawl I was told, but so late for starting solids. My questions, "Why late? Why early?" were met by perplexed looks. They are milestones I was told, they're important.
As the months passed with my daughter showing no interest in food, I too started to wonder. Shouldn't a child who can walk be eating? Then I remembered her hurried birth—and the promise that grew out of that abrupt beginning. "She will eat when she is ready." I said.
I have come to believe that children are born with an internal wisdom. They know when they need to eat, when they need to sleep, when they are ready to learn a skill and when they are ready to wean. They lose this wisdom, I think, when we forget to watch their rhythms and follow their lead. When we see on the calendar that six months has passed and it must be time to feed them, we do. When we see by the calendar one year has passed and that it must be time to wean them, we do.
I can see how the calendar gives comfort. Parenting is a confusing journey, filled with contradictory advice. The calendar takes away some of the mystery. It tells us things that are hard to figure out—like when our child should say her first words, or be sleeping through the night, or when we should start toilet training. It provides a more definitive answer than the one a child can offer in her small, easily silenced voice.
When Maia was two and a half years old I saw us while we were nursing. I caught our reflection in a window. Her legs hung down off my lap, angling toward the floor. Her sturdy arm was tangled through my hair. Her grubby sneakers lay on the floor beside us, discarded after playing in the park. It had been a while since I had seen us together. The sight of this enormous child lying across my lap shocked me. But then I looked into her eyes, the same soft eyes that had locked on mine since she was tiny, and I let the doubt pass.
The questions began to come. When would I wean Maia? My answer, "When she is ready." seemed to confuse people. If we let children do things when they were ready, I was told, nothing would ever happen. They would never get dressed, the toys would never be cleaned up, they would never finish their vegetables, and they would never wean. The uncertainty came back. Based, I think, on that reflection in the window. Maia loved vegetables and liked to help clean up her toys, but was I really prepared for her legs to grow even longer as she laid nursing in my arms? .
We could no longer fit in our nursing chair. For a while she bunched up her legs, folding herself nearly in half, but then they began to poke out at odd angles. I also couldn't carry her as we nursed, the ringing of the phone had to be ignored or else she was put down. The signal to nurse had shifted through the years from the sweet rooting, to a "nuss pease" whispered in my ear, to an articulate "I'm ready for bed. Can we nurse?" .
Nursing was natural to Maia. It was a source of pride and happiness. She didn't understand my discomfort when she shared her love of nursing with other mama's who were holding their much smaller nurslings. "What Mum??" She would ask, "Nursing is wonderful!?" Her eyes, though, showed a small hesitation. Only close friends and family knew we still nursed. With them I held my position strongly, waiting for criticism, but was met mainly with bemusement.
When Maia turned four she asked why her friends didn't nurse anymore. I struggled with my answer. "Different children nurse for different amounts of time." I told her, "You are lucky." Then she began to ask about weaning—with both excitement and fear. One night I held her small body as she sobbed in my arms. She asked if I would still hold her once she weaned. "I will always hold you." I whispered into her hair.
I cried when the Pitocin was put in my I.V. and my labor was artificially begun. And I cried when I told my beautiful four and a half year old daughter that we had to wean, because I was starting a medication that could make her very sick.
I know that the promise I made after her birth is one I have done my best to keep. I have watched Maia learn and grow at her own pace. Mothering her in awe as she has ignored the calendar in the most remarkable ways. But as we plan her weaning party and share our broken-hearted tears, I am confronted by how fragile childhood is.
My wish is that I had nursed Maia more proudly and taken more pictures, as her legs grew long. I wish I had not silenced her when she shared our shocking news; proudly telling strangers that she still nursed. When I made the promise after her hurried birth that I would not let the calendar rush her through childhood, I had no idea what a difficult promise it would be. But each day I make it again.