balance of power
22 June 2000
Nursing an infant: sustenance, comfort, the wonder that this tiny being can be nourished solely on what your body creates. The ultimate giving.

Nursing a toddler: an extra immune boost for a person whose dirty hands inevitably make their way to his mouth before you have time to wash those hands with antibacterial soap. Nutrition for a child who will eat only pasta one day, only strawberries the next. Familiarity, the known contact skin to skin and hand to breast. Comfort, warmth, habit.

All of that, yes but:

Nursing an infant: endless thirst as your body’s hydration goes toward filling another’s bloodstream, another’s needs. Endless hours sitting in the same chair nursing nursing nursing.

Nursing a toddler: a kid who fusses, pulls at mommy’s blouse when mommy’s talking to friends, sticks a hand down mommy’s shirt in the grocery store, runs a car along mommy’s arm (okay, that one’s cute), latches on and then just hangs out forever until mommy says enough and then wants to pop back on ten minutes later.

I say enough. I’m not ready to give up nursing but it’s time to reevaluate. The horrifying tantrum session of the 10th (thankfully an isolated incident) showed me that I’m stretched too thin. His nursing feels too needy, too much. I can’t be a sane mother, a calm mother, unless we renegotiate, unless we come to a new understanding.

I never understood until I had Damian that the mother-child nursing relationship is more than just food-provider to feeder. That it’s a child’s way of establishing a home base in the tumultuous, confusing world. As his world-view shifts, so does the world he perceives. He changes in quantum leaps. Mommy is home base. Nursing provides shelter from the storm, oral gratification, a warm tummy. As grownups we turn to food as comfort, we turn to cigarettes for our oral fix, we turn to sex for that body-on-body warmth. No surprise that Damian is loathe to give up his source for all three. The drive is that strong.

I sometimes have trouble figuring out where the "I" who is a mother ends and the "I" who is a person with needs of her own begins. I want to give and give, I want to make Damian happy and secure in my love for him, my willingness to play and cuddle and explore. But I don’t want to subsume myself to him and I fight to maintain my separate identity. I get mighty grouchy when he needs me too much but because I don’t want to withhold myself, I haven’t set up the parameters to withdraw comfortably.

Okay, that was vague and general and perhaps a bit pedantic. Let me try to explain another way: the shit hit the fan when Dan worked ultra mega overtime hours on the pilot in April. I was worn out from the months of overtime already -- Dan had been working two weekends a month since September -- it takes a toll when you have a small child. Or, I should say, when I have a small child. I don’t know what it would be like if I were a stay at home mom with no other agenda, if I were a woman who got her greatest thrill out of reading Runaway Bunny for the fifteenth time that day, if I were a woman who made her own play-doh and hit her highest high when coming up with new and creative things to do with empty kleenex boxes. And, lest you wonder, I am in no way putting down women who can be all this and glory in it. I think their kids are very lucky indeed. But I get impatient, I get distracted. My mind wanders and my irritation index shoots up.

When Dan doesn’t get home until eight p.m, I’ve had a full day with Damian even on the days when my sitter comes for four hours. I’m fine with that. I use the weekends to catch up. Not to disappear exactly, but to relax my guard. To know that if Damian wanders around the corner, I can stay here for a moment longer while Dan chases after him. To know that when Damian trips and then wails like he was just in a fight with Mike Tyson even though we all know he caught himself before he even scraped a knee -- when that happens, I’m not the only one who can go over and say "it’s okay, sweetie pie, you’re fine, really." To know that when I’m sitting on the couch reading to Damian, Dan is off in the kitchen making dinner, that I won’t have to figure out a way to amuse the child while making some hasty meal at the same time. That backup, that other pair of eyes, that other parent at least some of the time -- that makes all the difference.

If I had to do it all on my own, I know I’d find a way. I know I’d get into the rhythm of it. We both would, my child and I. But because I don’t, we miss the third spoke of our little family wheel when he’s gone. The balance is off, the wheel wobbles as it rolls along. Wobbles and tilts and crashes into things.

April was the cruelest month indeed. Dan was stuck in that tiny cubicle of a room, chained to his Avid around the clock replacing this music cue with that one, revamping the train sequence yet again. And I was already burned out from a season of too much solo childcare but I had to go another round -- and another round again, with a child who missed his Daddy at least as much as I did, who asked about him daily. Who became moody and sad and whiny.

As did I.

We made it through that seven week final stretch. Barely. I gave Damian everything I had to give, but what I had to give was less and less. Less creative play, less giggle time. Less of everything that makes parenting fun. I was in survival mode and we both suffered for it. It didn’t help that his sleep went to hell -- of course, he was stressed -- and I had sole night duty because of Dan’s hellish hours and the intensity of his job. We couldn’t afford to mess around with his sleep so mine got screwed. And since I didn’t have a chance to catch up on weekends (weekend, what’s that? Oh, you mean when the sitter doesn’t come for three days?), I was a walking automaton. Functional. But not warm and fun and silly. A mom, but not a good one.

No wonder Damian started nursing more. He needed some piece of me, whatever he could have. And I let him because it was easy, I could do it sitting down. I could do it without thinking or interacting much. I could zone out. Which in turn, no doubt, made him nurse more because he wanted me to pay attention, dammit!

As I write this, I’m aware that I’m exaggerating. I know I gave more of myself to Damian than that. And he was happier than I make it sound. But every day was a struggle because I was that much more exhausted than the day before.

Okay, that was April (and the first week of May). This is June, almost July. What am I still whining about?

The exhaustion took a long time to get over. The resentment longer. I needed time away from Damian. I needed to not be a mother for a while. I’m not proud of this, but it’s true. The season wore me out. Two years of never sleeping through the night wore me out. Being a mother full time plus some wore me out.

Slowly I recovered. Slowly. Dan took over more. Dan and Damian go for long walks now, they go to the store by themselves. I’ve started to have time on my own, time that’s not on the "babysitter’s here, I’ve gotta get my five pages written" clock and it feels wonderful. And Damian’s slept at least seven or eight hours straight almost every night for the past month. He’s happier too.

Now when Dan goes to acting class Wednesday nights and doesn’t get home until eleven p.m., I’m happy to play with Damian, to have dinner just the two of us and read to him and chase him around the house -- and have him chase me in the other direction -- and gather him up in a bear hug in the middle of the kitchen floor because he’s so cute as he runs. I’m happy to go for walks with him in the morning, happy to watch his enthusiasm for life, happy to invent silly games and enjoy his growing understanding of the world around him. I feel like I’ve recovered from a long illness and reemerged as the parent I wanted to be.

But this nursing issue lingered unresolved. Damian had gotten in the habit of nursing when he was hungry or thirsty or tired or had a boo-boo or just felt bored. He’d flop over in my arms no matter where we were or what else was happening. And he’d fuss if I tried to steer him toward food/drink/book/hug. I had enough leftover angst about the months of caretaking that I didn’t have the reserves or the calm to approach this logically and it turned into a raging power struggle.

That tantrum was a wakeup call. That night I asked for help, got wonderful suggestions from my May Moms. Now when he wants to nurse, I insist we do it in the armchair with the Boppy nursing pillow. If he’s nursing for hunger or thirst, I break off after a minute to offer him a Fig Newton or some of my apple-juice-and-water through a straw. If he’s nursing for the hell of it or to have me close, I break him off after a minute with a backwards count of ten (which he always loves) and tell him what we’ll do when we stop nursing -- what fun activity mommy and Damian will enjoy together -- and he breaks off happily to go play with me. If he falls down and cries for me, I go to him. I soothe him, I pick him up, I go rock him and sing silly songs with squeaky voice switching to basso profundo mid song. And he laughs and forgets his non-existent bruise.

He’s happy because he has Mommy, just a Mommy redefined with less nursing. I’m happy because I’ve reclaimed my body. I feel free to be nurturing and warm without that constant insistent tug on my tee shirt. I’m happy too because I’ve circumvented a power struggle, turned it into an agreement. I’ve asserted my authority -- something I was afraid to do -- without being the bad guy. And most of all because when I’m no longer irritated at him, Damian is an utterly charming little imp.

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