Still got milk?

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There were certain things I thought I'd never do when I became a mother. I wouldn't yell at my children, share my marital bed or nurse through toddler-hood. As my husband said with authority when we first discussed breastfeeding: "If you can ask for it, then you're too old for it."

Never say never when it comes to parenting. Fast-forward four years, and I'm still nursing my 2-year-old. She's evolved out of her sweet baby-word for milk ("Nigh-nigh?") into a precise verbal demand: "Me want some bubbies, Mommy. Right now." Even in liberal Vermont, where lactation activism is a thriving movement, I worry what others will think.

One friend reassures me: "It's not a problem if both parties are happy with the arrangement." And both parties are (mostly). My toddler is a whirlwind of energy who rarely slows down for snuggling or book-reading. Nursing provides us rare moments of connection as we attempt an afternoon nap or wind down from a busy day. Her warm, sturdy body slides into my lap and curls up infant-style, her feet flopping over the side of the chair.

For 10 minutes we nurse and rock in a blissful trace. Her free hand plays with my hair. Her eyelids flutter as she drinks and grows drowsy, nestled in her safe place, her original source of comfort. Once again I'm amazed at the sheer sensual pleasure of it, the cocoon of give-and-take that shuts out the outside world. I remember the first months of nursing my babies as a milky island in a dark sea. The tiny hand like a star, stroking my skin ...

"She touches me exactly how I've always wanted to be touched," another nursing mother told me in delight. We were exchanging war stories of first-time motherhood: recovery from long labor, mind-numbing sleep deprivation, the mysterious gassy periods when a fussy newborn would escalate into hard-bellied, inconsolable screaming. But we were both lucky to experience the intimacy of breastfeeding, and we found sweet solace in that new relationship -- a kind of falling-in-love.

For me, nursing made every challenge worthwhile. It was also the only thing in the continuum of pregnancy, childbirth, and postpartum that had come easily. While pregnant, I struggled with depression and succumbed to its downward pull during the third trimester. Both my labors had been long and excruciating, complicated by mechanical difficulties that resulted in two emergency Cesareans.

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Recovering in bed with a painful, puffy abdominal incision, I grieved my lost dream of natural childbirth. I imagined that other women were fulfilled and empowered by their birthing experiences. I'd envisioned a candlelit home water-birth, a fantasy derived from Ina May Gaskin's orgasmic stories in "Spiritual Midwifery," as well as my own sister's birth in a wilderness cabin, by candlelight during a thunderstorm when I was 10. Weepy with postpartum hormones and exhaustion, I felt I had failed some female rite of passage.

But I cradled my baby and fed her, and she grew plump from my milk. Her strong suck seemed to pull the sadness out of my veins.

With hindsight, I see that every mother is pushed to her edge at some point on the journey, often for reasons that lie in mystery. For me, it was childbirth. For others, it might be postpartum depression, a sickly newborn, or the struggle to breastfeed. Nursing can be a challenge that some women must give up. To elevate breastmilk as a magical elixir, to idealize a cult of breastfeeding -- just more ways to make mothers feel bad about themselves.

I admit I was proud when my babies grew fat from my body's sustenance alone. It was the first miracle my breasts had ever accomplished. Starting with sixth-grade bra-snapping, I'd felt a vague sense of shame and inadequacy about my small chest. One boyfriend had likened my boobs to "little grapefruits." I never fantasized about getting implants or appearing in Playboy, but I was thrilled when pregnancy resulted in definitive, head-turning cleavage. It may be pure vanity, but I know that when I stop nursing (after five years of gestating and lactating), things are going to go downhill fast. Some African tribes may revere flaccid, well-used breasts, but in our culture we worship perky, 18-year-old Victoria's Secret models.

"Yummy bubbies. Tasty bubbies!" says my expressive nursling. I'm flattered. I feel delicious. No lover has ever been as interested in my breasts as my two babies. Not remotely close. My 4-year-old (who was weaned by 19 months) still grows wide-eyed when she sees them naked; while snuggling, she wants to touch them, kiss them, talk to them. Sometimes her fascination infuriates me, as does my squirming monkey toddler trying to nurse upside-down, grazing me with her sharp teeth. I don't want to be pawed anymore. I want my body to myself. I need SPACE.

But my youngest shows no sign of losing interest, and I want to take my cues from her. She can also throw a full-fledged screaming tantrum when refused milk, even at 2 a.m. I know I'm holding onto the last vestiges of her babyhood. But when we stop, it's forever. There's no going back. Young children quickly forget how to nurse, and soon they grow up and out of your arms.

Diana Whitney is a writer, yoga teacher and mother of two in Brattleboro. She blogs at www.spiltmilkvt.com. E-mail her at dianaspiltmilk@gmail.com


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