E. is now 17 months old and I’m still breastfeeding him. However, breastfeeding didn’t come naturally to me. It took me many weeks to adjust to it and was quite painful at the beginning. After the initial moments of pain passed, all went well. During the first six months I loved the sense of connection that breastfeeding brought and the feeling that I was giving him something that was good and healthy – my milk. I could hardly believe that he was feeding exclusively on my milk for six months. It was like a miracle to me.
During our Christmas holidays in France, when E. was three-and-a-half months old, he got an infection and we ended up in hospital there. The first night was horrible: he had a high fever and was in pain. The hospital was packed, due to a strike by some of the staff, and we ended up sharing a room with three other babies and their mothers. During the first night, which I spent sitting on a chair with him, the only thing that calmed E. down was breastfeeding. I was frightened and in tears because I had never seen him like that, but he latched onto my breast as the only relief available to him in this world. At those moments I thought to myself: “At least, I can breastfeed”, as the act of breastfeeding was the best and only thing I could do. This thought gave me peace of mind. There was absolutely nothing more I could do; and on top of that, it was working. While on my breast, he stopped screaming.
My other memory from the hospital was the sense of solidarity with the other mothers. I remember an Arab woman with a three-year-old girl in the bed next to ours. Her toddler had an infection and cried throughout the whole night. At one point the mother screamed at her: “What do you want? I can’t do anything more, please stop crying!” I felt great compassion for this woman who stayed beside her daughter day and night. We were all exhausted, and I could feel that the women in our room were just doing their best (I refer exclusively to women because those who stayed at night were all women, whether breastfeeding or not). So although I tend to criticize everything, I didn’t find any room for criticism during those days in hospital in France.
The following morning I fetched myself a coffee and got another for the Arab mother. I empathized with her about how difficult it is to stay with a toddler crying the whole night. She replied that this had not been the first night but the fifth that her child had cried all night. She clearly needed some rest. She started crying. In the hospital in France, I learned about the strength of women that raise their children on their own, and how easily we criticize other women without understanding or learning about their circumstances.
During these days in hospital I found breastfeeding a source of comfort and relief and had the sense that my milk was helping E. to get stronger. I felt very proud of myself as woman able to feed our baby. Now breastfeeding has another meaning for me. It is the sense of connection, of being really close to E. The other day I told my partner that I don’t know when I’ll stop breastfeeding because when this happens I will never be so close to E. again. Breastfeeding has become a question of connection rather than health; an issue of nurturing rather than feeding. By breastfeeding at night I keep my intimate moments with E. and I also have the perfect excuse to refuse to do any travelling, which I don’t feel like doing at this point.
From the initial pain and discomfort to the joy and pride of being able to feed E. exclusively with my milk, breastfeeding has had different meanings for me in my relationship with him. I think I will be able to stop breastfeeding when I can find other ways of communicating with him that provide us with some sort of intimacy. But I’m not longing for this time to come, and I’m sure it will bring buckets of tears.