I sent my husband to sleep at his office last night after a close contact notification, and boy are my nipples chapped about it. Not at him, but the necessity of it. Our 6-year-old daughter is vaccinated, but our 3.5-year-old son isn’t eligible yet, and we’re doing the best we can to mitigate the risk for him. Which is why he still nurses before nap and bedtime, even though he’s now tall enough to ride Splash Mountain at Disneyland. Not that he’s ever been to an amusement park. He’s barely been anywhere outside our home for more than half his life.
At this point, for me, our extended breastfeeding situation is less about bonding and closeness and more about spreading the widest blanket of protection I can around my child. I’d quit tomorrow if I could, but I’m holding on for the potential antibodies.
“Time for your milk medicine,” I say twice a day. My kid laughs. I laugh. And I sob internally. I never planned on nursing this long.
We’ve had a challenging go of it. In December 2019, my then 17-month-old son was assessed by a speech therapist. He has lip and tongue ties and a high arched palate, which means the roof of his mouth is not smoothly rounded like most. While none of these complications are severe, together, they left his tongue too weak to draw food to the back of his throat. Even when I mashed or pre-chewed his food like a mama bird (I know, I know), he still relied on breastmilk for half his caloric intake.
The therapist moaned as she watched him nurse,“Oh, his little latch is so shallow; no wonder it hurts you so much.” So that’s why his sweet little lips felt like nipple clamps? She assigned us a variety of mouth exercises to strengthen his tongue and jaw muscles. She encouraged us to keep nursing until he was more successful with food or voluntarily quit.
I sighed as I smeared peanut butter inside his cheeks to work out his tongue and had him blow air through straws to exercise his lips. I’d wanted to wean, but he was nowhere near ready. When Covid hit immediately afterward, I thought, well, we’re already tits deep in this breastfeeding life. What’s a little longer?
I couldn’t anticipate the whiplash we’d go through waiting for the vaccine for kids under 5. During the eight months between my first vaccine in March 2021 and my daughter’s in November, I cheered myself on with the thought that my toddler was probably better protected than my older kid.
Milk is my superpower! I chanted internally when my son crawled into my lap as I worked at the table. Maybe I’m saving a life today, I sighed, pulling my shirt down after the bath, book, and toothbrush routine. He’s finally eating well and drinking his own fluids. Soon he’ll be vaccinated, and I’ll be free. I held on, month after month, hopeful his first jab would come by the end of 2021, and I could finally retire my boobs for good.
Instead, 2022 brought Omicron and more mind-destroying vaccine delays for the nation’s youngest kids.
I’m not alone in nursing past the point of desire in pandemic times. While food insecurity, picky eaters, and toddlers with mouth and throat challenges like mine are still big influencers, there’s another big factor: access. With more breast and chestfeeding parents working from home, availability goes up, which keeps the ol’ supply chain well-stocked. Plus, when you never go anywhere, who’s going to give you side-eye for nursing past a certain age? (Because, of course, no matter how you feed your kid — formula or breast, 6 months or 6 years, under a cover or in broad daylight — someone’s always giving away free opinions about it.)
It’s amazing to feel like my superhero boobs can help my kid, and I’m grateful I’ve been able to hold on this long. But I’m beyond ready to let the “milk medicine” dry up.
I was nursing last month when I learned the first two shots of the Covid-19 vaccine for kids under 5 might be approved as early as March. I nearly levitated out of bed with relief. Please, please, please, let me take my boobs off the menu. Then, two weeks ago, we learned that actually, the youngest kids will have to wait even longer. Maybe in two or three months they’ll get that first Pfizer shot (maybe), then another three months total before they’re fully vaccinated. Or maybe Moderna will surprise us all with news in March. Who knows? Meanwhile, enjoy the regular quarantines and missed pre-school days whenever a random sniffle blows by.
Last week, the country gave up on masks.
This week, I still have an unvaccinated toddler.
At this point, my nips are just about as cracked as the rest of me.
Keema Waterfield is the author of Inside Passage, a nomadic childhood memoir set along the wild coast of Southeast Alaska. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, WIRED, Brevity, and others. She lives and writes on Séliš and Qlispé land. Follow her on Twitter @keemasaurusrex and Instagram @keemasaurusrex.