I Planned To Wean My Toddler — Then The Pandemic Happened

I Planned To Wean My Toddler Before He Turned 2 — Then The Pandemic Happened

This is how he prefers to fall asleep
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The first day of shelter-in-place, my son nursed all day long. He was 22 months old. I thought, oh no.

I’d planned on breastfeeding for a year—18 months, tops. This timeline was based, in part, on the fact that a book I co-wrote was coming out in mid-2020, and I planned on touring without my son regularly for days at a time. It was also based on the fact that breastfeeding is a lot of work, and I wanted to know where the end of the tunnel lay.

However, at a year, my baby was very clearly not done, and I found that I, oddly, wasn’t either. By that point he was, of course, also eating solid food, so “mama milk” was not an every-hour thing. But also, I found my perception of breastfeeding had shifted, through doing and feeling it day after day. At a year, I felt breastfeeding less as an obligation preventing me from pursuing the things I wanted to do, and more as a thing my baby and I were pursuing in itself: an empowering and even political act. I was seizing the means of (milk) production, making food with my body! I was making a bold reproductive choice several times a day—a choice that, after my baby turned 1, chafed against societal norms!

Yet, admittedly, by 22 months, I was antsy for a night off. I was eyeing my long-expired marijuana edibles wistfully. I was dreaming of sleeping in—really sleeping in, without a long, milk-related interruption when my son awoke for the day at 6 am.

A couple of months before quarantine began, I’d begun to cautiously wean him. One morning, he even woke up and forgot to ask for milk, prompting a wild mix of emotions in me. I called a doula friend to announce, “I think he’s starting to actually wean himself!” to which she responded, “Congratudolences!”

But then the pandemic hit. Our usual schedule—in which my toddler spent two days a week at daycare and three days with my parents—was smashed. He was now home 24/7, and so was I, and all he wanted to do was nurse, nurse, nurse.

That first week, he couldn’t believe his luck.

“Want to play with blocks?”
“No! I wanna nurse!”
“How about a bath?”
“Bath is silly! Nursing, nursing!”
“Maybe… let’s look out the window?”
“I don’t like windows! Nuuuurrrrssse!!!”

In the couple of months that followed, he slid into old patterns—nursing for comfort, for rest, for solace. This was partly because we were suddenly home together all the time. I’m sure it was also due to the lack of other appealing options, especially in those early weeks when we didn’t know whether it was safe to even take a walk, and—being under two—he was too young to keep a mask on without trying to devour it.

I despaired. I knew there were lots of great things about breastfeeding a toddler, and that I was lucky and privileged to be able to choose it; so many parents can’t. I’d read that kids often naturally wean between the ages of two and four. I know many badass people who breastfed their kids for years. But how was I supposed to go on this book tour, the one I’d dreamed about since before I was pregnant? How was I supposed to get anything done while working from home, with a child perpetually attached to my body? And those edibles! When was I finally going to be able to dissolve them blissfully under my tongue?

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But then my reasons started eroding. It became clear that the 2020 book tour would be virtual, of course. I learned how to barricade myself in a separate room while working, so my kid wouldn’t see me and get ideas about “mama milk.” And eventually I learned how to say, “You can’t nurse now, but you can nurse later!” in such a bright and jovial tone that he’d chill out and wait a couple hours. The edibles alone didn’t seem like a good enough excuse to cut him off, especially since nursing releases its own pleasant druggy chemicals into your bloodstream. Did I want to give up all that luscious oxytocin for THC?

Plus, I found, breastfeeding was useful when we were stuck at home all day. It could be a tool for soothing, calming, nap preparation, and most importantly, for I-need-to-just-check-my-phone-for-awhile-so-I’m-going-to-do-it-behind-your-head-while-you-nurse. Nursing wasn’t just a drag, and it wasn’t just a comfort; it was a pragmatic strategy for getting through the pandemic.

As I settled into the reality that we might be nursing for a lot longer than I’d initially planned, my anxieties about when he was supposed to wean dispersed. There was no book tour, no work conflict, and so, no rush to quit, as long as we both kept making that choice to continue. On days when I wasn’t working, I grew to look forward to his nursing requests; at a chaotic moment in the universe, our nursing sessions were real downtime. It’s hard to get up while you’re nursing, so—if you can—you might as well let yourself relax. Eventually, I even stopped checking my phone behind his head quite so often.

Breastfeeding has, in a sense, taught me how to wait. It’s not that nursing is doing nothing; it’s hard work! Your body is transformed into a production site, funneling nutrients out, exhausting you even as you sit still. But the working is in the waiting.

This is often true of parenting more broadly. Some of the most important work—watching a toddler eat to ensure they don’t choke on a blueberry; tracking their movements at the beach so they don’t fall into the lake and drown themselves—could be perceived by an oblivious bystander as no work at all. But it’s fundamental to the job.

During pandemic times, waiting has become an even more vital skill for all of us, parents and non-parents alike. Of course, there’s no comparing the desperate wait for the COVID numbers to decline or the wait for a vaccine shot to the much-much-lower-stakes wait for a kid to wrap up a breastfeeding session. But the skill still translates. I’ve always been bad at taking a breath and letting it out slowly, at accepting stillness. My toddler’s ongoing nursing has offered me daily lessons in the art of the wait.

Now, more than a year has passed since I abandoned my weaning attempt, and my child’s third birthday is quickly approaching. Am I going to stop? Determine a cutoff date? Will he naturally lose interest when he starts preschool, and waiting and stillness are no longer such a core part of his life, or mine?

No idea. But for now, I’m going to take a cue from the world’s past year and remind myself I can’t plan everything. I’m going to let these questions simmer, breathe out, and see where the wait takes us.