Something Jewish about breastfeeding

I spent the afternoon with my friend Tanya today, who writes a fantastic breastfeeding blog for Motherwear. I promised I would write “something Jewish about breastfeeding” for her.

 “The child grew and was weaned, and on the day Isaac was weaned Abraham held a great feast.” Genesis 21:8-21


not my child, not my breast

not my child, not my breast

It might be hard to imagine throwing a party to celebrate weaning. Many of my peers breastfed their children into toddlerhood, and even then had palpable ambivalence about ending the nursing relationship. But when I came across this passage in the Torah, shortly after my daughter Ella stopped nursing, I was struck by the idea. If only I had celebrated reaching this milestone rather than apologizing for it!
My first daughter Ella and I had a very rough start with breastfeeding. She came into the world jaundiced, and consequently, very sleepy. With no lactation support, I didn’t know that I should pump during this time in order to build up a strong milk supply, and at a few weeks old she was diagnosed with failure to thrive. I was deeply committed to exclusively breastfeeding, and met with the lactation consultant at the local hospital (who had been on vacation during our extended hospital stay) as well as every La Leche leader in Southern Oregon. I tried every recommendation, but because of our late start, nothing made a difference. Ultimately, and with a broken heart, I gave into her doctor’s insistence that we supplement with formula. Even then, I continued to seek solutions, and after another month of pumping every three hours, day and night, with a hospital grade pump, I was able to increase my supply to the point where my daughter began refusing the formula.

I share this to say that I fought hard for the privilege of breastfeeding my daughter. But, on her first birthday, when she refused the breast, I breathed a sigh of relief. While I probably wasn’t ready to initiate the weaning process, I was really, truly ready to stop breastfeeding. Despite all the progress I had made, I never stopped being anxious about breastfeeding. I never stopped worrying about how much milk she was getting, and I never really gained confidence as a nursing mom. So when she refused the breast, with the stubbornness that she now displays as a kindergartener, I comfortably glided into “don’t offer, don’t refuse” mode. She never reached for the breast again.

I poured my attention and energy into other forms of care-giving. I felt liberated, confident, and ready to try to get pregnant again. But I also felt self-conscious, just as I did in those early weeks of her life, when I would take out a bottle of supplemental formula. I worried other mothers thought I wasn’t quite committed enough to giving my daughter “the best.” I delivered long explanations about self-weaning to anyone who would listen, and they felt an awful lot like excuses.

Instead, we could have thrown a party, as Abraham did for Issac. Dear friends, let’s celebrate this child who has grown and thrived despite impossible odds (according to the Torah, Sarah was 90 when she conceived.)  While at first I questioned why Abraham held the party instead of Sarah, I realized that party must have been meant to honor her as well. Loved ones gathered to celebrate a mother who found joy late in life, and would probably not live to bear another child. Yet, she was allowing her son to move on with grace to the next of many stages of increasing independence.

Zoe was born 10 months later. Determined to do a better job, I pulled out my Medela pump at the first sign of jaundice and had her weighed several times a week until we were convinced that all was well. I was jubilant and for the first time, felt great about breastfeeding. But at her six-month checkup, when she was still nursing exclusively and on demand (and refusing any kind of bottle with a now familiar stubbornness), we discovered she had actually lost weight over the last two months. All my anxieties returned, and once again, I became a slave to the baby scale.

I didn’t have a party when Zoe weaned, either. But I learned something from Sarah and Abraham. Weaning didn’t need to be a time of mourning, but instead of time of celebration. I gave myself permission to initiate the “don’t offer, don’t refuse” process as Zoe approached one year. When she quickly weaned, I didn’t make excuses and I didn’t feel remorse. I was proud of the obstacles I had overcome to raise two beautiful, healthy daughters and was pleased to take a tiny step back to watch them grow.

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posted March 22, 2009 at 2:48 pm

I just discovered your blog through havail havalim (I’m there too for and I like what I see! Haha… I was three when I was weaned (La Leche League mommy) and it was actually a really big deal to me. I would introduce myself to complete strangers and announce, “I’m weaned!” I admire what it took for you to stick with breastfeeding… I hope I have that kind of determination some day. Btw, does your blog name have anything to do with homeschooling, or is it just a play on words? I was homeschooled until college! I look forward to following your blog.

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posted March 22, 2009 at 6:35 pm

Thanks Maya – we don’t home school – in fact, my husband and I are both classroom teachers. The idea behind the blog is that most of our Jewish life takes place at home.

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Sarah Buttenwieser

posted March 24, 2009 at 11:47 am

Lovely piece. You’re making me want to write a piece that encompasses feeding all four, Ezekiel hard-won, Lucien easy, Remy forever almost (a month before he turned five) & Saskia with a bottle.
This piece I wrote long ago & includes mention not just of our weaning (not much on that) but a special party.

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posted March 25, 2009 at 1:39 pm

Thanks for sharing that Sarah – it really resonated with me. It’s amazing how many of us have similar stories (yet feel so isolated when it’s all going on….) I hope you do write that next piece.

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Lauren @ HoboMama

posted March 25, 2009 at 5:55 pm

I found you through Motherwear. I really like this. I’ve been emotionally dreading when my toddler will wean, and I need encouragement to celebrate it as a milestone when he does choose it. How wonderful to find a Scriptural reason! Thanks.

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RivkA (Coffee and Chemo)

posted March 29, 2009 at 7:21 pm

One day, maybe I’ll write about my nursing experiences…. the short story is that despite a VERY tough start, I nursed my two older kids for two years. My youngest self-weaned at around three and a half! She was fine with it. I was sad when I realized that was it, I was done nursing my kids.
As someone who knows how hard it can be to nurse when the beginning is not easy, I think it’s great that you stuck it out and had two successful nursing experiences!!
Nursing for the child’s first year is recommended by all the health organizations and yet so many mothers stop at the first sign of difficulty. Good for you for making it work!!

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posted May 23, 2009 at 9:19 am

Hi there, I found your blog by searching for breastfeeding images. I am 9 weeks pregnant tomorrow and would really like to breastfeed my little baby once he/she comes. Thank you for sharing your story. It’s refreshing to read one that doesn’t come off with a militant view on breastfeeding, and also one that shares of how the baby stopped on their own at a pretty good age. I think you did everything right! Congrats on the baby’s turnaround – you must be so proud. :D

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