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
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.