Weaning war and peace

Obi woke early and instead of the usual morning gambol in bed, her prising open my lids and saying ‘mama awake!’ with great surprise, she headed out to the loungeroom and started a long, quiet conversation with her toys. Still half asleep and glad of the respite, I drifted for a few blissful moments, head under the doona, the next thing I knew she was whimpering. I found her, back against the wall, behind the clothes rack, T trying to cajole her out, to no avail.

We were three nights into a weaning attempt. My co-sleeping babe, who’d been breastfed to sleep every night of her life had screamed and raged and eventually cried herself into unconsciousness for three nights, and this morning, the sadness was coming off her like steam.

I went to work, reluctant to leave her and sat in front of my computer and cried. I looked for support online and waded through an ocean of opinion that did nothing for my pain. Is this what it was supposed to feel like – a tearing apart, a deep sorrow, confusion, guilt. I stared at the blank screen for another hour then went home.

She was asleep in the car. I rang the Australian Breastfeeding Association and spoke to a counsellor, giving her a brief synopsis of the past three nights and days: picking Obi up every time she got off the bed and stood weeping at the door, lugging her back, rigid and arching her back in rage, or falling through my arms, like water; laying my hand on her back, crooning soft nothings to calm the storm; she pushing me away until she finally stopped, falling off a precipice into nothing, reaching for me in that final moment: ‘hold hand’, breath still ragged with sobs.

‘Is it worth it?’ was the first thing she said. ‘She’s giving you a pretty clear message that she’s not ready.’ And I saw that it wasn’t so important after all. That the desperate feeling of being stuck had dissolved. I didn’t have to persevere with a failing experiment that had both of us feeling adrift and bereft. My instinct was telling me what to do but I was afraid of failure. Everyone around me was weaning even younger babies. But maybe I was pushing the separation too fast. Obi, already on an escalator to bigness had suddenly put on the brakes at this new level of separation. ‘I thought because she was only feeding to sleep and has been for six months that it would be relatively easy to just drop it.’

‘At two, they’re growing up so fast, but they’re still babies. Even that one feed can be such a comfort to them. It makes a huge difference if they can call the shots on when they’re ready to move on.’

Talking to the ABA counselor gave me the opportunity to step outside the maelstrom of emotion that was clouding my instinct and just look clearly at the situation. Why now? I wanted evening freedom again. The one time I had left her with T and gone out to dinner with some friends, she had screamed for me until she fell asleep. I felt my self pushing against the bonds that bind me to her and home. I wanted to leave her without either of us feeling I had abandoned ship.

‘Both my kids self-weaned at four,’ said the counsellor. ‘They were fed to sleep until then but if I was out, my husband would put them down and they were fine with that.’

We decided I would try going out one night a week and letting T and Obi work it out. ‘There’s nothing wrong with a drive in the car and then carrying her into bed,’ she said. ‘But try not to come back until she’s asleep. ‘If you come back because she’s screaming she’ll only scream more the next time. She’ll pretty quickly work out that dad can do sleep too, if mum’s not around.’

When she wakes up we cuddle on the couch for a while. She lays her head on my chest. ‘Boobie?’ she asks shyly. I lift up my shirt. She looks at me for a moment, uncertainly, then assumes the position and closes her eyes, a look of absolutely contentment on her face, tinged with relief. After a few moments she opens her eyes and looks up at me and smiles, then she’s off, chasing the dog down the verandah. The weight on my heart, lifted.