Memoir

Dried milk

On the trials and rewards of weaning children

THE RUIN OF the new mother is the raspberry.

I give Yasmin, her eight-month-old, the bursting prize of the red berry. I know what I am doing. Yasmin’s smooth, brand-name knit has never been stained, until today. I jerk the chain on my own passive-aggressive sabotage, but it’s the only way to defend my own decomposing home: a living room covered in smeared yoghurt, crumbs and spilled milk. Mothers are competitive. They compete over sleep, over breastfeeding, over bottle-feeding, over milestones, over sanitised cleanliness, over baby-led weaning and puréed liver as a first food. It is not a matter or skill or devotion; it is simply luck or privilege or choice of partner, but mothers compare and internalise nevertheless. Your love for your child is dependent on your ability to feed them perfectly. Raspberries are the great equaliser.

Yasmin has not lived before this moment. Her eyes go wide in tart shock and delight. She scrambles for another, her deliciously fat hands unable to bring the red berry straight to her tongue. Her poor mother sighs, the raspberry smeared down the knitted outfit like a watercolour painting.

Welcome to the future, bitch. We soak at dawn.

My two-year-old walks over, pizza shapes in hand, red and orange MSG residue dripping down her face in little grains. She points at my chest. ‘See bandaids?’

I have my own stain to bear beneath a baggy jumper. Two nipples, overworked so determinately they can now stretch out like jelly snakes. In total I have breastfed 1,320 days between two children. Five years of pregnancy and lactation, pregnancy and lactation. Yesterday I stopped feeding my youngest. In an attempt at ritual, I let her place bandaids over my nipples in the shape of a star-burst flower.

‘Milkies are sleeping. We have back tickles now. And drink chai honey milk from a cup.’

She comprehended, somehow. Farewelled them tenderly. Asked for a feed a few times, before seeing the bandaids and redirecting. Then she just held me, stroking my hair with her bear-paw hands, as if I were the one who needed to grieve. Perhaps I was.

She lifts up my shirt now, in front of the mother and her newly stained baby. They stare, as my toddler kisses each covered nipple, like they are of her body, not mine.

‘We are weaning,’ I explain hurriedly. ‘I never intended to feed this long. But there has been a lot of, umm, trauma. She needed it. For comfort, I guess.’

The mother nods, her face twisted. I can’t tell if it is in repulsion or longing. ‘But how…how does the milk stay if she is away from you so much?’

I do not know, and I tell her this honestly. Many mothers struggle to sustain a supply early on. It can dry up quickly. I do not know how my body has come to understand our co-parenting schedule, twenty-seven months after her birth. I do not know how I rarely ever get engorged when she is apart from me. How when we are reunited there is always enough, even on the nights she is sick and feeds like a newborn puppy. How after she was forcibly separated from me for almost two weeks, and I contorted in righteous fury and hormonal turbulence, my milk simply returned to me on the same day she did to accommodate her need for it.

I do not know how two breasts no larger than teacups have sustained that kind of emotional provision. I do not know how they feel now, instincts muzzled beneath plastic bandaid flowers, milk pooling, unneeded, in the ducts of my aching armpits.

We have been so willing. We are still so willing.

Breastmilk is adaptive, ever changing, intuitive. It approaches the miraculous. When my firstborn was premature, the thick, golden colostrum leaking from my nipples was especially formulated by my responsive body to meet a sick thirty-three-week-old baby’s needs. Breast milk changes flavour with the food the mother eats, exposing a baby to diversity of taste. It picks up on any sickness in the baby’s body as their saliva touches the mother’s nipple and provides antibodies to combat that exact illness. It is healing for skin wounds on the mother and child, for infections, for eczema, for conjunctivitis. The amount of milk the body creates depends on what the child wants and needs. The milk changes in its nutritional offering for newborns, babies and toddlers. A woman can even feed a young child and a newborn simultaneously.

The lactating body is so willing to offer itself as food. And yet I am not.

I am tired. I am embarrassed in front of the competitive mothers, who hide raised eyebrows at the size of my baby. I am thrown into a hormonal flurry upon every change over with my ex, as my daughter lifts my shirt on the front verandah and tears at my nipples with her teeth. I want to have sex without milk spraying into my partner’s eye. I want to take a new medication that should not be passed to my child through milk. I want to be able to cuddle her without it turning into a feed. I want to comfort her with my arms, my words, my breath.

There is stigma around mothers who breastfeed toddlers. How long is too long? The question is raised openly regarding appropriate boundaries, of permissive or indulgent parenting, of infantilising children. You’re too big for that now. You’re not a baby anymore. The World Health Organization recommends mothers breastfeed until children are at least two years old, ideally. The benefits of extended breastfeeding for toddlers are very clearly documented, including specialised nutrition, boosted brain development, protection from illness and, as they move into adulthood, lower cholesterol, lower blood pressure, lower obesity rates and lower rates of diabetes. The benefits to mothers are extensive, too: lower risk of breast cancer, ovarian cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, plus less endometriosis, less osteoporosis with age, less diabetes, less hypertension and less cardiovascular disease. Extended breastfeeding isn’t wrong. So why does it feel that way?

I’m three months beyond the WHO milestone, which is not hard to reach, really. The main obstacle is the shame. That oily feeling that oozes up inside as your walking, talking child – who is quickly growing stronger than you in both muscularity and will – demands milk and proceeds to unbutton your shirt themselves. Breastfeeding newborns is generally considered beautiful and natural. It is also contentious – to speak gratefully of successful breastfeeding is almost to suggest it is superior, and in a world where that does not come naturally to every parent it is deemed inappropriate to flaunt it. Fed is best, from the beginning. To breastfeed a round, snotty two-year-old is almost looked at as repulsive or perverted. It is most certainly considered gratuitous. It suggests something vulnerable or needy about the parent or their parenting. As one mother so brutally put it to me, uninvited: ‘Is it the child that really wants to feed, or is it just you?’

I’ve asked myself that question many times. The answer is both. We are consenting participants in the mother-child dyad. We value it. I am a parent who must be separated from their children for 40 per cent of each week. I yearn for them when they are gone. I love them without limit – but I loathe many aspects of motherhood. There is so much I am not good at. There are so many motherhood ‘competitions’ I can never even enter (a clean house, for one). I have struggled with the burden of losing a parent in early motherhood, with the floundering mental health of a partner, with a consequential divorce followed by grief and confusion and chaos. I have parented full-time and worked full-time. I have sat alone in lockdowns with two very young children. I have been separated by the virus from my two very young children. I have fought for the rights of these very young children to be with their mother, and have had to repair the damage when I have lost. In the hardest year of our lives, I could cuddle my older child, read her books and offer opportunities for healing conversations. But that did not work for my toddler. The most consistent thing I could offer my youngest was milk. And that was all she wanted from me – because milk means connection and connection means love.

I want to wean, but I still falter. It hurts to lose such intimacy. Milk is our shared magic, our own secret language of belonging. And like all childhood magic, it will pass away into the amnesia of maturity. In a couple of weeks she will have forgotten she ever fed from my body at all. It will be something she remembers like a dream, not fully knowing why she feels a strange softness towards the gnarled pink buds upon my breasts. She will brush a hand against them curiously in the bath, like meeting a stranger you might have loved another lifetime ago.

In the living room, the toddler waddles off to find more snacks and my friend sighs.

‘I go back to full-time work tomorrow. We are supplementing Yasmin with formula at the moment to ease the transition.’

‘Does she like taking a bottle?’ I ask. I’m envious of such freedom relatively early in postpartum. Mine always refused.

‘She hates it. I hate it. I only get to breastfeed her at night now.’

She gives a pained smile. Our chests heave, leaking untasted love into the silence.

As if on cue, the older children around my friend and me begin
to complain.

‘We’re hungry.’

They just ate.

I make everyone cups of warm dandelion-root chai, with full cream milk and honey. (No caffeine! Take that, competitive mothers!) Yasmin balls her fists angrily, missing out. We watch our shared litter as they drink in the presence of their mothers. At ease. Still small enough to need us close, for now, but grown enough to live untethered. To eat something other than us.

My friend sits a grumpy Yasmin down with the others, as if to begin the process of letting her go.

We let go and we let go and we let go.

 

WE LET GO, and the children learn to eat the food that children eat. They eat the icing off cupcakes and nibble sandwiches but not the crusts. They move effortlessly into the ever-running river of chewing, tasting, swallowing. Of supermarket shelves, stovetops, fridges, canteens, restaurants, lunchboxes. Of good food, bad food, healthy food, ‘sometimes’ food. Breakfast, morning tea, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner, dessert. Cow’s milk, goat’s milk, soy milk, cashew milk, almond milk, oat milk.

I see our children dripping chai milk onto my carpet and I do not flinch.

My friend leaves, offspring in tow. I clean the remnants of playful consumption: teeth marks in apples, scalped cupcakes, disembowelled baby cucumbers. Discarded cups of milk, everywhere.

My children are tired. We pile into the bath together, where my legs act as a playscape. I close my eyes as little hands splash around me, making ice-creams and lollipops out of empty shampoo bottles. It is so precious to be here with them. To be theirs. At peace. I sense a tug against my skin, but before I can properly compute what is happening the toddler has ripped off the bandaid flower and latched onto my nipple for dear life. My areolas are irritated and red, and her feeding suddenly feels like a strange violation. This is my body. These are my breasts. I tug her away, trying to be gentle.

‘No,’ she says. She will not be forcibly removed. She closes her eyes and her legs float up beside her as if immersed back in my womb a final time. Back to oneness.

After barely a minute, she lets go and sits up. ‘Chai milky?’

One day they will cook for themselves. One day they will realise butter and salt should be on everything. One day they will eat a mango in the sun. One day they will try mouldy yoghurt by mistake. One day soup will burn the tip of their tongue. They will begin to realise that food is connected to the way they feel. That food is connected to the brilliance of their body. That their body is connected to almost everything, for better or for worse. One day – God forbid – they might diet. I pray they don’t. One day they might binge McDonald’s to help heal a broken heart. One day they might eat a meal with someone they truly care about and they will feel the warmth of that food as the tangible devotion that it is. Maybe their bodies will quietly remember where it started and what it meant. Why they ever opened their mouths to be fed in the first place.

One day they will eat a raspberry.

I hope the red juice stains their fingers, I hope it runs like watercolour paint on the cuff of a white silk shirt.

And I hope they notice how it tastes, and nothing else.

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