I looked down at her sleeping. She had just finished nursing and was still holding onto me with her little hands and her mouth. Her silky, dark blonde curls were resplendent in the mid-afternoon, early August light. The warm pink of her cheeks was soft against the crisp, white sheets of our bed. This was her only nursing session now, the afternoon nap feed. I have been gently weaning her for three months and it is going far better than I expected. She is doing just fine. I am avoiding thinking about how I feel just yet.
Here’s the thing — I can’t have any more babies. I nearly died while delivering our fourth baby and needed an emergency hysterectomy to save my life. There is a longing for the babies that I’ll never know. My body was broken during the birthing process and the very thing that gave my babies life nearly took my own.
I have always exclusively breastfed and my biggest fear with this last baby was that the three hour emergency surgery would affect the bond with my baby and that it would impact my milk production. As they pushed her swaddled, crying body against my shell-shocked husband, I managed to say to him, “start skin to skin” as they rushed him out the doors. My doctor didn’t put me under a general anesthetic because he knew that my primary goal would be to breastfeed after the surgery. So there I lay, awake, tied down in cruciform, willing to surrender my life but desperately praying that God would take this cup from me.
“Father, if thou wilt remove this cup from me: — but then, not my will, but thine be done.” (Luke 22:42)
My husband, with shaking hands, untied his hospital scrubs, removed his shirt, and sat with our sweet baby girl pressed up against his chest. In his other hand there lay a relic, clenched and creased, of Venerable Fulton Sheen’s cape. She immediately settled onto him. Her heart rate slowed, and her breathing became regulated. It wasn’t my chest, but it was a heartbeat that I knew she knew because of how close his heart lies next to mine at night.
I came out of surgery three hours later and barely remembered feeding her that first sip of colostrum. My recovery was horrendous and my milk production was significantly impacted due to the trauma that my body had endured. After a few days, she still wasn’t gaining weight. She was drawn and sallow, weak, and far too sleepy. My doctor was concerned, but I was adamant about feeding her myself. I knew that I had been rushing her feeding times. I had three other children to take care of! I didn’t keep her at the breast as long as I should have. I promised that I would accept help.
I called my own mother and she came to look after the other children while my husband worked overnight at his job. I sat and nursed, and sat and nursed, and cried and nursed, and sat. As she slowly gained weight I came to know that although my body felt damaged and hollowed out after losing my uterus, it was still whole and productive and had value. Her little nursing body healed mine. I felt the rush of oxytocin and enough love to soften the pain of my black and blue flesh. I endured the pain of the injections I had to give myself to prevent an embolism, the pain of the nerve damage down the left side of my body, the pain of mastitis. The pain of nearly dying.
Finally being full and nourished at my breast, my daughter began to open her eyes. Her cheeks filled out and smiles formed along their edges. She grew and grew until she was a gigantic eight-month-old who tipped the scales at twenty-four pounds! My family doctor didn’t think I could sufficiently feed her in those early days. My maternal instincts knew better. I knew that I could trust my body.
She speaks a few words now and plays sweet little games. She asks me to nurse her baby doll. She has a code word for nursing time. She is nearly twenty-seven months and we are moving toward the last drop and I don’t know how to feel about this stage of my life being over.
For seventy-seven months I have been blissfully bound to my house and to my bottle-less babies. Every piece of clothing that I own has been ripped and stretched by tiny hands; every medication scrutinized to make sure it is nursing friendly; every late night invitation to something wonderful like a Christmas party or a wedding reception turned down because I have been sitting on the couch, with a baby on my lap. I have spent an eternity twisting soft hair around in my fingers and listening to rhythmic gulps. I am thankful for the end of co-sleeping, for being able to roll over and pull up the bedsheets to my chin, but let me tell you, there remains something transcendent about feeding in the moonlight while the neighborhood dreams, a smile spreading on tiny, milk-wet lips. A smile directed up at the mother who is literally pouring the love out her own body into the body of her child.
I know the day will come when I realize that we didn’t nurse yesterday, that today is too filled with play, and that tomorrow will be too filled with errands— and suddenly it will be over. As much as I want to celebrate this “freedom”, I can’t yet because freedom shouldn’t hurt this much. I went through many days over the last ten years dreaming of this phase in my life being finished, but now, standing at the edge, looking at a future of cute dresses with higher necklines and perhaps an overnight away with my husband, I feel unsure and lost. I don’t yet know who I am if I’m not sitting on my couch nursing.
As a Catholic, I cannot help but connect my own nursing experience with the biblical symbolism in which an infant at the breast represents the Church.
“Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.” (Isaiah 49:15)
There are so many beautiful images of Our Blessed Mother with Jesus at her breast. In fact, the first image of Mary is from the second century and she is depicted nursing Jesus. Mary physically fed and nourished Him so that He could fulfill His mission of salvation. Our Lord gave up His life for our sins but not before leaving us with His physical body, re-presented each week during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
At a Vatican conference in 1995, Pope St. John Paul II addressed those present and discussed breastfeeding. He said, “All of this is obviously a matter of immediate concern to countless women and children, and something which clearly has general importance for every society, rich or poor. One hopes that your studies will serve to heighten public awareness of how much this natural activity benefits the child and helps to create the closeness and maternal bonding so necessary for healthy child development. So human and natural is this bond that the Psalms use the image of the infant at its mother’s breast as a picture of God’s care for man (cf. Ps. 22:9). So vital is this interaction between mother and child that my predecessor Pope Pius XII urged Catholic mothers, if at all possible, to nourish their children themselves. From various perspectives, therefore, the theme is of interest to the Church, called as she is to concern herself with sanctity of life and of the family.”
I have sat nursing at Mass with my eyes fixed upon the bloody and beaten body of Our Lord. Often, my eyes wander to the statues of His mother, her heart pierced with sorrow. I have contemplated Our Lady looking down at “heaven in her arms”, as the Venerable Fulton Sheen describes Our Lord, and while my children are by no means the physical manifestation of The Word, they sure look heavenly to me. I nearly gave up my body in the spring of 2014. And while I didn’t die a final death, I have come to realize that motherhood involves a lot of mini, daily deaths to self. We are called to give our bodies time and time again in little ways every day. My body wasn’t just given over during pregnancy, it remained always willing to serve whenever my babies needed it. I gave up everything during my nursing years, but as I have looked down at each of their little faces over time it is not with a sense of loss but with the feeling that I too have lived out my own vocation by saying to my babies, in imitation of Christ, that this is my body, given up for you. I now understand sacrifice in a whole new way, and have fallen deeper and deeper in love with Our Lord during these long days spent in exhausted servitude.
The God of thy father shall be thy helper, and the Almighty shall bless thee with the blessings of heaven above, with the blessings of the deep that lieth beneath, with the blessings of the breasts and of the womb. (Genesis 49:25)