What Ending Breastfeeding Taught Me About “Last Times”

I was supposed to write about something fun. I had delegated August’s post to “Fun Things to Do in San Antonio with Your Girlfriends,” and although you might find that easier to digest than what I’m about to write, I need to get this off my chest.

Let me begin at the beginning.

When I found out I was pregnant at 45 I was inconsolable. I experienced a parade of emotions that ranged from happiness at being a mother again to downright fear of acknowledgement that becoming a mother again so late in the game would mean many different things for me, mainly that perhaps I would not live long enough to see my child grow up into her 30s, 40s, 50s. You get the picture.

But that’s a story for another time.

Right now, I want to invite you into my space to deconstruct something that I am currently experiencing. This deconstruction has to do with me deciding, after over three years, to end my breastfeeding journey. What surprises me the most is that I find myself profoundly moved to write not about the act of breastfeeding itself, but rather the ending of it. Making the decision to stop breastfeeding my daughter got me thinking about this simple yet markedly true thought:

There is a “last time” for everything.

Ending my breastfeeding journey was just one more last time in a life (like yours) that has been marred by a whole string of last times: some good, some not so good. Some necessary, some not. Some we see coming, some come unexpectedly.

There was a last time you’d kiss that boy with whom you broke up in high school. Planned, you saw that coming. Hell, the whole world saw it coming. You were ready for it. There was a last time you’d close the door to your bedroom in the house you grew up in before your parents decided to sell. Planned, you saw it coming. There was a last time you wore that raggedy comfy t-shirt you bought at the Depeche Mode concert during your sophomore year of high school. Your husband had begged you to set fire to it, and deep down, you knew you should because, God forbid, if you died in your sleep you’d be mortified to know that they carried you out in that hideous thing. Planned, you saw it coming. People have an array of last times they see coming: the last drink, the last check for the mortgage, the last spin in your two-seater before acquiescing to the minivan.

And the last time you decide to breastfeed.

Having forgotten my pump at home during a five-day, out-of-town business trip, I decided that maybe this was a subconscious attempt by my body to stop the inevitable. After all, my daughter is three years old, and to finally put an end to all-day, on-demand feedings, nursing bras, and pumping and dumping after a few glasses of liquid grain did seem utopic. I wasn’t going to let myself be riddled with guilt, second guesses, or daunting doubt. Here, by default, I was given an unplanned jump-start and would leverage this long absence from my daughter to end breast feeding. Finally.

Let me save you the suspense. Everything you have ever read about stopping breastfeeding cold-turkey is true. It was physically painful with headaches and nausea. It was uncomfortable with all the swelling and engorgement. All of this suffered through without the comforts of home and within the confines of a conference room by day and a two-and-a-half-star hotel room at night. It was completely unbearable at times, but I was already committed.

Fast forward five days and a red-eye fight later: I was back at home, feeling quasi-normal again and incredibly anxious about whether the little one would want to latch on with fierce determination to make up for lost time. But that did not happen. What happened instead is what has me invading my own head space, riddled by guilt, second guesses, and daunting doubt.

In my first full day back home, she never once gave me the non-verbal cue that had been her signal to me that it was our time to bond; that gentle tug of my shirt as she settled into my lap was now gone. A part of me had hoped it would return that evening, but as the evening came and went, it became apparent that perhaps in my absence she had been adequately weaned off of breastfeeding.

I struggled. I struggled to recall our last time together. Unbeknownst to me, we had already experienced our last breastfeeding session, and I was in a hurried frenzy to recall some moments of it to cling to for dear life. When had it been? Where had it been? What did I say to her? What was I wearing? Why couldn’t I remember the smallest of details of our last time? Was I distracted with feeds and updated statuses? Was I in automaton mode and using our quiet bonding time to create to-do lists in my head? I couldn’t remember a single moment of our last time together.

I was surprised. Surprised at how much this affected me. After all the late nights, the incessant complaining, being doggedly tired some days, the inconvenience of pumping on restroom floors during business trips, the embarrassment of leaking at the most inopportune of times…after it all, it still hurt for it to end.

And I had no memory of it to hold on to. Our last time.

I cried.

Maybe because in my 40s I realize now what a privilege it has been. I also realize that she is the last child I will ever breastfeed. I cried for all the women who want to experience this with aching desire but might never get the chance to. I cried for all the women who have experienced this leaping beauty and will one day have to end their journey too. I cried because this chapter had come to an end, and because even after 36 months, two weeks, and three days, it felt too soon.

I cried because I took this privilege and was not present for most of it. I took for granted what some women would give anything to experience and some will not get the chance to.

Fast forward three days later: As I settled her down for her afternoon nap, she looked up at me with her big, green eyes and, wonder of all wonders, she tugged at my shirt with a smile I now have etched in the pages of my mind. I lay next to her, wrestling with the worry that this might set her back and quickly pushing those thoughts away. Transfixed by her stare, I didn’t dare break it this time like I had so many times before. And just like that, I got to have a proper last time of breastfeeding with my daughter.

No complaining. No electronic distractions. No mental to-do lists cluttering my mind. Just me and her and the knowledge that this would be our last time breastfeeding.

As I held her gaze, I played with her hair and chased the length of her arms with my finger tips. I whispered all the amazing things I loved about her: “You’re strong and funny. You’re creative and loving. You’re kind and amazing.” I let the kindness pour over her. I told her that she’s a big girl now and that we will have to enjoy our closeness in other ways now. And with that, she fell fast asleep.

There are last times that we never see coming. The last conversation that we have with a loved one who is taken unexpectedly and too soon. The last time you take your kids to the amusement park before they deem it uncool to be seen anywhere with you. The last time life was normal before getting life-altering news.

There is a last time for everything. Some we see coming, some we don’t.

I am aware now. I am aware how fortunate I was to be given the opportunity to narrate how our last time breastfeeding would end. I was able to, this last time, remember small details: the trace of her face, the smell of her hair, her feel of her hand on my face, and the sensation of holding her close to me while my tears silently ran. I have saved this moment in the cache of my memory and will pull it out one day when the occasion calls for it—perhaps it will be when the classroom door shuts behind me for her first day of school, or maybe, if I am lucky enough, it will be the very first time she experiences the leaping wonder of breastfeeding her own child.

You hear a lot about being mindful like it’s the new black. There really is something to it because the sad fact is, you never fully experience the need for it until it becomes too late. Breastfeeding, or the ending of it, taught me that there is a last time for everything. And even though we may not be able to see some of the last times coming, we can control how much of those moments we show up for, to savor and enjoy.

Trust me—your future self will thank you for it.