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Weeping while weaning: the losses and loves of motherhood

Here’s a question from a friend:

We’re starting to wean our daughter. (Not up for discussion – I have less than a month til #2 is born and I haven’t been able to pump since I got pregnant. She only nurses at bedtime and seems to only do so for comfort. She is 1.)

When my husband was doing snuggles with her instead of me nursing her, I started bawling. Is this a normal reaction to weaning? Is there something I can do to help with this? (I did go in and have some cuddles before she went to sleep, my husband basically was trying to get her past the default time to nurse.) SHE seemed to have no problems with it. But I’d rather not be bawling every night when we put her to bed. (Yes, I know part of it is because hormones.) (I hope this makes sense.) (Parentheses!)

First, I’d like to emphasize what my friend said: the weaning is not up for discussion. Not even “friendly suggestions” or “gentle reminders,” please. Okay!

The answer is yes, it’s well within the range of normal. Crying about anything, everything, or nothing is normal at this stage of pregnancy. I got to the stage where I wouldn’t even bother to stop what I was doing in order to have a good cry. Sob, make a sandwich, eat it while sobbing, weep into the toddler’s diaper while changing it, carry on. You’ll feel so much better soon.

And yes, weaning can sometimes add an additional shift of hormones, making things even stormier. Hormones are such bullies.

Even when you’re not super duper pregnant or adjusting to weaning levels of hormones, it’s completely normal to feel strong emotions when your relationship with your child changes.

It’s such an odd thing: it’s not as if you actually want your child to stay one particular age forever. You know full well that a huge part of your job is to help her grow up and learn new things; and yet there’s always that mixture of pride and regret when she does something new. Sometimes the regret overshadows the pride, especially when the child is very young.

This emotion is only intensified when the child is growing up and you’re expecting another child. I remember so clearly wondering, “How can I possibly love the new baby as much as I love my . . . well, my real baby?” Because the first baby does seem so much more real, until the new one settles in. As much as we adore an unborn baby, he is largely unknown. You’ve never seen him, really, or held him in your arms; and although he is within you, he is removed from you by the veil of your own body. How strange, how strange.

So once again: it’s normal to feel a whole smorgasbord of unpleasant, intense emotions in the last stages of pregnancy: Not only the normal fear and delight and anticipation of the upcoming birth, but also guilt that we will be “displacing” the first child; and also hurt feelings when the first child seems already to need us less and can be happy with substitutes, like dad (and maybe some shame that you would feel that emotion).

Giving birth will usually calm at least part of these storms. In most cases, the mother will find that before long (sometimes there is a lag, and that’s normal, too!) she loves the new baby just as much as she “should,” and also that her love for the new baby increases her love for her “old baby.” Yes, there will be many periods of adjustment, but overall that’s what kind of thing love is: love increases love. Sounds like a cat poster, but it’s true: love increases love, even when you’re exhausted and overwhelmed.

(Caveat: If your dire or overwhelming emotions continue month after month, or if you feel strangely detached from your children after giving birth, you may be suffering from postpartum depression. This is not something you can pray or power your way through. Please tell someone what you are going through, and ask for help!)

And what about that changing relationship? Well, it’s hard. It can sometimes feel like there’s nothing but loss after loss as your kids get older and move away from you. “A mother is to be left,” as the saying goes.

I know it feels like every shift, every move away from you, is a little death. And it is. I’m not denying that. But at the same time, there is so much ahead of you. I wrote about some of the good changes you might see in The Case for Siblings: Why Having a Baby is Good for Your Other Kids. More broadly, you will find that your relationship with your child will continue to change over and over again, sometimes in ways that hurt, but also sometimes in ways that surprise and delight you.

Along with the difficult changes and losses, there are new, unforeseen pleasures to come in your relationship with your kids. You will be astonished at how much they can grow emotionally and psychologically from year to year, or even more quickly. A child who seems aloof, unreliable, and detached at 11 may suddenly become a great companion at 13. A kid who seemed hell bent on getting away from you at 15 may seek out your company at 17. Heck, I’m 41 years old and am enjoying getting to know my own father better, even now.

As they grow, you’ll see their personalities emerge in unexpected and sometimes thrilling ways. Yes, they will cause you grief and worry, and sometimes they’ll drive you crazy; but they’ll also amaze you with how much they know, how well they can cope with the world, how bold and generous and talented they are turning out to be. These are changes in your relationship, too. Change isn’t always loss.

The bottom line, existentially speaking: we’re all suffering losses and grieving separations all the time, but that’s not the final word. Every little pain we feel with the inevitable breeches and injuries we endure for love . . . every last one is a reminder that we are on our way home, to a place where all losses will be restored, all wounds healed, all tears dried, all loves reconciled.

So weep if you will. But know that the tears don’t go on forever.

***

image via Pixabay (Public Domain)

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