We never planned it this way. I know this, as I roll over again, as I lift my breast from my sleep bra for the fifth time tonight. The baby swipes at my opposite nipple. I swat his hand away. He hooks it into the bottom of my bra; I push it to the side. Then he’s grabbing again, starfish hands groping to make the milk flow quicker. It’s 3 AM and I am finished.
The baby isn’t really a baby. The youngest of three, he keeps the title of “Baby,” but at 2½, it’s merely honorific. Despite that, he insists that “Baby” is his actual name. Towering rage ensues if we argue. He’s self-consciously cute, this one: he peppers lisping words with a charming, dolphinesque mixture of squees, squeaks, and squeals. It’s easier if he isn’t running around, so we tote him most everywhere, either in our arms or a back carry. He kisses and ugga-muggas and calls his brother August’s favorite dino “Augie Roar.” It’s like he’s angling for Cutest Toddler of the Year.
We’ve never had a youngest child this old. I got pregnant when the older boys were 15 months old. I gave each a brother when he was just shy of 2 years old. I lost patience with their babyness somewhere around my third trimester, when I didn’t feel like carrying a growing toddler through Target. So my older sons grew up quick. They knew their place in the family hierarchy, and they knew it wasn’t Baby. Baby was the mewling creature strapped to my chest and sleeping in my bed.
Because by the time I hit two months pregnant, my older boys were not sleeping in my bed, much less night nursing. When I’m pregnant, I awaken enraged at the slightest touch. But each 15-month-old still night-nursed, preferably while cuddled flat against me: an untenable situation for my sleep and sanity. So my husband took over. He spirited each baby to a separate room to sleep, and for the first few nights, brought them to me for a few sips of milk. Then he took them away again. After a week-and-a-half of broken nights, three hours of sleep, and many tears, the kids learned to sleep happily with Daddy, and without milk. Night-weaning accomplished. Pregnant mama could sleep alone.
But this time, Baby turned 15 months old with no pregnancy forthcoming. We already had three boys under the age of 5, my health wasn’t great, and my husband worked a demanding job. So the month passed without a positive pregnancy test. As did the next. And the next. Suddenly, Baby was 22 months old, that magic age when new brothers appeared. Not for Baby. He stayed the littlest: the one put up in baby carriers, the one toted around Target. The one we cooed over.
The other boys had a serious need to night-wean. Baby, not so much. No pressing reason presented itself. Nursing put him to sleep so easily. So at 15 months, he kept sharing our bed. At 20 months, he still fell asleep at the breast. By the time he turned 22 months, he still nursed all night. Now he’s 2½, and nothing’s changed.
So every night, we turn on the noise machine. I lay down in a dark room — my dark room, with its enormous bed.
“Mama milk, Mama milk,” Baby burbles. “Sleepy, Mama milk.”
I pull my shirt up, my tank-top down, and lift my breast from my bra. He cuddles against me, head on my arm, and latches. I hold him close. We slide into that deep, loving connection. I feel him suck and swallow. He holds my breast in both hands, sometimes slips a fist under my bra band. We are so together, he and I. Yes, he’s growing. But Baby remains Baby, connected to me by that last physical bond of milk. Soon, his breathing evens and deepens. I cover him up and slip away.
Then the night happens.
My husband and I start on the far side of the bed. Usually, Baby mewls once before we fall asleep. He sips for three minutes, then I pop him off and go back to my pillow. The trouble doesn’t start ’til about five hours later.
Baby cries. He sits up and calls me, pitifully. “Mama, help,” he calls. “Mama, Mama, Mama.”
I move over and gather him close. I pull out my breast. He calms. He latches. I fall into a fitful sleep. It’s constantly interrupted: Baby whines. He whimpers. He wants the other breast. Then the first breast again. If I don’t give him what he wants — and I’ve tried — he screams for 20 minutes, then decides he’s awake for the day. At 3 AM, which is a problem.
We’d night-wean now, but that requires Dad to forgo sleep. We have to wait until he’s free from work: until the summer. So for the next few months, I’m stuck with the whining, the wiggling, the breast-flipping, and the kicking. From 4 AM on, I don’t sleep well. After more than two years, I am well and done with this. I can’t wait for this to end, I think. We should have done this earlier.
Then Baby nurses to sleep again.
I feel the rise and fall of his chest against mine. I watch his eyes close; I feel his suck and swallow, suck and swallow. The milk flows between us. He’s still Baby. I’m still Mama. Together, in this moment, we are each other’s primal need. Baby will sleep in a bed one day, and soon, he will nurse only during the day. Baby will grow up.
But not just yet.More On