On Breastfeeding and Weaning Under Occupation by Laila El-Haddad

Its official (ok, semi-official): Save for a minor post-nursery, pre-and-post nap relapse, after 2 years, one month, 6 days, I have officially weaned Yousuf (hey don't look at me funny, Alaskan Eskimos breastfeed for 5 years!).
 
For those who don't know, I am an ardent, some would say zealous, breastfeeding advocate. Simpy put, it is one of the most amazing abilities God granted women, everything from the way it is produced, to the way the content changes based on your your child's nutritional needs (c'mon-can Nestle do THAT?): It is the perfect infant food.
 
I always planned to breastfeed Yousuf until he was around 2 years old, the age recommended in the Quran (though that is not to say one cannot breastfeed for longer than this), and because we both enjoyed it and benefited from it (hey, when you shed 500 calories a day producing breast milk, who needs a gym?).
 
Unfortunately, that turned out to be easier said than done. Everytime I would get up and say to myself-"this is the day to reclaim my..." I would grow weak in the face of his pathetic blubbering and heart-wrenching cries..."looolooooo!!" (my nickname)...
 
It was as if I was depriving him from the one certainty in his life, the one constant. And now I was telling him that it is no longer available for his use and abuse, whenever and however frequently he wanted. During the difficult times we live in, it was a step I was always afraid to take. It was his comfort zone, and I was taking it away.
 
For Yousuf and I, the past two years have been an interesting journey, to put it mildly, wrought with the obvious hurdles of living under occupation, and nursing him has helped us both get through it. It was our moment together-our special time that, though time-consuming and difficult at time, we both equally enjoyed, that no one could interfere with-no matter the time or circumstance (save for an hour when I was interrogated by the Shin Bet in Rafah, and a then two-month-old Yousuf was howling in the other room with a female soldier because they forbid me from taking him in the interrogation with me). It was something no one else could provide him, something that I will always relish (though I have to admit at times in the early days, I began to feel biologically equivalent in life purpose to a cow...).
 
Further, my ability to breastfeed him-to be a portable milk machine-has gotten us through some rough times, especially during travel. I think back to those terrible times and shiver, only to comforted by the fact that it was the nursing that sometimes got Yousuf past the hours-long waits in the painful heat of August or bone-numbing cold of winter at checkpoints or at Rafah Crossing, waiting for the Israeli "uber-wardens" to let us through, bellowing out orders to the thousands of desperate travelers including ourselves.
 
And knowing that our chances of making it through on any given day were contingent upon the mood of the soldier manning the checkpoint. When a young, heat-exhausted Yousuf was on his final crying breath, hysterical, hungry, and confused, I would nurse him quietly in the taxi as we waited and waited and waited, and *bam*, like magic he would calm down and sleep. And that meant, so could I.
 
So now, here we are. Its hard enough weaning my litte babe and dealing with his mommy-milk withdrawal, but to try doing so under the continuous barrage of Israeli artillery shells..well. After a brief lull (and I use lull cautionously here..meaning a few hours), the shelling resumed last night full throttle following a rocket that landed in an Ashkelon sports stadium (kind of ironic, given the Israeli attack on Gaza's stadium a few weeks ago).
 
The explosions were more frequent and powerful than before. At one point, I counted 10 shells falling per minute, some from different locations at once, whose whose shock waves we could literally feel penetrating the house, rattling its windows and leaving the walls trembling.
 
Needless to say, we got minimal sleep (from that and the constant ringing of my Orange cellphone from who turned out to be an Israeli caller looking for a "Tsedek" and then "Isabel"...and me futiely explaining to him in broken Hebrew that it was the wrong number-while leaving out the detail that he had actually called a Palestinian in Gaza).
 
Usually if Yousuf wakes up, I can nurse him back to sleep, but now we no longer have that to fall back on. He is taking it all like a champ, especially after I "explained" to him that breastfeeding..."azza" as he calls it, is for babies-and that he was now a big boy. After a few initial "Yeah right!" episodes, he seemed to understand. Sometimes he looks at me if he is tempted to lift my shirt, and says- "lal baby?" (for baby?), looking for confirmation.
 
My friend recommended pumping my milk and donating it to a local hospital. I explained something I assumed most people knew (ok I was wrong)-that actually in Islam, any children who breast-feed or drink from the same breastmilk under the age of two "five times" become "milk siblings", meaning they cannot intermarry etc.
 
This is not to say that it doesn't happen or is discouraged (in pre-Islamic Arabia, babies were sent off to be nursed by a wet-maid because it was thought that nursing from more than one mother gives the child greater strength and immunity, and the Prophet himself had a milk brother), but it has to happen with the permission of both families, and also means you have to keep track of who you've breastfed. So anonymous breast-milk donation is not an option*
 
Here's to another milestone in raising Yousuf, and hoping we go on to bigger and better things and find new sources of comfort for both us...
 
Update: Since the time of this post, I've discovered that actually Milk Bank donation is permissible, "as long as there is an apparent necessity to do so". A fatwa was made to this end in Europe: http://islam-online.net/servlet/Satellite?pagename=IslamOnline-English-Ask_Scholar/FatwaE/FatwaE&cid=1119503549312 But really the question is whether I want to continue pumping and donating (because its even more exhausting than breastfeeding) and the answer is a resounding "no!" (besides your milk supply decreases over time-no where near the amount it was two years ago).
 
Laila El-Haddad is a Palestinian freelance journalist and mother based between the Gaza Strip and the United States. When not honing her speed-nappy-changing skills or experimenting with the use of extra virgin olive oil as an infant laxative, Laila writes for Aljazeera's English website and reports for Pacifica's Free Speech Radio News. Her work has also appeared in the New Statesman, the Washington Post, and numerous online publications. Laila's Raising Yousuf where this article initially appeared, is named after her two-year-old son.