Goodbye Party by Rachel Sarah

If my body could talk, it would say, take me back, take me back. My breasts are shapeless and deflated. Some nights there is milk in one, but not in the other.
 
My daughter Mae asked me recently, "If I suck really hard, will it come out?"
 
"No, no, no!" I wanted to tell her. My body wanted to curl up into a ball like a cat in the afternoon sun and sleep.
 
There's the doorbell. It's New Year's Eve. My friend Siobhan and her two-and-a-half-year-old daughter Hazel are here for our Goodbye Milk Party.
 
Mae is two-years-and-nine-months-old. Last night, we nursed for our final time. Siobhan, who weaned a couple of months ago, says that she really misses her firm pointy breasts. She showed me a naked pre-pregnancy photo to illustrate what she meant.
 
"Yeah, those were nice," I said. "Maybe they'll come back."
 
As Mae turns three, I question who is satisfied. There's no doubt my milk has comforted her after a fall, made her feel safe in the middle of the night, and tasted better than ice cream. She has told me so.
 
I know that I was being nurtured, too. When Mae was an infant, the sensation of my milk letting down made me hum from my head to my toes. After her father disappeared, nursing was the only time I could really relax. Those times I lay next to her -milk flowing from me- proved to me that I was strong, that I could do this alone.
 
Siobhan and I have been single moms since our girls were infants. We wonder if a man will ever kiss us there again. We wonder if a man will ever fall in love with us again.
 
Now that Mae is only nursing before bedtime, the sensitivity in my nipples is back. It feels like someone is pinching them very hard. I hold my breath in, waiting for her to finish.
 
In The Nursing Mother's Guide to Weaning, author Kathleen Huggins says, "Many women enjoy the sociability and sensuality of breastfeeding beyond three years. This may be especially true for single mothers."
 
Sensuality? No. Although it?s true that when Mae nurses, this is often the only physical affection I get all day, so I do savor her touch.
 
Yet, this makes me question even more if I'm selfishly asking her to meet my needs. Certainly it's not fair to expect my daughter to comfort me like a lover would. As for our sociability? If that means holding onto the physical connection we have, then, yes, it is hard to let go. Weaning marks the end of our last body-to-body connection since Mae was conceived.
 
Whenever I ask Mae about saying goodbye to my milk, she tells me, "I'll do it when I'm three."
 
When I say, "You're almost three," she responds, "No! I don't want to say goodbye!"
 
I always thought Mae would wean in her own time, just get up one day and turn away from me. Since she was born, she's been waking up to nurse several times every night. Instead of nursing less as she gets older, she's been getting up more. It's taking its toll on me. I'm wide awake at 4 a.m. after she has nodded off again. I toss and turn, my head racing with thoughts about what to make for breakfast, or if I should ask that cute guy at the grocery store for his phone number. There is a kink running from my neck to my shoulders.
 
I've been telling Mae that after Christmas, we're saying goodbye to my milk. I'm trying to make it positive: "You're going to be a big girl!"
 
She has kicked me, hit me, cried, and screamed.
 
"I want to go back to New York City!" she wails every night as we lie together in bed.
 
Mae misses her friends there. We moved to Berkeley, California just after her second birthday to be closer to my family. I think that she wants to be a baby again.
 
Last night, Mae sobbed, her tears hitting the purple sheets. She had sipped her last sip of Mama's milk. "It's hard being a big girl!" she said. I burst into tears. She's not even three years old and she has such a grasp of her feelings. My feelings are conflicted. I have nursed Mae for so long, and it's been good for both of us emotionally and physically.
 
Mae is very petite, weighing just twenty-two pounds as she approaches age three. After her father left us, she mysteriously stopped gaining weight. I felt like I was nursing her all day and night, and she'd been eating solids since she was six months old. But she was only gaining an ounce or two every month, and some months she even lost weight. Yet she was growing in height every month. As a baby, I'd been too small to be "on the charts," as the doctors put it, and Mae's own cousins on her father's side were thin like her. She'd started to crawl at five months and was saying a handful of words at nine months, so I wasn't worried about her developmentally.
 
Her pediatrician in New York City disagreed with me. The doctor wrote down on Mae's chart, "Failure to thrive."
 
She asked me if I was feeding Mae enough. Did she mean to say that I was starving my daughter? The doctor told me that I should not be nursing Mae at night, and that I should not be sleeping with her. If there was no weight gain by her next appointment, the doctor told me, then she would have to intervene. I knew that "intervene" might mean calling Social Services. I switched pediatricians, but have felt ashamed and insecure ever since.
 
I'm all that Mae has. It feels perfect sometimes. She has had one hundred percent of my attention. She receives all my hugs and kisses. She has never heard me argue with a man. But I'm the one who makes all the decisions about raising her, and that pressure is tremendous. It means I'm the one who makes all the mistakes. There is no one else to tell me what to do. There is no one to keep me in check. I wonder if I'm making the best choices for her. I'm the one who nursed her, rocked her, changed her diapers, fed her, and sang to her. I'm the one who picks her up, and the one who can't let her down.
 
Tonight for our Goodbye Mama's Milk Party, I've made a sugar-free date cake. It's in the shape of my breasts and I'm whipping the cream to spread on top. I'm trying out a new hand-held mixer, and I can't get the cream thick enough. Siobhan laughs as she takes over and cream splatters my shirt. I realize it's the first time I've smiled all day.
 
When the girls lick the cream off their cake, making mustaches on their lips, I start giggling. Tears well up in my eyes. Mae, beaming, orders me to get the video camera. My friend and I pick at the cake with our fingers. It's dense and hearty.
 
Tonight, instead of nursing, Mae wants to fall asleep with her hand on my breast. I like it as long as she doesn't twiddle my nipple. I listen to her gentle breathing, and for the first time in months she falls asleep peacefully. I hear the woman in me whispering, I'm back, I'm back.
 
Maybe I haven't let her down after all.
 
Before becoming a mother, Rachel Sarah worked as a journalist. Her articles have appeared in Ms., Elle, Poz, and Sony Style. Her reporting took her all over the United States, Puerto Rico, and Europe. While pregnant, she took a job where she could stay still for a while - as a researcher for Time, Inc. Today, in Berkeley, California, you will find Rachel writing teacher's guides for Ranger Rick books. She is the columnist for Going it Alone: Life as a Single Mom at Literary Mama. She is also the single mother of a three-year-old daughter everyone calls Mae Mae.