Yesterday was the first day I felt disenchanted in the course of my mothering-day-labour. I’ve felt tired and angry and ambivalent and impatient before but not the hazy, heavy lidded, walking –through- treacle feeling whilst making my way through the day. Where I have to wrench myself away from my daydreams to watch R dropping leaves into bins or jolly us along with bright, exciting nouns and flurries of rhetorical questions: “bubbles!” “Shall we read a book?” That sort of shit. It took so much effort to stay plugged in. Why? It’s Autumn, R. Is brimming with curiosity and babble and delight, my husband is emotionally available and supportive, there’s money in my account, I’ve made the decision to stay at home. Why does it all suddenly seem so hard.
I weaned R gradually, well over six weeks ago. I didn’t expect the reason I would wean after breast feeding him for 15 months was my self consciousness: I felt weird when he pulled my top down on the train and tried to latch on in rush hour. This was confusing, a new hydra. I thought I’d dealt with her, the spectacle of the lactating breast. I chopped off her head when I took on my in laws apprehensions about breastfeeding: ‘boobs are not just for page three you know,’I’d said. I battled her every time I leaked milk, bought breast pads or feared the ooze. I lopped several hydra heads when I first fed him in public, when I carried on conversations as he suckled in the sling, when I ditched the bra for a year to allow easier access. I thought I had tamed her, my monstrous female. Or at least, if I hadn’t tamed her, I thought our diplomatic relations were in good stead and we’d learned to live side by side in relative peace. But she is the hydra after all…
I felt weird refusing R the breast as we sat on the train, but I couldn’t quite make myself pull up my top and let him feed then and there. I phantatised that if I were made of sterner stuff I’d be able to do it, nurse a toddler in rush hour. Maybe whist quoting Marx on the horrors of the nuclear family or staring aggressively at young men in suits, daring them to challenge me. I wished for a moment I lived in a different time or place, where it would just be a bit easier to get by breasts out for my toddler in public, somewhere I wouldn’t feel the need to sound like a sociology textbook, somewhere I didn’t feel the urge to explain, spew World Health Organisation statistics and justifications at passengers. And in the midst of my own confusion, there was R on my lap who had given up tugging my shirt and was gazing out the window.
I didn’t want my son to become embroiled in my mess, I did not want to drag him to the alter of Medusa and demand he perform his first sacrifice. There would be plenty of time for him to encounter her later. I suddenly understood that this was a decision I wanted to take out of his hands, make for him. He didn’t know what he was getting himself into if he continued to nurse into toddlerhood, the meanings of breastfeeding are myriad and require much negotiation. I feel my adult, in-therapy psyche is only just able to deal, and now the monster had reared her head again and if I did battle with myself I was also going to drag my son in with me. And that was what made me think I would wean him, that I wouldn’t wait for him to decide for himself when he would stop breastfeeding. He was not going to witness my ambivalence when he asked for milk, I was not going to burden him with my guilt and my culturally specific hang ups. I didn’t want him to feel punished if I felt too embarrassed to let him latch on in a train carriage in rush hour. This was my battle, not his. Funnily enough, it was this encounter with the many- tentacled mother of messy merges that initiated such a momentous separation. I am grateful that we had so many months of relative peace, enough peace to sink into some simple coupling.
And it’s this simple coupling that I’m grieving now, the sadness I feel as I watch him toddle around in the autumn sun dropping leaves into bins. He’s gorgeous, but he will never be a newborn again, feeding to sleep on my breast, sated from gorging on my milk. When he cried back then I knew what was wrong: he was one of three things, maybe tired, maybe hungry, maybe he needed holding. Often all three could be tended to at once in the simple act of offering my breast. But now it’s different. There is a gap opening up between us and I feel it widening daily. I want it to widen too: that’s my job as a mother, to usher him into his own life. He needs less and less ushering from me. He doesn’t want me to cut his nails. He doesn’t like finger painting- my son! When we tried it he chose to chase the cat instead.He didn’t want to dip even one finger in, he wasn’t seduced by my offer of mucky paints. My Son! He prefers trains, apparently, even though he’s had the offer of model horses and tigers. Well, these are the emerging co ordinates of his subjectivity, and I don’t want to mess with them. They are his own. I’ll put away the model horses and rinse the paint off the plate: they were offered and rejected, and he is his own little person after all (although maybe were coupled once). As I feel us negotiating the distance between us, I think of Phillip Larkin’s poem, Afternoons. ‘Their beauty has thickened/Something is pushing them to the side of their own lives.’ And that is what is so hard: the push and the pull of separateness. His beauty is indeed thickening and he is en route to the side of his own life. Symbiosis, coupling, the moment of falling in love, the merge is so deliciously simple to be inside of. And I feel the loss of this keenly. My relationship with my son has joined the rest of ‘em, he’s part of that same struggle I do with all my other relationships, the one about closeness and distance, the one where I try and work out how far is too far to love, and how close is too close to love? It’s messy and survivable, but it’s a loss and it’s bloody hard work.
Copyright Diana Smith 2017