Endings: weaning, wilderness and ashes

The last time I breast fed R, I reminded him as I picked him up out of his cot and brought him to my bed that this was the final feed. I curled myself around his little body in our familiar way and we lay together in bed, side by side, facing one another. And while he suckled I told him how much I had enjoyed feeding him like this, what it had meant to me and what I was going to miss about it. It was early in the morning, his first feed of the day and last feed I would ever give him. He was a little over a year old and I knew I didn’t want it to be a lost moment, a gradual tapering off. I needed a ceremonial last supper, something to help us both release one another, a way-in to the labour of separation. I knew it was time. In my memory, the last feed was sun soaked and still.

He fell asleep on my breast- something he hadn’t done for months. And I was able to drink in the moment and latch on to my own sadness about separating from him. I remember crying.

I had to work through many of my fears and projections in order to enter into that ending. Initially, I really wanted him to want to wean himself (‘baby-led’) so I wouldn’t have to put a limit in place. To protect both of us from the grief of separation. But that thing, the mourning of our symbiosis, was a necessary first step of individuating, of both of us going our own ways.

Margot Waddell, a psychoanalyst, conceptualises the work of weaning as something cyclical. A work that is never finished, a labour we do every time we end something or experience loss. ‘[Weaning] stirs anew every early experience of being cut off from what is felt to be the primary source of love and sustenance; of being left alone when company was required; of being deprived of a cohering presence when holding was wanted.’ It is no wonder I wanted to protect R. and myself from the ravages of this state-of-being. It is a difficult transition, and psychically perilous. Separation is the way to growth and personhood and yet it conjures up our earliest, most painful ghosts and infant fears and night terrors. Being abandoned, being hungry, being left utterly alone in the universe. When we were helpless infants and our lives depended on our caregiver, these feeling states were almost unbearable, and when we experience them again as adults, we feel the emotional aftershocks of these agonies. Weaning is a time when we face our mortality, our fear of dying.

And we walk through these emotional deserts because we want to be born, because we are ready to change and evolve and grow and become more ourselves.

I am currently facing an ending that I am dreading feeling my way though. I am trying to find a way-in to it, but I can feel every cell in me balking, defending against the pain of separation. I am ending with my therapist this year, the man who has given me bones and guts and soul. Eight years of thrice weekly therapy will be coming to an end and he is one of the most significant relationships of my life. This might well be the hardest goodbye I have ever done.

I am ready and yet I do not want to enter this dessert, this wilderness. I feel like I need some protection, a sacred mark to usher me into the long nights and peril ahead. To this end, I loot my own tradition today, having some ash put on my forehead. I’m someone who will be observing weaning, lent, time in the deserts of my psyche in hope that I will emerge from grief a little more adult. I can’t get on board with language the church uses about repentance, but I adore the ancient words: ‘remember man, thou are dust and to dust you shall return.’ These words are poetic, ripe for personal symbolism.

I am about to commune with my inner infant in the wilderness who knows death is never far away, and loss is inscribed in my past, my present and my future. It is part of the deal of being human. Ashes and wombs are never far apart in hymns and prayers (I’m thinking of the Hail Mary) because they are never far apart in our felt experience of growth and new life. I hope I have the courage to step into the wilderness and face the demons and the terrified, lonely, starving infant in myself. I hope I have the strength to endure this psychic fast.

Copyright Diana Smith 2018

Margot Waddell, Inside Lives

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