When I first became a mother, I assumed I would be fair and treat all my children the same. I soon learned that such an approach overlooks their circumstances and temperaments. Children enter our lives at varying stages of our parenting. The changing parents these children encounter have a marked effect on their development. As a second-time mom, I learned that some of my decisions would change with each child.
Specific conditions influenced my decision to breastfeed one child but not the other. I did not breastfeed Michael, our oldest son. Because of my epilepsy, I had already exposed him to medication during my pregnancy. My obstetrician emphasized that my seizure-controlling medication might adversely affect the baby through breastmilk. Anxious not to introduce additional risks, I never questioned the doctor’s advice.
During my second pregnancy, my birth class instructor and midwife urged me to seek more information on breastfeeding. I obtained literature concluding that a medication’s concentration in breastmilk proved less substantial than a fetus’ primary exposure to it. The data cited drowsiness and poor sucking response as possible side effects for my medication. Later, I had to laugh. Our second baby, Sean, refused to nap, and he nursed for a steady four years.
Until nursing Sean, I never recognized that Michael and I had missed out on an essential physical bond. Initially, I attributed his independent spirit as a toddler to personality alone. He squirmed countless times from my grasp, his hugs quick and to the point. Though his lack of enthusiasm for cuddling disappointed me, I had no comparison. Michael became attached to his blanket and thumb. Rather than asking for comfort from me, he preferred at times to curl up on the couch, his thumb in his mouth, his blanket twirled around his finger. He had discovered a way of recovering from the excitement of school each day that asked little of anyone else.
Sean, on the other hand, had few qualms about demanding emotional support. Nursing offered him my assurance of love, and the safety of familiar routine. From age 2 and on, it became Sean’s trademark way of checking in with me each day. Like Michael, he needed to relax after the rigors of preschool. He spent a short 20 minutes at my breast before bounding off, renewed. Additionally, he nursed to comfort himself whenever he felt unhappy or sick. Such coping skills saved us from many sleepless nights.
I have often wondered at the correlation between breastfeeding and health. Sean hardly has complaint of illness while Michael suffers from multiple ear infections, conjunctivitis and colds each winter. He may be more vulnerable to germs because he lacks the advantage breastmilk would have offered his immune system. However, breastfeeding could not help with Sean’s weaknesses. As a younger brother, stitches, bumps and bruises come with the territory!
Choosing to nurse one son but not his brother has affected my relationship to them. Often, when Michael seeks attention through abrasive behavior, I must work harder to overlook his upsetting actions. His usual physical distance sometimes fuels my anger, and my personal challenge is to remember to cross the distance to him. Sean, so familiar to me physically, earns forgiveness for his transgressions far sooner as he waits for my guard to slip and then casually plops into my lap.
I also have to balance the way I share affection with my sons. Saying “I love you” and murmuring endearments come second nature with the child who leans against me and slides without effort into my lap. I have to remain aware of the other clear-eyed child who watches with a steady gaze from the opposite end of the couch. He, too, waits for his assurances.
Though Michael values praise and glows in conversation, he startled me by suddenly demanding more attention. Long after he had been sleeping in his own bed, he began joining me again in mine. Perhaps he didn’t know how to ask for more hugs, or even if he should. Instead, he crept into my bed and stole cuddles while we slept. I may have given Michael the impression that physical assurances did not need to be important to him. How mistaken I was!
Sean’s assurances have changed, too. Several years ago, Sean stopped nursing. The constancy of our extended nursing relationship seems to have given him the confidence to be himself. He is affectionate, temperamental and unafraid of expressing his feelings. Though tough on the playground, he still crawls into my lap at home. He knows me as a solid, physical presence that assures him of his world.
Michael has surprised me by becoming more affectionate, not less, over the past few years. At age 9, when most boys are backing off from their parents, Michael and I enjoy a closeness relating to his new love for reading. He owns the privilege of staying awake after his brother and often joins me in bed to read beside me. The secret smiles we pass there tweak my heart. He fidgets less during snuggles these days and likes taking my breath away, literally, with his fierce bear hugs. Though his goodbyes retain a tinge of former independence and a good measure of new self-awareness, they also show consideration. I even get a quick clasp, if not a hug, in public, and I gratefully take all I can.
Each morning I kiss and hug my sons. I tell them how glad I am to see them, and they always reward me with smiles. Though I nursed one son and not the other, there always remain chances to assure them of my love in distinct and special ways.