Motherhood & Words

I went cold turkey on Zoë on yesterday.

On Monday I went to the acupuncturist to help with my general malaise and to get an immune system boost, and the acupuncturist reminded me (as her husband had back in February) how hard breastfeeding is on our bodies, how much energy it takes. I nodded and agreed. Let me explain: I have been sick more in the last year than ever in my life. I am well—breathing freely for a week (maybe two)—and then I’m sick again, coughing until I puke. And I’m tired all the time.

Part of this is not the fault of nursing, of course. It’s me doing what I do: too much. It’s the master juggling act that, even on the days I feel I have perfected it, takes its toll. But with nursing, it’s as if I can feel the energy just draining out of me.

The acupuncturist told me her own story—similar to mine—about the exhaustion she experienced while nursing her second child. She said that in the end she weaned for self-preservation. I nodded again. I know it’s time.

Then she asked if I was still eating a lot of sugar. (It’s in the notes from several months ago.) I said I was, and she reminded me that sugar is an immune-system depressant. (Had I blocked this? I knew it was hard on the sinuses, but had I forgotten—not known?—that it actually made your immune system less efficient.) So much for the 3-pound bag of gummy bears I just bought. (It’s true. I really am in my late-30s and buying gummy bears in bulk.)

“There’s also a lot of sugar in wine,” I said with a grimace.

“For now, why don’t you wean Zoë, wean yourself from sugar, and keep the wine.”

I love this woman. “Deal,” I said.

Deal. I had my coffee without sugar for the first time EVER in my life yesterday. And guess what? It was fine. At the coffee shop I put in a little honey, and I actually liked it! Mikey likes it! I didn’t shove a handful of gummy bears into my mouth after lunch, and I was still fine. I didn’t even want a bowl of chocolate ice-cream when D dished himself one after dinner. The sugar, I guess, will be the easy part of this deal.

The hard part, clearly, is weaning Zoë. I made it through yesterday. When she pounded on my chest in the afternoon, I distracted her. We had dinner at my mom’s and she was up later than usual, so when D put her down to bed, she was fine—so tired she didn’t care about her milky. And even early this morning, when she cried out at 4:45 am (yes, I’m serious), I just nudged D and told him he was on. He took her downstairs and fed her some banana and a little bit of a smoothie.

But when I got up at 7 (7!) and Stella came upstairs talking about her new feather collection (we have to drive all over town looking for the dirty things), Zoë heard my voice and immediately started to keen mamamamamamama. She crawled up the stairs, grabbed my legs and pointed to the bed.

When I said, “milky all gone,” she began to wail. And I mean WAIL.

In the bathroom, she threw a tantrum of which I wouldn’t have believed a 15-month-old capable: she upturned the basket holding extra rolls of toilet paper; thrashed around the plastic step-stool, slapped Stella, and banged her head against the door. The only reason that she didn’t hit her head, hard, on the tile floor was because Stella was there to catch her, cradling Zoë’s skull in her hands.

“Just feed her, Mom,” Stella said.

It crossed my mind for a moment, and then D was there: “You can’t feed her forever.”

This thought is usually the most helpful for me to remember. I have to stop at some point, and it will be hard for me no matter when I do it. But maybe I could do it in a way that would be less hard for her? I had started on a slow-wean process, cutting out a feeding a week, and I had successfully eliminated the bed-time nursing. But then Zoë got sick and I got sick again. And the thing about the slow wean is it’s still hard for her, but it’s hard for a longer period of time. And if I just cold-turkey it at this point, my thought is that it will be difficult for her for a few days, and then it will be done.

But the “you can’t feed her forever” wasn’t actually helpful this morning, when my heart was breaking because I wasn’t giving Zoë what she wanted and needed. My eyes filled with tears. D apologized and herded the girls outside with the lure of a dog sighting for Zoë.

If I could go out of town for three days, and then come back, it would be easier, but that’s not in the cards, and I am convinced it *is* time to wean her. But still, I feel so sad that I won’t nurse Zoë—or any baby—ever again. It’s so final, a part of motherhood that is over for me.

You see, I love nursing. When I’m lying down with Zoë before her nap and she is nursing away, I slow down. It’s just her and me and the rhythm of her gulping. Even if I feel hectic and stressed, for the moments I am lying there with her, brushing away a sweaty curl from her forehead, I am calm. When she glances up at me with her eyes wide, I think, this is the most amazing thing in the world. When she pulls my shirt over her face and twists its edge around her fist, my heart could break with love. When she peeks out from behind the shirt, I smile. “Where’s Zoë?”

I have been looking forward to the new anthology Unbuttoned: Women Open Up About the Pleasures, Pains, and Politics of Breastfeeding, edited by Dana Sullivan and Maureen Connolly, for a couple of months now. I’m planning on reviewing it for Literary Mama, but I haven’t gotten around to it yet. But this morning, before I walked out the door to the coffee shop, I grabbed it from my stack. I clearly needed some nursing/weaning mama power.

Of course I wasn’t able to read the whole thing this morning. I jumped around, skimming the essays for words of wisdom, and it worked; I did feel a little better. What I love about this anthology—aside from some really stellar writing—is that it includes so many perspectives. Sometimes people get up in arms about breastfeeding, whether they are arguing for or against it, or have a strong opinion about how long women should nurse. But from what I read of this book, none of that proselytizing has a place in Unbuttoned. And that’s what I need right now—to feel a sense of community, to know countless women have been through what I’m going through, and to not be judged for how I’m weaning Zoë. And this is exactly what I got from Unbuttoned.

These are going to be a difficult couple of days for me and my little one. I’ll report on our progress (and also on my heart health—thank you for your kind words and blessings). Until then, send good weaning vibes, please.

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I have been teaching creative writing for almost twenty years. Reading about other women’s lives and experiences has expanded my world. To be able to walk in someone else’s shoes, whether it’s for a moment or an hour or a few days, is an incredible gift, providing me with insight into the human experience. It takes courage to write your truths, especially if it doesn’t seem as though anyone cares, as though anyone is listening. Let me tell you: your stories matter, I’m listening, and I’m here to help you find the heart of those truths, to get them down on the page, to craft them, and to send them out into the world. Together, we will change the world, one story at a time.


  1. Kimberly on June 24, 2009 at 12:43 pm

    Kate, I understand exactly what you are going through. I started weaning my toddler when she was 15 months old and we did it slowly until she was finally weaned at 17 months. I enjoyed it because I knew she was benefiting from it and it relaxed me. But at 17 months I was 4 months pregnant with our 2nd baby, and I began to realize that nursing was making me tired. I don't recall the exact last time I nursed my toddler, but I do recall the last week: it was bittersweet – joy at seeing my baby growing into a toddler but sad to end that special closeness. I'll be thinking of you as you go through this; I never knew it would be so hard on us!

  2. Sarah on June 24, 2009 at 1:02 pm

    I am sympathetic. I don't think there is an easy way to wean. I say this as I am still nursing a 20-month old who shows no signs of wanting to stop. Do what you feel is best in the way that you feel is best. I wish you well in the coming days.

  3. cath c on June 24, 2009 at 6:27 pm

    trust me, i hear you. c is just shy of 15 months. i'm burnt and brainless moreso than i was when i nursed k for 2 years and s for 16mos (between them i was pregnant or nursing for 7 yrs solid). s was still nursing like a newborn, too, i cut him off for self-preservation. but it's 10yrs later, c still night nurses by preference. she doesn't want to by day, knows she'll nap if she does. i'm pooped!

    maybe i should try it,

    but then that means i won't be nursing my last one, sharing that one of a kind bond, and slowing down, and brushing her curls off of her face…

  4. Ines on June 25, 2009 at 11:07 am

    I am sending you weaning vibes…hang in there. Thank you for mentioning the book Unbottoned…I am very interested in stories about breastfeeding (this is one my main research interests, as well). I think Zoe and Stella have a wonderul mom…

  5. Monica Crumley on June 25, 2009 at 7:18 pm

    Oh, I totally understand the weeping during weaning. I loved nursing my 4 children. Weaning abruptly is hard on your body and obviously your little one is mad about it. I have 4 children — each weaned a little differently. At 11 months old, my 4th child started using his pointy teeth on me and would clamp down. After several days of painful nursing sessions, I cut him off. Cold turkey. I cried my eyes out because he wouldn't take a bottle, but it hurt too much to nurse and I didn't want to hurt him nutritionally. It all worked out in the end. I was (very) full and uncomfortable for a several days and then I was fine. Maybe a weekend away isn't such a bad idea 🙂 No milky and mama can catch up on her reading.

  6. Bonnie on June 26, 2009 at 2:19 am

    Kate, I burst into tears reading this. You are a wonderful, deeply feeling mother and I think this is a brave essay to post in a time of so many strong opinions on all things breastfeeding related. Good for you.

    Oh and, Amsterdam makes a nice weekend getaway. Think of it… unsweetened coffee as you watch the canal boats go by, wine on the terrace in the afternoon…

  7. woowoomama on June 27, 2009 at 9:58 am

    i totally respect your decision to wean your fifteen month old and i don't think anyone should be able to pass judgement on you either way.

    the only thing in your post that made me sad was the idea that somehow nursing is not something a woman's body can handle readily. i have nursed for the last 3.5 years through sickness, health, and pregnancy. taking care of myself by eating well, getting the best sleep i can, getting a little exercise, taking vitamins etc. is what makes or breaks my overall health.

    to me, it feels like a bit of a myth that creating milk is too much work for our bodies. i don't mean to sound attacking at all…i do support your decision to wean if that is what you want to do. i just don't like the idea that a woman "has to wean to be healthy."

    as for cold turkey, that is all up to you. i am a slow and steady kind of person who doesn't like to rock their world too much but that is in part based on my temperament and that of my children. for us, cold turkey causes way too much stress for it to be worth it. small steps are always easier to digest.

    much peace to you in your very own weaning process. thank you also for writing so openly about it. it isn't easy!

    robin (woowoo mama)

  8. Andria on June 27, 2009 at 10:54 pm

    Hang in there!!! In the end, what you'll remember much more than the difficult last week is the wonderful, close feeling of having nursed Zoe all that time.

    The last few days that I nursed Soren, I asked Dave to sneak in and take a few pictures. Just from across the room, of Soren drifting off to sleep in my arms in the rocking chair. I am glad that I have them.

  9. cath c on June 28, 2009 at 7:35 am

    i have noticed a lot of comments against the concept that nursing depletes a woman. i have to counter that from personal experience and a lot of lay research. if a woman is not eating well, getting proper nutrition to cover herself and her baby, it absolutely depletes the mother's system. the breast milk takes over and makes from the mother's body what the baby needs nutritionally before consideration of mother's health. there is evidence of this going back historically to the slave ships, wehre many mothers were nursing others' children by proximity or by the fact that the mother had died, and they were sympathetic to the baby's needs. also, re: all of us long term nursers, there is growing evidence of calcium depletion and nutrient depletion in the health of our bones.

    any of us who are not taking care of ourselves nutritionally and through exercise which builds bones and strengthens bone to joint connections, and the sleep deprivation that many of us experience (my latest long term nursing baby is primarily a night nurser, too busy during the day)if we are not 100% taking care of ourselves, i think we can all attest to the sheer exhaustive state that many of us walk through our days in. i for one, at 43, am feeling this very strongly, much moreso than when with my boys who are now 14 and nearing 11. #1 – 2years, #2 16 months like a newborn, had to cut him off for my health and sanity, and #3 is now 15mos and running.

    kate, i think you are right on to listen to your body's needs.

  10. kate hopper on June 28, 2009 at 8:42 am

    I want to thank all of you for posting comments here. But I have to say two things. First, I never, and I really mean NEVER, write about what women (plural) should or should not do with their lives or their bodies. I write my story, my life, as honestly as I can. So, this post–and the way and the why I have chosen to wean my almost 16-month old daughter–is not about anyone but me. I did not say anywhere in here that a woman "has to wean to be healthy." I said that *I* feel I need to wean to take care of myself. I'm really thrilled for people who don't need to do this–and I have plenty of friends for whom nursing was not a strain. But in my life right now, it is. (And this has to do with the numerous other things I juggle on a daily basis.)

    Secondly, in defense of my acupuncturist: she was trying to support me in listening to my body. I can't think of a more valuable characteristic in a health-care provider.

  11. Melinda on June 28, 2009 at 1:33 pm

    Dear Kate,

    My daughter is now 13, banging around upstairs as she rearranges her room for the summer. I still remember the sense of betrayal I felt when I'd finally decided it was time to wean and she announced at age 3 (yes, she was three) , "but I NEED it!" I also remember the feeling of self-empowerment I had at taking my body back.

    Nursing my daughter for three years is the best thing I have ever done. I, too, loved nursing and the foundation of closeness it laid for me and my daughter. And at this teenage stage, she still will cuddle with me and gently pinch my neck as she used to do when she nursed.

    Good luck and God bless as you and your little one as you go through these changes.


  12. Bonnie on June 28, 2009 at 2:40 pm

    It is perhaps not breastfeeding alone that is hard on a mother's body, but the demands of life that our culture (and mothers themselves) expect breastfeeding women to shoulder.

    It is my understanding that breastfeeding does indeed deplete a mother's nutritional and physical resources, and maintenance of her own health is a true challenge and not always possible for the mother. I am facing the fact that nature is a little heartless sometimes, and so I no longer find it unthinkable that a human child's nourishment at the breast could deplete her mother's body. Nature figures that this is in fact the purpose of a mother's body: reproduction and nourishment of the child to the point of self-sufficiency. And then, Thank you very much for your contribution, goodbye and good luck.

    In our modern age, we women want life to give us more: wholeness and health and beauty, even during and after paying our evolutionary dues. But this may be wishful. Nowhere does biology promise a blissful ride or a nice retirement. Kate, you deserve (and are courageous) to acknowledge this grim truth in a mother's journey, even if it's hard for others to hear.

  13. woowoomama on June 28, 2009 at 3:18 pm

    i am not a debater and i don't think this comment thread is a good place to get into a lengthy discussion over whether or how we should (as women, as mothers, as nursing mothers) chose to take care of our own bodies. or about why i felt it was important to help "clarify" what i have found to be a prevalent myth of breastfeeding – which is not the idea that it can in some situations deplete us but the idea that nursing is somehow more than our bodies can/should take on a regular basis. (meaning i think many women are advised to wean before they are advised to take other steps towards taking better care of themselves. i did not mean to imply that was the situation here, only to reflect on the fact that i know it happens in our current medical culture.) so, anyway, enough about that.

    what i did want to say was that the quotes in my original post were intended to imply the idea of a common theme i have heard about nursing and not to imply that i was directly quoting kate. i am very sorry if it came out that way.

    as i said in my original comment, i am very supportive of your decision to wean and nursing your baby for fifteen months is something that we should all be celebrating. i also want to reiterate my deepest respect for your honest and open storytelling. i appreciate it very much.

  14. kate hopper on June 29, 2009 at 9:55 am

    Okay everyone, I think I need to apologize. Clearly I'm feeling very sensitive about this, wondering if I weaned Zoë the “right way.” I’ve had a hard week, and I think I’m reading more into your comments than I should.

    I experienced such a deep sense of disappointment and failure and weathered so many intense opinions when I nursed—and in many ways failed to nurse—Stella. Nursing Zoë has been a completely different experience, one that has meant so much to me. And so in my sadness at this stage of my life as a mother ending, I know I’m emotional and more sensitive than usual.

    One of the things I’m struggling with is the pressure to keep nursing. I realize there is a lot pressure to stop nursing a toddler, but the pressure that affects me more is the pressure to keep nursing my toddler, to let my child decide when she’s ready to stop (something I can’t imagine Zoë ever deciding to do.) Sometimes—and I don’t mean here in these comments—this advice is delivered in such a superior, judgmental way. I think I was taking my emotional response to that kind of superiority and imposing it here, on comments that didn’t deserve it.

    I really appreciate woowoomama’s clarification, and I apologize to Mademoiselle Oulla if I made you feel your words didn’t have a place here. Your comment was an important part of this thread. I would love it if you would re-post it.

  15. Patty on June 29, 2009 at 10:41 am

    Kate-I know this experience all too well…I weaned J cold turkey a couple of months ago and was he mad! It was terrible and heartbreaking and exhausting-and I thought I was doing a terrible thing. But like you and Z, it was time. It was time! it was rough going for a few days. And I got really really sad. But I'm glad we did it when we did it. Hang in there.

    PS: I'm still really tired, though.

  16. Ines on June 30, 2009 at 4:06 am

    Dear Kate, I have enjoyed this discussion tremendously. It is so important to hear what (we) women are saying (as well as meaning to say) regarding breastfeeding. Thank you for allowing it.

  17. sarah on June 30, 2009 at 11:21 am

    This has been a really interesting discussion for me, and I want to thank you for it as well. As I said in an earlier post, I have a 20 month old who shows no signs of wanting to stop nursing. I am struggling with pressures, perceived or real,to wean her and to NOT wean her. It seems that everybody has thoughts about what is "normal" or "natural" or "preferred." I never even imagined this scenario when I set out to nurse her. It was SUCH a struggle at the beginning that the idea of a whole year seemed like an eternity. I really don't know how it will all end, or when, but I am scared that she will want to nurse forever if I don't take drastic steps at some point.

  18. WonderousWomanRetreat on June 30, 2009 at 9:58 pm

    Dear kate,

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    on August 13,14,and 15

    The Wonderous Woman retreat program leads and encourages every woman to connect to all facets of her purpose and value. Our approach is to create experiential retreats in beautiful venues where you can connect to your mind, body and spirit.

    It's easy to take care of everyone else in our lives, but we tend to forget about ourselves.

  19. Melinda on June 30, 2009 at 11:20 pm

    Dear nursing and no-longer-nursing mothers,

    Thanks for sharing so many strong emotions. I'm so glad there is a forum for us to talk (thanks, Kate for that.) I laughed out loud at Sarah's last comment about thinking that her 20 month old toddler will nurse forever, as I was certain my daughter would still be nursing as a school aged kid if I hadn't cut her off at age three. I, like Sarah, had had a difficult start to the nursing experience and found it ironic that there was so much info about how to get started and very little about how to stop. I was an 'older' Mom at the time (an ancient 41 years) and I had so much advice and pressure to quit. (And no blogging in 1999 to share my concerns with other mothers of toddlers.) My encouragement to you in the weaning throes is to take care of yourself and listen to what your heart and body tell you most consistently.

    Sounds easy enough, right? (I still hear my girl's pleading, "but Mom, I neeeed it!") Please know that you are not alone in this.

  20. gretchen on July 8, 2009 at 8:32 pm

    I can't precisely feel your pain because I'm a grandmother who didn't nurse her children (many of us didn't in my era), but this in its way is a good lesson about a large part of parenting, which is letting go. Now that I'm not wrapped up in the day to day of raising my own kids, I notice the twinge I feel when I realize the grandboys are now too old for me to hold their hands when crossing the street; those hands are not the baby hands anymore, and I miss feeling those fingers wrapped up in mine. No more lullabies, even for the youngest of the grandchildren. No feeding them. No more rocking chairs. All painful give-ups in their way.

    And yet. Conversation. Giggling at puns together. Games I don't have to throw so they will be *over,* for crying out loud. Watching their faces change and helping their minds grow. Still reading together. Still playing in the park with the younger ones.

    Those will go, too. They'll give them up. Or I will. But every act of relinquishing takes us to a new place, one with its own joys and compensations.

    So regret a little, and then move on to all those wonderful new adventures.

  21. cath c on July 8, 2009 at 9:19 pm

    gretchen, thanks for such excellent perspective….the whole process of parenting, and even grandparenting is that constant evolution of letting go, when and how to handle their independence and natural growth, how to handle your own heart in the process.

  22. Sunny on July 13, 2009 at 8:27 pm

    Thank you so much for posting this. It really helped me as I am in the process of weaning my 26 month old twin boys right now. I am very sad about this ending. I am doing the weaning gradually (more for me than them.) It's going well for me, however, it is a very bittersweet part of my motherhood journey. I never had a timetable in mind for how long we'd nurse. I decided to let them wean when they were ready and we'd go with it. They're boys and they would probably continue on much longer, so I made the decision to gradually start the weaning. We go three and four nights now w/o nursing. We could probably stop pretty easily any time now. I, too, know I will not nurse any other babies ever again, and it makes me feel so sad to close this chapter of motherhood. I feel really proud of myself though, for giving them the best possible start to life. It's one of my biggest accomplishments, however, in our society, it's not something I openly share with too many people. It's great to be able to connect to another mother about this very important topic. Thank you! And God bless you, Zoe, Stella, and your hubby.

  23. kate hopper on July 15, 2009 at 1:58 pm

    Gretchen, thank you so much for your comment–it does help to keep things in perspective!

    Sunny, thank you. 26 months! Way to go! (And it was wonderful to see you on Saturday!)