There was a time when I believed it was a truth universally acknowledged that Salma Hayek breast-feeding a baby not born unto her was strange.
I was newly pregnant with my second daughter when I gave it some thought, figuring everyone agreed it was kind of an out-there thing to nurse another woman’s child. It wasn’t that I didn’t admire Hayek’s compassion for helping a stranger’s sick baby in Sierra Leone. It was that not having breast-fed my older daughter Petunia for more than two weeks, I was in the dark about how passionate so many women are about nursing.
That all changed when my second daughter was born. Even though Petunia fared perfectly well health-wise, and she and I bonded just fine despite the fact that she received mostly formula via bottle her first year, I was determined to nurse my younger daughter Peony exclusively for as long as I could—but definitely longer than two weeks.
It was initially a breeze, although “initially” really just meant about two days. Peony stopped feeding on the left breast before I left the hospital. We were back in the hospital less than two days later for a consultation, and I was on antibiotics for mastitis a few days after that. Still, my determination to persevere was stronger than the feeling of broken glass crunching around in my left breast.
The milk may have stopped ... but I’m still here and Peony knows that better than she knows anything else.
I wasn’t thrilled about nursing in public—that was part of the reason why I stopped breast-feeding Petunia so early on: I hadn’t figured out a way to do it discreetly and wasn’t comfortable with an exposed breast outside of my home. I read about women staging protests for their right to nurse their babies anywhere and at any time without reservation or so much as a blanket, and, while I don’t disagree that small babies should eat when needed, I was never (and I’m still not) sure why nursing covers or discretion couldn’t necessarily be part of the deal.
Thankfully, I discovered a Bebe au Lait nursing shield that worked well for me with Peony, and we soldiered on. Plus, by the time Peony was born, I was working from home full time, so shunning the pump and bottles and public feedings wasn't too much of a hardship (other than, you know, being tied to her up to 12 times a day in the very beginning). I figured if I breast-fed her for three months, it would be a successful mission.
It’s now 15 months later, and Peony just decided to stop nursing. Like, she just decided a couple of days ago. There’d been signs for a couple of weeks that she was losing interest. She limited her time at the breast to a matter of seconds on some mornings (we were down to a lone, early-morning session for the past couple of months). She probably would have been fine stopping sooner than she did, but I kept offering anyway because I figured we’d come this far, I wanted to be crystal clear that we’d reached the finish line.
We crossed it before dawn one morning when I brought her into bed, and, instead of taking the breast, she rolled over and stuck her pacifier in her mouth. It was a relief to an extent—it meant I could finally think about traveling without children for the first time in a few years, or even just sleeping in.
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But the end has been more of a heartbreak than anything else. It’s not a my-7th-grade-boyfriend-just-dumped-me-for-my-best-frenemy kind of heartbreak. Instead, it’s simply not lost on me that Peony is my very last baby, and this incredibly short-lived, fantastically magical milk-making power of mine has now stopped—it’s just sad, even when factoring in the realistic, everyday inconveniences of it all.
The early days, when it would often take Peony an hour to get through a nursing session, were among my favorite times. She’d start snoozing in the middle, all cozy and snuggly up against me, giving me ample time to inspect the outline of her face or how she’d scrunch up her legs like she was still confined to the womb. In my more fortunate moments, I’d doze off with her, knowing full well that the warm bliss of such shared naps was pretty much unmatched by any other life experience.
To this day, while she adores my husband and her sister, among others, I remain Peony’s clear person of choice, and I have no doubt it’s because 450+ days of making myself available to every pang of hunger in her tiny belly and quickening of her heartbeat has paid off incalculably. When everything else is stripped away—all of the comforts that she’s come to know and expect—in the end, I’m all she really knows. I’ve the most consistent presence and source of nourishment in her life.
The milk may have stopped (or it will soon—I checked last night and there are still a few drops), but I’m still here and Peony knows that better than she knows anything else.
Nursing another woman’s baby, donating breast milk or breast-feeding publicly without a cover still wouldn’t be choices I’d make, but I understand more deeply why Salma Hayek did it as well as those women who stage nurse-ins all over the place. Because I started out doing it for one reason, and in the end, I did it for all the reasons.
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