World Breastfeeding Week is celebrated internationally from August 1-7th (luck Canadians get to celebrate twice as we celebrate Canadian World Breastfeeding Week in October!). This year’s theme is Breastfeeding and Work – Let’s Make it Work! “Whether a woman is working in the formal, non-formal or home setting, it is necessary that she is empowered in claiming her and her baby’s right to breastfeed.” This theme and the many online conversations I’ve seen this week has got me looking back at my own experiences, even though my youngest son weaned 4 years ago.
When my first son was a baby, I couldn’t imagine leaving him so I opted not to go back to work when my maternity leave ended. We just stretched financially and made ends meet the best we could for a while, and I was home to breastfeed and take care of him exactly how I wanted on my terms. When he was 18 months old I took a job working in the early mornings baking and cooking, but I was home shortly after my son and husband woke up. Our breastfeeding relationship was changing and he was becoming more connected to his dad for comfort. It felt like a gentle transition.
I was working and breastfeeding and it was working.
Then a year later I was accepted to the College of Nursing, my son started full-time daycare while I was in school. At 2 1/2 he was still breastfeeding off and on several times throughout the day and for comfort when he was upset and at bedtime. I was really worried about how the transition would feel for him and me. It turned out he got used to not nursing during the day pretty easily and making up for it with lots of cuddles and nummies when we were together. Again our breastfeeding relationship was changing.
I was studying and breastfeeding and it was working.
Then halfway through that year, I found out I was pregnant again and everything felt so much more complicated. School is challenging with an older baby or kid, but I had no idea how to parent a baby the way I believe in while also figuring out my commitment to my degree. There is a limited amount of time to finish the Nursing degree and I did not feel supported or accommodated by the College when making these decisions. My youngest son was born at the end of September and I was able to be home with him for 3 months with no financial benefits since I had been living on student loans. This time didn’t feel anywhere near long enough and it really made me appreciated the maternity leave we have in Canada.
At 3 months I took one class; it was so hard on everyone involved. My baby was so stressed when I was away and never took to a bottle. I was exhausted and pumping milk was an extra challenge. My amazing childcare providing friend was my saving grace who was able to take care of my boys and keep my baby content enough while I was gone. Then I did 2 year of school part-time before returning to full-time for another 2 years.
Being a student while mothering young children is so much harder than working and mothering. As a student there is a never ending list of things you should be doing with your time when at home, there is no catching up with reading and assignments, there is only coping and hoping for the best. Yet as hard as it was, it would have been so much harder if I wasn’t breastfeeding my youngest. He didn’t exactly thrive in a big daycare setting (although I am so grateful to have had reliable childcare). Every night and all of our time together was so important, I became a safe place for him to reset and recharge; he became my cue to slow down and take some deep breaths. People often talk about how much they need their sleep so they night wean as their children grow. For us it was the reverse, I needed to maintain our security and connection and night nursing was my favourite tool. I could sleep and rest without waking much while he nursed and we both refilled our emotional and physical energies.
I was studying and breastfeeding and it was incredibly hard, but it was working.
Being in school definitely changed the way I was able to parent and changed the timing of our breastfeeding. I was still able to maintain the kind of relationship I wanted with my sons, though and I met my own breastfeeding goals. When I hear mothers talking about weaning in order to return to work or school, of course I respect those choices. So often, however they don’t sound like choices, but rather mothers sound resigned to the fate that they feel forced into. I just want to let mothers know that, if they want to, there are plenty of ways to continue to breastfeed even when they don’t spend your days with their children. I have been working or in school more or less since my first son was 18 months old and he breastfed until he was 3 and my youngest breastfed until he was 4. Our breastfeeding patterns didn’t look the same as if I was at home but the relationships changed, adapted and maintained until we were all ready to gradually stop.
Then eventually I was studying and not breastfeeding and it was working.
My mothering advice for every situation is always to ask for help. Returning to work or school is no exception. If you think being away from your baby is impossible while breastfeeding think carefully about the specific barriers and what would make it better, don’t be afraid to ask for help and support. None of us can do it all alone