Lex made a beautiful post a while back about her experiences as an non-gestational parent (NGP) once her 13-month-old was night weaned. Lex nursed her first three kids, boys that she gave birth to, for multiple years each, and has been supportive of her wife nursing their fourth kid in a similar way, in addition to nursing him some herself, mostly for comfort. As near as I can tell, Leo hasn’t ever had a bottle, which I don’t say to contribute to some sort of annoying mothering competition, but to indicate that this family is serious about nursing.
Even so, Lex writes about how night weaning Leo had a positive impact on her relationship with their baby. Please go read her take on how the dynamics shifted. It is a lovely glimpse into the experience of this rare corner of motherhood, the birth-mom turned non-bio-mom. She highlights an experience I’ve been mulling over for quite a while, that of being the non- or less- nursing parent to a baby or toddler, which sometimes feels a bit like being a third-wheel.
Much of of the advice on nursing strongly emphasizes the importance of supporting the “mother-baby dyad.” This nursing dyad is held up as the most crucial relationship in the family, even beyond the obvious importance of getting the baby well-fed. It is the center around which all other family members rotate, and to which family decisions should defer. Dads and “partners” get brief assurances that they can bond in some other way, some rather ominous warnings that they’d better “be supportive” or else, as well as some not-so-subtle messages that their relationship with the baby isn’t as important as the nursing mother’s relationship.
This misses the fact that a family is a family, often with more than two members, not a “dyad” plus some extra people that don’t matter as much. Decisions about breastfeeding, supplementation, night weaning, extended nursing, weaning, and feeding solids impact the whole family, and I deeply believe they should be made by both parents (in families with two), not just the nursing mother. If you want to build a family with two parents solidly at it’s core, you need to start that way, and that means considering a “nursing triad” consisting of the baby, the nursing mom, and the non-nursing parent. All three relationships in the triad are vital to the stability of the family and to the success of nursing.
I have yet to meet a two-parent family with a breastfeeding baby that did not have some level of tension around nursing (and that includes my own family). Often, that tension takes the form of a non-nursing parent hoping for an end of nursing, while the nursing mom wants breastfeeding to continue for longer, particularly during the toddler years. There are plenty of other forms this tension can take (for instance, my overzealous nagging of Gail to pump when Leigh was a baby), but this is certainly a common one. When nursing mothers ask for help with such a situation, they often get advice like “it’s none of their business,” “just tell him/her to back off,” or “you know what’s right for your baby.” In essence, this response shuts the non-nursing parent out of the picture even further.
So what to do? Well, the first thing to do is to listen. If the non-nursing parent in your family is making motions towards “maybe nursing should be done now,” don’t just shut her down or accuse her of “not being supportive” — especially if you can pause for a moment and think back to those early days. Remember the drinks delivered to your nursing pillow? The late-night calls she made to the lactation consultant? The bouncing and walking she did so the baby would settle down enough to try to latch on again? Yeah, chances are she is plenty supportive. So what is she really saying?
First, it’s possible she’s really onto something. Perhaps your family is ready to move toward weaning, or that a step in that direction might bring a new openness to your family like Lex described in her post (though to be clear, I don’t believe Lex was pushing for night-weaning herself, she just noticed the benefits). There are many steps between round-the-clock nursing and total weaning, so motion in this direction, if together you decide it is in order, certainly doesn’t mean nursing needs to be completely over and done with.
It’s also possible that the non-nursing parent in your family, once you find out what she’s really feeling and thinking, might not actually be having difficulty with nursing itself. She might be saying, “I’m struggling with the fact that I can’t care for the baby independently,” or “It’s hard that I can’t soothe her at all, that she only ever wants you.” If this is what she’s saying, you might be in luck, because the magic ingredient to solve these problems is time, and by time, I mean time with the non-nursing parent independently caring for her child. Both Gail and I found that when we were NGPs, our connection with our kids deepened when we started to spend significant time alone with them. I started taking days home alone with Leigh when she was two months old. Gail started solo days when Ira was three months old. Taking care of a baby on your own, without access to the magical boob, can help you develop amazing soothing skills as a non-nursing parent. And once a baby is old enough to stay awake while nursing, he can learn to go to sleep without feeding, which means that both parents can put him to sleep with confidence.
Changes like these might not be easy, especially if dynamics in your family are such that the NGP does not do much soothing or solo care. It takes a great deal of support from the bio-mom, and that’s not always support that’s easy to give. But the rewards truly are beautiful. After all, one of the joys of becoming a parent with your partner is watching love blossom between two of the greatest loves of your life.