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I laid in the near-dark, feeding E2 down for the night, her little body curled into mine, and me drifting in and out of semi-sleep as she fed.  After awhile, I became conscious that she’d stopped and I could feel her breath, slow and even, across my skin.  I gently pulled my top back into place, careful not to disturb her at all, and got ready to carry her to bed and go downstairs, to have a cup of tea and a little mindless telly.

And then… I changed my mind.  For my daughter, there is no better place in the world to be than asleep in her mother’s arms, safe against the warmth of my body, completely at peace here with me in the dark.   I pulled the covers a little tighter over the two of us, and allowed myself to drift back into sleep for a while longer.

This is the best part of the day — for both of us.

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I was contacted recently by a television producer from LA who was looking for people to take part in a documentary she is making about extended breastfeeding.  I was excited, flattered, and… a little wary.  Depending how it’s handled, the women on the programme could end up looking like amazing mothers or absolute freaks.  I answered the producer’s questions and then added a couple of my own… But really, I knew I wouldn’t get picked.

Television producers are out to make eye-catching television shows — no doubt this producer was looking for extended-breastfeeders who were militant, activist, perhaps shaking an angry fist.  They’re not looking for women like me — I’m still breastfeeding E2 as she nears her third birthday partly because of a medical need (to supplement her severely restricted diet) but mostly… well… just because we’ve never stopped.  It’s really nothing more exciting than that.  I still changing her nappies every day, which I’ve been doing since the day she was born.  I still dress her and bathe her and lift her in and out of her cot (crib), as I’ve done since the day she was born.  And, two or three times a day, we breastfeed, just as we’ve done since she was born.  It doesn’t feel weird and it doesn’t feel radical…  it feels perfectly normal.  It’s just what we do, same as we’ve always done.  And that’s probably pretty boring television.

But if that television producer focuses on only the freaky of extended breastfeeding, she’s going to miss out something much, much better.  It’s quiet and subtle — so soft I hardly noticed it at all — but it is really worth noticing.  The best thing about extended breastfeeding — the real surprise of it — is that it is wonderful, and wonderful because it is the kind of bonding time that mothers of newborns always hope for, but never quite get.  When my daughters were newborns, breastfeeding them was (cue script) amazing, of course, but it had a certain… a certain one-sidedness to it.  Sometimes it felt that the love — much like the milk — was flowing only one way.  I fed and I loved, I cuddled and I stroked, and my baby noticed nothing more than the breast.  There were days when I felt like a milk-machine: the baby demanded, I produced, the baby demanded, I produced, endlessly, endlessly  …and I wanted something more.  I wanted something more from my baby.

It came — eventually — in dribs and drabs: a little eye-contact, and then deep, meaningful gazes — a connection at last!  And then, one day, smiles, and then giggles during feedings, and cuddles that went both ways.  That feeling of being nothing more than a walking milky-bar began to slowly fade.  And it’s just at this point — just as it’s all about to get so much better — that so many mothers are told it’s time they weaned their babies.

Feeding a toddler is completely different from feeding a baby.  For a start, all that panicked frenzy for milk is gone and, in its place, we’re in a nice, easy routine that we both understand.  We feed at home, at the same times every day, and it’s rare for E2 to ask for her milk otherwise (indeed, on those rare occasions when she does, it’s a sure sign that she’s coming down with something).  And she’s really good at feeding now — where she used to take an hour to get the milk she needed, she can now do the same job in 15 minutes.  Breastfeeding a toddler is just so much easier than feeding a baby — like night and day.

But the real change is something far more significant than those purely practical considerations.  The real change is quiet joy.  A toddler, by her nature, rarely stops moving — if her mother gets a kiss, it’s fleeting; a hug is a violent bodyblow before the whirling dervish whirls off again.  Life with a toddler is constant movement, never-ending noise — it is exhausting.  Quiet does not exist… except when we’re breastfeeding.  It’s only then that all the chaos and the wild energy stops, when my daughter crawls up into my arms, and snuggles against me, rests her head on my arm, and we spend that little time just being together.

I sing to her while she feeds.  She smiles — skilled enough now to smile without dribbling.  We hold hands, walk our fingertips together, and trace shapes on each others’ palms.  I momentarily forget the lyrics and she pulls off, corrects me sternly, and then latches back on.  Sometimes she stops feeding and sings to me — a whole song from beginning to end — before returning to her milk.  I ask her questions while she feeds, and she tries to answer them, still feeding and mouth full and sounding ridiculously indecipherable.  It makes me smile…  The whole thing makes me smile.  Breastfeeding has become a time we truly share, a few short windows of quiet and togetherness that punctuate our chaotic days.  She loves to be held,  I love to feel her body-weight on mine, to stroke the soft fullness of her cheeks, to smell her hair.  When she falls asleep, I look at her face — so relaxed, eyes closed, rosebud mouth open, her breath slow and rhythmic, her smell so sweet…  and for a moment, she is a newborn again.

This is nothing freaky.  It’s a mother and a daughter doing what they’ve always done, and finding that’s it changed and become better as time has gone on.  You could never capture that change on film — and, even if you did, it probably wouldn’t interesting television, and so that producer won’t be emailing me back.  But I wish she could capture it, I wish people could understand what it is.

Because the extended breastfeeding story that I’ve got… it’s nothing short of beautiful.

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I was bored and hot on Sunday in church and letting my mind wander, when I spotted a family across the aisle and a few rows in front of us.  The two older daughters looked to be in their early teens and very close in age, and were sitting on either side of their mother.  Their sister was considerably younger, probably four or five, and she was sitting on her daddy’s lap, her head curled into his shoulder and looking as bored as I felt.

Ah, the magic third — a term that a dear friend of mine had used to describe that third child who so often comes as a complete surprise to the parents and some considerable years after their more carefully-planned older siblings.  Except that my friend had made a Freudian slip as she spoke, and it had come out as “the magic turd”, which has had me quietly snorting with laughter ever since.

But as I looked at that father holding his daughter, and noted her long legs nearly reaching his ankles and the way her body slumped down to fit against his, I  thought to myself that he won’t be doing that for much longer — holding her on his lap like that.  She was nearly past that age, as her sisters had been for a long time now.

And then a thought occurred to me…  I wondered when was the last time he’d held his other daughters on his lap, and did he remember the last time?  One day he would have held them and it would have felt as natural as it did with his third now, but then it just wouldn’t have happened again… quite naturally.  And, I wondered, did he ever notice?

Because parenthood is circular.  Even though it is the firsts that get all the attention — the first step, the first smile, the first word — the lasts are just as significant, even if they go unnoticed.

I cried the last time I breastfed E1 — sobbed, in fact.  It broke my heart to do it, but I was five months pregnant and it had got to be too much, the way she threw herself with abandon onto the bump when it was time to latch on, the energy she was draining from my exhausted body — and she’d recently begun to bite.  The midwife had told me that older nurslings often self-wean anyway as the milk begins to change for the baby that is coming, so I decided it didn’t matter much if I took matters into my own hands and helped her wean a few months early.  It’s a decision I regretted ever since — not only because I’ve since learned that it is possible to nurse two children in tandem, but also because, immediately I weaned her, my ever-healthy daughter came down with one of the nastiest colds I’ve ever known.  She then passed it onto me and, with my body focused on protecting the unborn child inside me, everything above the bump was left to fend for itself.  Unmedicated, one night the infection moved to my ears and, within a couple of hours, the pressure was so great that it tore holes in both of my eardrums — the loudest sound no one ever heard — and my hearing has never been the same since.

But I digress.  At two-and-a-half, E2 is still breastfeeding and going strong.  And, given her severely restricted diet, that is a very good thing.  My plan is to let her feed until she is ready to stop, and I don’t really care when that is.  Never having done child-led weaning, I’m not quite sure how it will go, but I assume her feedings will gradually begin to grow further and further apart until they just quietly cease.  And like the last nappy change, the last night feed, the last kissed boo-boo, and the last time she sits on my lap, I won’t even realise it’s happened.

And then one day, I will.  And then I will cry.

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I was lying on my side feeding E2, the two of us snuggled up together on the couch with my arm under her head and her feet resting on the top of my legs.  I took a deep breath and drew in the sleep-smell clinging to her hair, then ran my hand down her bare leg to her foot, still small enough to cup nicely in my hand.  She is getting bigger, but she is still small.  Sometimes I look at her and can hardly believe that someone so little can be real, a whole person in herself.

“What a little foot you have!” I said, and she, still nursing, shook her head in disagreement.

She pulled away abruptly.  “I’m not little!” she announced, and then promptly latched back on.

E1, who was sitting tucked into the space behind my bent legs, now stuck her foot up over the other side of my thigh and pressed its sole against E2’s.  Her foot dwarfed her sister’s.

“See?” I said.  “E1’s is big, your’s is little!”  I lifted my leg up in the air and held my own foot aloft.  “Actually, my foot is big, E1’s is medium, and your feet are little.”

This was too much — she pulled off again and paused to contemplate the three different feet on display.  None of this is what a two-year-old wants to hear.  Her world now is one of new conquest after new conquest: she can run and jump, she feeds herself and uses a big-girl cup, she can ride a tricycle, she is starting to use a toilet.  She is a big girl now, and she knows it.  It is eminently important to her.

But her foot was still undeniably the smallest of the three and her face showed her displeasure as she worked to reconcile this in her mind.  After a full minute of frowning, she unfurrowed her brow — she had reached her conclusion. “I am big,” she stated, matter of factly.  ” I am little, but I am big.”

And having thus resolved the problem to her satisfaction, she turned back to her milk and began nursing again with gusto.

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I was chatting with a friend today — another mother I have met whose children are the same ages as my girls — and I was describing the way E1 breastfeeds her doll.  Now, I know that might sound strange if you’re not used to the idea, but it makes sense — little girls mother their dolls the way they see their own mothers mother them.  And I breastfeed E2, so she breastfeeds her doll.

But what makes me laugh is the absolute accuracy she brings to it.  She pulls her top up, she carefully positions her doll, holds her head gently, and then…  and then…

Living in rural England, we were surrounded by farms — never more than a mile away from a flock of sheep or a herd of cows — and after a while, their ways become part of the fabric of a person’s world, much the same as the sound of birdsong or the cycles of the seasons.  One thing that had always struck me was the very bizarre expression that every ewe takes on as soon as her lambs begin their (surprisingly violent) suckling — it always registered a strange mix of resignation, pain, boredom, and duty.  It looked so odd  to me and I never really understood it.

Until, that is, I had my own babies and began to breastfeed them.  One day, soon after E1 was born, I was nursing her — trapped in my spot on the couch, slightly pained from her still-rough sucking, and bored in that quiet room with only the tick-tock from the clock in the kitchen to entertain me — when I realised I was pulling exactly the same face as all those ewes.  That particular look has nothing to do with being a sheep, per se, and everything to do with being a mother.  And it is that same bored, pained, resigned expression that E1 pulls off with absolute perfection every time she feeds her own doll so tenderly.  She is my image, mirrored in miniature.  And it is — no, honestly — hilarious to see.

So, I was telling all this to my new friend and I said, “…and  then…  and then she gets this look on her face…  Well, you know that look that sheep always get when they are feeding their lambs?…”  And from the momentary flash of bewilderment on her face, I suddenly twigged that she didn’t.

The thing is, I have told this story probably half a dozen times before, and I have never once had to explain that look.  Everyone I knew just… knew.  Until this afternoon, I’d completely forgotten that there were people — city folk! — who wouldn’t.

Toto, we’re not in Dorset anymore…!

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Shhhhh… Don’t tell anyone — and you didn’t hear this from me, but… On Tuesday night, E2 woke up and started to cry as normal twice, but never really got into a full cry, and then settled herself back down before I got up to go in to her. To my utter astonishment, we went the whole night without my going in to feed her even once — for the first time ever in the more than 18 months since she was born. I wanted to be ecstatic, but wouldn’t allow myself to get too hopeful about it.

And then last night… last night she never woke once. Not once. She slept the whole night through!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I got more sleep than I have had in the whole duration of her life — over six hours in a row. I was like a woman reborn today, and I remembered, after all this time, how normal life was supposed to feel.

This may not last — I know that — and I’m afraid to talk about it much in case I break the spell. But I am hoping a little despite myself, and reveling a lot.

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I gave birth to E2 nearly 18 months ago and, to all appearances, that birthing process is long over and finished. She is a lively little girl now, toddling about under her own steam and babbling in her own language to anyone who will listen. That I am no longer pregnant is obvious, that I am no longer post-partum is simple arithmetic, and I’ve even lost most of the weight (of this last pregnancy, at any rate). To most people’s perceptions, the whole process is an event in the past.

But, in reality, it’s still ongoing, and my body reminded me of that today: it is finally attempting to return to normal cycles. It’s been so long, I’d almost forgotten what it was to experience the ordinary rhythm of being a woman. When I look back and tally it up, it’s quite shocking to realise that, between three pregnancies and the subsequent breastfeeding, I’ve experienced only four or five cycles in well over four years. But it is clear my body is presently creating a surge of hormones, and I am feeling the effects.

It is an enormous strain on a body (and a mind) to breastfeed a baby and work through these hormone spikes — and then get only broken sleep at night — all at the same time, and the result is that I am experiencing that same indescribable exhaustion that overwhelmed me at the beginning of each of my pregnancies. Back then, I fell asleep anywhere — on the floor, standing up, once (terrifyingly) whilst driving, and once very nearly, on a bench in the gym whilst resting between sets lifting weights.

Back then, I understood why this was happening and I could revel in the joy of it, even as I bemoaned the inconvenient weirdness of it. But this past week, I’ve had no idea why I was overcome with exhaustion. All I knew was that I seemed to be getting absolutely nothing done day after day — in this week when I’ve had so much insurance-organising to do — and time seemed to disappear in a haze. All week I’ve been always aching aching aching to go to my bed and, when I did manage to sleep, it came as heavy as if I were drugged and I found it almost impossible to rouse myself to waking again.

And so I am educated again in what an enormous and all-encompassing endeavour this making babies is for my body — it is not merely one of the things it does, it is the thing my body is designed to do — and that it puts every single resource it has into doing that job, at the expense of every superfluous thing that I might want to accomplish. I was reminded today that no process that produces a whole new person — a whole new life from scratch — can ever be over so quickly, so neatly. It would be easy to look at the mother of a child as old as E2 and assume that everything is long finished, that everything is back to normal — that she is back to normal — but there is so much more going on under the surface than we ever really appreciate. This process which began over two years ago is still working its way to its slow conclusion, and I am still feeling daily the strain — the incredible drain — as it does.

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