Boundaries! They are a constant topic for parents. Boundaries are crucial for children of all ages so they can feel safe to explore even as they bump up against the walls of their limitations. Yet enforcing them is one of the MOST difficult parts of parenting.
We’ve all struggled with picking the right boundaries and remaining consistent in drawing those lines. And even though you know the key is to pick boundaries you’ll be able to enforce, at any given moment it may not be so easy.
Recently, I bumped up against a boundary that was incredibly painful for me to enforce — but that highlighted for me the importance of consistency in my parenting — when I had to battle the question of when to stop breastfeeding my son.
My friends kept telling me I’d stop when I was ready, or that my son would miraculously and spontaneously self-wean.
HA! That felt like a HUGE joke!
I’d been one of those incredibly lucky mothers for whom breastfeeding came easy.
After a rough first week trying to get my milk to come in, it had been smooth sailing. And, as a self-employed mom, I had the luxury of continuing to nurse him for as long as I wanted.
But then my son was approaching 3 years old, and while I wasn’t feeling ready to wean him, yet, I was starting to feel social pressure to do so. I found myself feeling increasingly self-conscious about the fact I was still nursing, as my friends made subtle — and not-so-subtle — comments about it.
As I became more and more self-conscious about continuing to nurse my son, I compromised with myself by cutting out all breastfeeding except for before naptime and before bedtime, and it felt appropriate, yet I couldn’t fathom how I was going to eliminate these last two feedings. I still loved the special bonding and cuddling time.
That started to change when my dad needed emergency brain surgery.
My sister was in Australia and unable to come help, so my 86-year-old mother and I had no other support. I ended up hanging out in the hospital day after day with a fidgety, active son — cramped in a tiny ICU bay with only a curtain between us and the other patients, their families, and the medical staff. We were all stressed, and in an effort to keep my son in one place, I ended up nursing him multiple times a day for as long as I could keep him calm and quiet on one or the other of my boobs.
When our lives returned to normal, I tried re-implement our two feedings a day routine.
My son was incredibly demanding — refusing to stop when I said time was up, kicking and screaming, and just not making it fun.
I started to feel DONE.
And, I was getting sick of feeling judged by strangers, family members, and friends who consider breastfeeding toddlers to be odd or wrong.
One Thursday afternoon, it suddenly hit me.
The main reason I hadn’t yet been able to wean him (or potty train him for that matter) was that I felt too exhausted to stand my ground as his parent.
As a single mom via anonymous sperm donation, and therefore without a partner to share the early wake-up calls, bedtime routine, and general stressors of raising a small child, I’d come to rely on “mama-milky” to simply get through each day.
I vowed then and there to tackle either potty training or weaning over the next few weekends.
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I hadn’t given it any more thought, until that Friday night. After his bath, I helped my son get his jammies on and moved straight to books instead of his usual routine of nursing time first. I saw my opportunity and seized it by suggesting he get into bed after books — and, miracle of miracles, it worked! He didn’t notice that we had skipped “mama-milky”!
It even worked the next night!
I managed some sort of dog and pony show at nap times too, getting him into his bed right as he was on the verge of sleep and before he could even realize he hadn’t had milk.
I was on my way!
When the third night came, he DID notice. He cried and screamed … and basically broke my heart.
But, I did not relent. Believe me, I wanted to. But it seemed like cruel and unusual punishment to both of us for me to give in now, only to have to start over again in a few days, weeks, or months.
I thought back to those many times when I’d let a boundary slip, only to face an incredible uphill battle when I tried to reinstate the rule. I knew if I relented now, I’d be in for a MUCH bigger battle when I tried again later. And, this boundary was the most difficult and emotional my son AND I had faced so far. I could see how much it would mess with his mind — and my sense of resolve — if I wavered from my clarity.
More than ever, I needed to set a boundary and stick to it.
Because this time I wasn’t only setting a boundary for him, I was setting a boundary for myself — and it SUCKED for ME.
Prior to this process, I hadn’t realized the extent to which I had relied on nursing to soothe and calm him — to get him to be quiet and still for a moment, to put him to sleep quickly, or to prevent a “hangry” meltdown since he isn’t a great eater. I had to struggle with myself not to give in.
Several times a day I had to fight the urge to give in and breastfeed him purely for the sake of making my own life just a smidgen easier. Enforcing this boundary I’d set was particularly difficult for me because I was so wrapped up in it emotionally — and frankly, because I was SO incredibly exhausted.
However, I could see that my son needed me to be in control and consistent so as not to unfairly confuse him. As much as it pained me and was inconvenient, it was of the utmost importance for me to be in control for (and of) both of us.
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And then the doubt started. I questioned whether I was really ready. Maybe I’d been too rash. It was cold and flu season, and I believed strongly in the value of mother’s milk to help children fight off infections. Maybe I had given in to societal pressure to get my child off my boob. I felt resentful and mad at myself for giving into other people’s opinions.
To make matters worse, I was suddenly aware of this step as an incredible rite of passage and felt as though I hadn’t properly honored that aspect of weaning. I hadn’t taken one last moment with him snuggled up to my breast while receiving this powerful sustenance and emotional comfort. I think I was probably reading the news or texting friends the last time I nursed him, and now I regretted that horribly.
But the bottom line is that this wasn’t about me — it was about him.
I needed to stay present with my discomfort and remain consistent for the sake of my son.
The importance of consistency while enforcing this boundary offered me a glimpse into just how hard it must be for my son every time I bend or change a rule. I could see the impact of unpredictability on my son, and I could feel the emotional toll any waffling took on me as well.
He was actually doing great. He was upset for sure, but he was handling it like a champ.
I was the one falling apart.
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That’s when it shifted for me. I had to stop mourning my loss and honor this incredible rite of passage for him.
It happened spontaneously when I was picking him up from daycare. I wasn’t looking forward to the battle of getting him into his car seat without nursing, so I said to him, “Let’s make a deal. If you get in your car seat without a fuss and go to sleep tonight without a fuss, we can celebrate your leap into being a big boy by going to the toy store to pick out something to celebrate that you no longer need ‘mama-milky.’”
His grumpy face perked up — and he made it through nap and bedtime that night without so much as a whimper.
The next afternoon, we went to the toy store and he picked out a fire truck with sounds, lights, and screeching brakes. My son (who is completely obsessed with fire trucks) was elated. And so was I.
We’d both made it through this powerful rite of passage.
The next morning, when someone asked him where he got his truck, he volunteered that he got it to celebrate becoming a big boy because he was no longer having “mama-milky.” That afternoon when I picked him up from daycare, his provider told me he’d had his best day ever. It seemed like he grew up overnight.
It’s been two months since I shut down the milk factory. And, I still mourn the transition — and applaud my resilient son.
I learned a powerful lesson about consistency from this process of flailing around and recognizing my own discomfort. Before I pick another boundary, I need to feel rock solid on my decision and ready to carry it out consistently, so help me God!
Potty training is looming on the horizon and I already see how my inconsistency is our biggest barrier. It’s so much easier to offer a diaper so we can get out of the house without an accident and the inconvenience of stopping to find a bathroom.
This motherhood thing isn’t easy. It’s exhausting and crazy-making.
Hang in there, mamas (and dads!). I know you can do it!
Sarah Kowalski is a life coach, fertility doula and the founder of Motherhood Reimagined. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter @choicemamababy.