Monday, April 8, 2013

Wean In: Reclaiming Weaning as a Celebratory Milestone

Most Jews don’t consider weaning a major life cycle event despite the fact that it is one of the earliest recorded celebrations in Jewish tradition. Genesis 21:8 reads:

וַיִּגְדַּל הַיֶּלֶד וַיִּגָּמַל וַיַּעַשׂ אַבְרָהָם מִשְׁתֶּה גָדוֹל בְּיוֹם הִגָּמֵל אֶת־יִצְחָק

The child grew up and was weaned and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned.

While feasts (mishteh) are common in biblical literature, this is the only time the phrase mishteh gadol, a great feast, is used in the Torah. Why a great feast? Rashi said it was because the great men of Abraham’s generation were in attendance. This suggests that weaning, not brit milah, was the time to publicly celebrate the birth of a child.  Isaac’s circumcision was mentioned just four verses earlier, in Genesis 21:4, with no mention of a celebration or feast.   This makes sense, given the number of babies who died in pregnancy and in the weeks following. Abraham’s great weaning feast proclaimed: we made it! We successfully conceived, carried, and sustained a son to childhood against so many odds!

Today, our celebrations surrounding pregnancy, childbirth, brit milah/brit bat, and weaning have changed significantly. Medical advances have ensured that most babies will survive to childhood. For this reason, we feel more comfortable celebrating a baby's birth at a brit milah/brit bat. Weaning also holds a different significance today. Breastfeeding is not physically essential like it was in the bible, or even 100 years ago. Luckily, babies who do not breastfeed transition to early childhood nourished and sustained by loving parents. That said, weaning is still a significant emotional transition for those who do breastfeed. Though we do not know how Sarah felt about weaning and the feast held in her honor, I’d guess she felt emotionally conflicted. I wonder if she felt a sense of loss knowing the son she thought she’d never have no longer needed her to survive.

My final days of nursing are coming to a close this week. The process actually started three months ago when my body stopped responding to my pump.  Though nursing itself was going well, I needed to pump in order to maintain a supply.  I decided to transition to nursing twice a day, when Ariella woke up and again when she went to bed.  It was the best of both worlds for me.  I felt like a “normal” person during the day and still had my special time with Ariella.  Now, at 13.5 months, my decision to fully wean is twofold.  First, Ariella started making nursing a game that consists of biting me and then looking up to see my reaction.  The more I react, the funnier she thinks it is.  Trust me, little girl, it’s not that funny.   Second, I’m going away for work this weekend and simply refuse to take the pump back out.  My supply cannot sustain four days away and without proper weaning, engorgement can lead to infection. 

I am emotionally torn. On the one hand, I am confident that the time is right. Ariella is not a baby anymore and I’m ready to move to the next stage in our relationship. There are so many things I have missed over the last two years -- espresso, margaritas, Nyquil -- I can't wait to celebrate our weaning with a responsible return to all of them (though obviously not at the same time!).  But on the other hand is every other conceivable emotion. The bond of pregnancy and the bond of nursing is indescribable.  I have cherished the opportunity to literally give myself as an act of love. While I know I can and already do express love for Ariella in countless other ways, this knowledge does not replace the sadness I feel giving up our special time. Weaning, it feels, is a time for tears, not celebration.

The wisdom of our tradition has encouraged me to rethink what it means to wean a child. Acknowledging the emotional elements of weaning are critical, but they do not reflect the full experience. Weaning is also a celebration of our body’s ability to physically sustain another human being. This is an unbelievable blessing worthy of the biggest celebration imaginable. All change contains loss, even good change. Weaning is one of these changes. It is a celebration filled with sadness, but ultimately it is an experience we can and should share with others through a great feast.

Wednesday will be my last night nursing.  As the day approaches, I’ve been thinking about how to best celebrate this milestone.  There are a few weaning rituals on that I'm using as a guide, though none of them feels exactly right for me.  I plan to mark the transition in two ways.  First, I will offer a private blessing to Ariella as our final session comes to a close.   Second, I plan to have a great feast with my husband after she falls asleep.  In the same way that Abraham threw a feast for Sarah, I will allow John the opportunity to throw a feast for me.  It will probably just be the two of us, but the feast will be grand and I hope we can share together in reflecting on what this milestone means for both of us.  I also hope that by sharing these words with my community, we will symbolically invite you all to join us in our celebrating Ariella’s transition to self-nourishment.  We of course welcome any of your thoughts, reflections, or blessings to share during our celebration. 

I hope that as time goes on, our Jewish community can find ways to help nursing moms mark this milestone.  I hope more nursing moms will feel comfortable sharing the joy of having sustained and nurtured our little ones.  May we work together to overcome any embarrassment or uncertainty in sharing all aspects of this milestone with our communities.

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, שֶׁהֶחֱיָנוּ וְקִיְּמָנוּ וְהִגִּיעָנוּ לַזְּמַן הַזֶּה

We praise you, Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe, for giving us life, for sustaining us, and for enabling us reach this season.