I sit in my 17-month-old daughter’s toddler bed, my arms wrapped around her tiny body. It is the middle of the night, and I have lost track of how many times I have found myself in this position. She sits on my lap and wails, hits me while I try to comfort her. I hug her tight and try to suppress my own tears threatening to escape as heavy sobs.
I don’t want to be doing this. I know what she wants, what she needs, what will make all of this end.
But I can’t give it to her.
I can, but I don’t want to. I’ve endured 17 months of non-stop nursing, day and night. She only sleeps when she is suckling away, attached to my breast. I haven’t slept through the night, had my arms free, or a moment to myself in over a year. I am trying to heal from postpartum depression while mothering two children.
It is all too much.
The tears I want to cry are not just because I am spending these dark hours in a toddler bed or ending a nursing relationship with my daughter, they fall for all of the hardships I have faced in the last year and a half raising her.
“It’s hard when they only want you,” I tell my future sister-in-law. She is sitting on the couch across from me, nursing her six-month-old son. She tells me he still isn’t sleeping through the night, that he is happiest when he is next to her. There are similarities between their relationship and the one I share with my daughter. I offer her solidarity; I have no advice.
“When Zo was a baby, she never took a bottle. She would wait for me. I’d walk into the house, and she would be screaming her head off because she was hungry. We tried every type of bottle–that’s why you have so many different kinds from us,” I laugh. “We even tried formula. She didn’t take a sippy cup until she was 18 months old.” Three years of distance and I can finally think about those exhausting and trying days, and the emotional and physical toll they took on me.
I was chained to my baby, afraid to leave her for even a little while. Every attempt I made to go to a mom’s group and leave her in the nursery or find a few minutes to myself at home or on a date with my husband failed. She nursed to fall asleep for every nap and bedtime, then slept in my arms or next to me on my bed. I knew how dangerous this was, but it was the only place she would sleep. I would lay next to her, my breast in her mouth all night long. Every attempt I made to release her grasp on me ended with her waking up and crying. The only comfort she wanted was me. I would roll over to the other side, offer myself to her, and watch her drift off to sleep.
I felt it the moment she was placed on my chest. The dark cloud of depression rolled through and settled right above me. I looked down at my perfect, newborn daughter, this girl I had prayed and hoped for. I cried, not tears of joy, but disappointment.
I don’t want her; someone needs to take her away.
Maybe she heard those terrible thoughts on the day of her birth, the moment we met face to face. Maybe she knew how desperately I wanted to be far from that hospital bed, still a mother to one and happy. Maybe she attached herself to me so quickly and held on so tight because she didn’t want me to let her go. She held on to me for dear life. For her life. And mine.
I didn’t think I would survive those months of her wanting only me. She needed me so intensely in those moments, and her needs wore me out.
The week it took to wean her at night was one of the hardest weeks of my life. Night after night, I held her and fell asleep next to her in her toddler bed. The moments I was awake, I whispered apologies into her ears and rubbed her curly brown hair. “I just can’t do it anymore, baby girl. I need you to learn to sleep without me. I need you to stop needing me,” I’d whisper into her ear. “Please, let’s just figure this out together.”
Once she was able to fall asleep and stay asleep on her own, I weaned her completely. I poured whole milk into sippy cup after sippy cup, into baby bottles and water bottles, in a desperate attempt to get her to drink. I poured warm and cold breast milk into these cups. Added warm milk to my milk, cold milk to my milk. I watered it down and threw banana slices and strawberries into the milk. On more than one occasion, I added chocolate syrup. I did everything I could think of to make her want regular milk or anything other than me.
I watched her refuse milk all day long, reaching for me and crying. It may have only been a few days, a week at the most, but at the time it felt like years. I didn’t know if we were going to make it or if she was going to become dehydrated. I clearly wasn’t thinking straight, my mind numbed by postpartum depression, scrambled from life with two kids. Every refusal led both of us to tears.
My daughter tested me daily during that year and a half. She still does, even at age four. She is still attached to me, happiest when she is on my lap or cradled into my arm. It is rough for her, the middle child, to share me with her brother and sister. I am still learning how to be present with her without giving her every ounce of me, ensuring there is enough left for everyone else, including myself.
She still finds her way into my room almost every night, telling me she is scared or had a bad dream. “I need to tell you something,” she’ll whisper to me.
“What do you need to tell me?” I ask, masking the irritation with what I hope she perceives as love.
“I just love you,” she smiles, takes a drink of water, and walks away.
I wonder why she is the one who wants to be near me 24/7, why she is the one who tells me she loves me a hundred times a day or needs the most affection and attention. Why did she grasp onto me in those early, dark days of depression that intersected with her first days? Did she know something?
It’s only in these years since I finally see how much I needed her, too. I thought I was going to drown in the early days of mothering her. I didn’t know how to take care of myself when I gave every last drop to her.
There were so many times I wanted to give up, to let go of everything I felt chained me to my depression- if she would just stop needing me so much, then I could heal. She was always there telling me in her own ways how desperately she needed me. I knew I loved her, despite my fragile psyche telling me otherwise. I knew I needed her, too. She pushed me to the edge consistently. But it was her consistency that brought me back.
Jacey is a wife to her husband of seven years and together, they have three children. She finds solace in words and between the pages of a good book. Her writing has been featured on Coffee + Crumbs, among others. You can find her on Instagram or her blog.