Here’s how our nightly boob-fest goes down.
Rachel cuddles up in the crook of my arm and starts her drift off to sleep. Her breathing slows. Her thumb sucking ceases. And then I feel it. The familiar pull at the top of my shirt before she slips her tiny hand inside and begins her descent down. There’s a brief stroke of my right boob, a slow hover over my nipple and then she reaches her final destination, cupping the bottom of my breast in her hand. And a squeeze.
At first our struggle is silent. I pull my two-year-old’s hand out of my shirt and lay it back on her belly. But she soon returns. I remove her hand once again and gently roll her so she’s facing away from me. This move rouses her and she turns her body into me again and, this time more forcefully, thrusts her hand down my nightshirt.
“No,” I hiss at her, once again removing her hand from my boob.
“Fop,” she yells and rubs the last bit of sleep from her eyes.
“You stop,” I say louder.
“Both of you stop,” my husband yell-whispers from across the bed while holding our five-year-old. “Joy just fell asleep.”
Rachel and I lock eyes. It’s on.
She reaches and I block her. Again, she reaches and I block her. Reach and block. Reach and block. I’m pretty sure we look like two guys imitating a girl fight, but I don’t care. Finally, I cross my arms over my chest. But Rachel won’t be broken. With a surprising near-herculean surge of strength, she pries my arms off of my chest and finds my boob. She has won. Squeeze.
I’m not sure when the “cup and squeeze” started. My guess (that I loosely validated with a cursory google search for “toddler grabbing boob”) is that it has to do with breastfeeding. I weaned Rachel when she was a year old, but the “cup and squeeze” has persisted.
Rachel’s grab business is unfortunate because she really is an otherwise charming child. She welcomes me home by racing into my arms and yelling “Mommy came back” (which, by the way, makes me wonder what Daddy and Rachel talk about when I’m gone). She “dances ballet” for anyone who inadvertently glances in her direction and she can belt out the chorus of “Country Roads” like a miniature Taylor Swift. When she’s tired or stressed or overwhelmed, though, my little princess turns into a gropey 14-year-old boy.
“Is this normal?” my husband asks as Rachel and I duke it out in bed next to him.
“Some kids use a teddy bear to comfort themselves. Others have a blankie. Rachel uses my boob.”
“Maybe she’s gay. I mean it’s fine if she is, but maybe...” he trails off.
“Anyway, she’s too attached to you. You’re going to lose your mind.”
“You think?” I say while wrapping the sheet around my chest like Saran Wrap as Rachel snatches at it.
“Maybe you should start wearing turtlenecks.”
“Well, they’re your boobs,” he says. “Do what you want.”
I explained my predicament to our pediatrician and she said that I needed to be clear that the groping makes me uncomfortable and not to cuddle with Rachel when she does it. “She’ll learn that in order to be close to you, she can’t do that anymore.”
That night, I put her down when she snuck her hand inside my shirt after dinner. “Mine! Mine! Mine!” Rachel wailed at the same pleasant tenor of a car alarm. I picked her up and put her hand on my boob to make her stop.
My mother suggested a soft doll.
After I let Rachel choose the doll she wanted to sleep with, we cuddled up in my bed and I placed Funshine Bear in her arm closest to me. “Thank you, Mama,” she said. Her eyelids fluttered. I’m free! I thought. And then she deftly switched hands and found my breast.
When we found out that my older daughter would have to spend an evening in the hospital, my husband and I strategized about who would stay with which kid. I was the obvious choice for Rachel, but we thought (maybe) we could break her of this habit if my boobs were not available. I kissed Rachel goodbye that afternoon and hoped that I would return to the house the next day with liberated breasts.
The following morning, my husband reported that he had been jolted from a deep sleep by Rachel slipping her hand down his shirt. “Then her head whipped around like a spinning top, her pupils flashed red and she started talking in a creepy Darth Vader voice.”
“Is this your way of telling me that she tried to grope you and lost her mind when she realized it wasn’t me?”
As I laid in bed that evening, with one boob in Rachel’s hand, I wondered how I let this get so out of control. Is this my fault? Am I enabling an unhealthy attachment between us? I decided to take this to the next level – and get a psychologist’s opinion.
I asked Dr. Rika Alper, a developmental psychologist in my hometown of Montclair, NJ, who specializes in children and families. “Most kids get very attached to something sensory that is comforting to them,” she explained. “It can be an elbow, an upper arm that’s soft, an earlobe…. Your breast combines food with softness.” As soon as she said this I remembered stroking the inside of my mother’s wrist when I was Rachel’s age. It made her nuts.
“So what should I do about this?” I asked.
“Substitute. Substitute. Substitute,” she said. “Introduce something else, but together with your breast. She can cuddle both and then you transfer both of her hands to the object as she falls asleep.”
It’s worth a shot, I thought. I never tried the “together with” part.
It took two nights, but Rachel finally took Funshine Bear from my hands, cuddled him, rolled over and fell asleep. I laid next to her in her bed and stared up at the ceiling – in shock.
It hasn’t been like that every single night since. But it happens more and more often. And, in general, she has graduated to stroking my chest rather than cupping my breast. I have considered telling my husband that my breasts are once again “up for grabs,” so to speak.
But, for now, I think I’ll keep them to myself.
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