I remember reading somewhere, in the volumes and volumes of parenting literature that I pored over when our first baby was born, that weaning technically begins with the introduction of solid foods, usually around six months.
In some families I’ve known, this transition from the breast or bottle to the fork and spoon was rapid. Many parents took only a few days or a few weeks to wean a baby. Others did it overnight.
For us, weaning was a much more gradual process. In fact, all of my children were slow to stop nursing – not fully weaning (except the last one, of course) until I was pregnant with the next baby. (My kids are all about two and a half years apart, so you do the math.) My husband and I were big believers in child-led weaning, in waiting until the baby was ready.
What I did not realize all those years ago was that my babies weren’t just weaning away from the breast. They were weaning away from me and I, oh so reluctantly, was weaning away from them.
Watching our kids grow up is a delight. We often rejoice when certain phases of childhood (diapers, bed-wetting, tantrums) are over. Still, with the end of each phase, we have to wean ourselves away from something precious.
Unfortunately, when it comes to child development, there’s really no such thing as parent-led weaning. Our children tend to move on to the next phase whether we are ready or not. We have to let go of our children little by little, one by one. We learn to say good-bye to unspeakable joys to make way for other, often equally delightful, new developments.
We let go of our infants, of round tummies and milky-sweet smiles, of dimpled elbows and downy heads, and we watch them toddle off, utterly captivated by these tiny humans taking their first wobbly steps.
We let go of our comical toddlers. They are so busy – squatting to pick up a bug, stacking blocks, pouring water, scooping sand. All the world is new and fascinating, and without warning our chubby tots become curious pre-schoolers.
Our preschoolers are only with us for a moment, and then we must let go of fairies and dinosaurs and other such wonders. We say goodbye to Santa Claus and footy pajamas and teddy bears. We let go of Mommy and we become Mom.
Sooner than we could have ever imagined, our little ones start school, and we let go of lazy mornings and long afternoons at the park. We let go of baby teeth and bedtime stories.
All of these weanings seem gradual enough until our children become big kids and ‘tweens. Then with almost violent suddenness, we have to let go of being the center of their world. We have to let go of the assurance that an episode of Little Bear and some extra cuddling will fix just about anything. We have to let go of a little tenderness so that we can develop thick skin. Our children will need that (and we most certainly will) if they are to survive middle school.
Next (and in some ways, quite happily), we wean ourselves away from the drama and the awkwardness of puberty. We grit our teeth, say our prayers, and, white-knuckled, we transition from chauffeur to chauffeured…for a while. Then we become night watchmen. Just like when they were infants, we wean ourselves off of sleep, but this time, instead of staying up late to nurse a fussy baby, we are staying up late praying and waiting for them to get home safely.
Eventually, though it seems like it has only been an instant, we must wean ourselves away physically and, to a degree, emotionally from our children. It’s time for them to go – to colleges, jobs, apartments, or dorms. Whatever path they choose, there will come a point when our children are no longer a part of our daily lives. There will be an empty seat at the dinner table. Then another. Then another.
According to Merriam-Webster, “to wean” means, “to detach from a source of dependence.” Ouch! Detach is such a harsh word.
It is the bittersweet paradox of parenting that we devote our lives to loving and nurturing these other humans with the knowledge – no, the goal – that one day they will detach from us and make their own way in the world.
No doubt detachment is hard for all parents. For some, maybe those who weaned their babies overnight, it’s best to do it quickly – one swift cut. That works for them. It’s better that way.
As I remind my daughter, who left for college a few weeks ago, weaning is a process. For us (for me anyway) it can be a slow process. When she was a baby, child-led weaning meant that I was patient. I understood her needs, and I respected where she was emotionally.
This weaning away from home isn’t much different, except this time it works both ways. We will both need to be patient and respect the other’s emotional journey. For her, sometimes that will mean a little homesickness, or it might mean putting up wth a few more texts and phone calls from me than she would prefer. For me, it might mean sending care packages and waiting (maybe just one more day) before I call again.
The good news is that all the years I’ve spent letting go have prepared me for this. They’ve shown me that each step away from me is a step more toward herself, toward the woman she will become. I already know I’m going to like that woman a lot. We’re already great friends.