The point of a vacation is to change things for just a little while. It is a time to change locations, change food, change schedules, change rhythms, become something different for however many days are available. With all this disruption, a vacation can also be a time of endings and beginnings. Upon returning home, the latent habits of regular life require re-activation and in this moment there is an opportunity to alter some of those habits or even to break away into something new.
We made good use of this opportunity following our recent trip to Florida.
In the time leading up to our trip, Polly had been working to finalize some transitions. She will turn two this week, and the imminent arrival of her birthday has spurred her to cast aside some of the vestigial elements of infanthood. The most significant of these is breastfeeding.
Over the last year, Polly has slowly but consistently let her regular feeding times drop away. The process has felt very organic as she gradually either replaced a feeding time with solid food or just forgot about it altogether. As such the only milestone I distinctly remember is from last July when she finally started going through the night without getting up for a bit of food.
Polly was reluctant, however, to give up her last feeding. This was the morning wake-up feeding. For several months she would pop up from sleep at 6 AM and demand to be taken to Ava. The two of them would spend about ten to fifteen minutes feeding in the big green recliner that sits in the corner of our bedroom and then Polly would happily slid down to the floor ready to start the day. Ava and I agreed that this routine had very little to do with hunger or nutritional needs. Polly likes to get up slowly, and this morning feeding was a nice way for her to transition from sleep into wakefulness. Ava didn’t really mind either as it gave her a few minutes to organize her thoughts before the day really got going.
It wasn’t our plan to end Polly’s breastfeeding during our trip to Florida. It just happened. Polly skipped her feeding on the first morning because we were in the car traveling. Then the next morning she was so wiped out that she slept late and then was too distracted by the new surroundings to remember her usual pattern. The third morning brought the same thing. By the fourth morning a new pattern had formed and while Polly did not sleep as late, she did not ask for her time with Ava. This remained true throughout the rest of our vacation.
Her one backsliding moment came during our first morning back in Lexington. It was not an immediate reaction. When she woke up, I brought her out of her bedroom while she rubbed her eyes sleepily. It was not until she saw Ava that she remembered about the morning feeding. Ava spent a few minutes cuddling with her then let her play with Pip in our bed for a bit longer while we got dressed. This alternate plan seemed to satisfy her, and it has become our regular routine in the two weeks since. All in all we could not have scripted this transition any better.
With her role as a breastfeeding mother now concluded, I want to take a moment to talk about what Ava accomplished. In a country where only 13% of babies are exclusively breastfed during their first six months and only 22% are still receiving any breast milk at all through at twelve months (the percentages are even lower in Ohio and Kentucky, the states where we have lived), Ava has fed both our children from birth to weaning without any use of formula.
It wasn’t easy. Just to get started with Pip, Ava had to have the confidence and determination to ignore the poorly trained hospital lactation consultant and seek out competent resources outside the medical establishment. Fortunately, she found what she needed in the form of a La Leche League volunteer. Then, when she went back to her job at the conclusion of her maternity leave she had to figure out how to integrate pumping into both the temporal and spatial constraints of her workplace. She spent an unholy amount of time sitting in bathroom stalls trying to slip a pumping in between meetings. Eventually, she pumped her way through three jobs, at least eight academic conferences, two job interview processes, and two moves. And she did all of this while being sleep deprived from multiple years of feeding children at night.
We looked at all this effort as an investment. By giving both kids full access to the food most suitably engineered for them – breast milk – we were supplying them with the best start we could. Now, as they are both healthy, energetic, and intelligent, it feels like this investment is already paying off.
There was one other major transition that reached its conclusion during our trip to Florida. For most of the last two years I have been putting Polly to sleep using a baby carrier. When it was time for a nap or to go down for the night, I would strap on our Beco Butterfly, slip Polly in between the back panel and my chest, and sing her a lullaby while pacing back and forth in the kids’ room. On the nights when she went to sleep easily, it was great. Having her drift off with her face just below my chin made me feel wonderfully close to Polly. On the (much fewer) nights when she did not readily drift off to sleep, it was tough. Walking back and forth with twenty wiggling, bouncing, sometimes crying pounds strapped to my chest for thirty minutes or more took a physical toll. On those nights I often wondered how I was ever going to move her on from this process. I even once had a vision of her at 12 years of age, still needing me to strap her to my chest and carry her around to get to sleep each night.
Then about a month ago, Polly started asking at bedtime to lay down in her crib before we turned out the light. The first night she asked I told her no. I knew that she was not going to go to sleep that way and to break our established pattern meant extending the amount of time I spent getting both children down for the night. I was tired and ready to have a few minutes of quiet time with Ava so I put her in the baby carrier and walked her to sleep.
A couple of nights later she asked again. This time, while I still did not recognize what Polly was doing, Ava had a late meeting and I felt less of a hurry to get the kids to sleep. So, I put her down in the crib and tucked her in a blanket just like I do with Pip. Before I turned out the light, I told her that she had fifteen minutes and then I’d put her in the carrier. As I expected, once the light went out, she started bouncing and rolling and moving around. After fifteen minutes, I picked her up, slipped her into the carrier, and went about our normal routine.
The next night she asked to be put down in the crib again. This time it finally occurred to me that Polly was not just playing around. After watching me put Pip into bed for almost two years, she was experimenting with this idea too. Polly was trying to figure out how to go to sleep in her bed without using the baby carrier. With this realization in mind, I strategically shifted my language, telling her that I would give her fifteen minutes to go to sleep and then if she needed help I would put her in the carrier.
That third night she bounced and rolled and moved around for the full fifteen minutes then happily reached out for me to put her in the carrier. We did the same thing again for several more nights until one evening she crashed before the fifteen minutes were up. She had not gotten a good nap that day and about five minutes after I turned out the light her movements slowed dramatically. At about ten minutes she had stopped moving completely and after fifteen minutes she was snoring quietly. Surprised by how quickly sleep had come for her, I slipped out of the room and hung the unused baby carrier back on its hook.
Three or four nights later Polly did this again. It took a bit longer this time as she was pretty well rested, but after fifteen minutes passed I recognized the signs of her coming stillness and decided to wait it out instead of putting her into the carrier. Before another ten minutes passed she was fast asleep.
Over the next several days Polly did the same the thing again and again. By the time we got to Florida, Polly and I were both becoming comfortable with this new routine. Even with all the new surroundings and the surfeit of exciting things to see and do, Polly only needed to use the baby carrier once for going to sleep. When we returned home, I gave her a couple more days then I stopped even bringing the baby carrier into the room with us at night. It now hangs motionless on its hook each night, unused and unneeded. I wonder, a bit wistfully, if I will ever strap it on again.
Now that Ava and I have both been relieved of these duties, I know we’ll miss them. There is a closeness that comes with such focused attention to the needs of a young child, and Polly’s recent transitions will chip away at that. Some distance will now intervene between us and the understandings we have gained about her in these venues will necessarily drift away. For two years, I literally had Polly strapped to my chest for twenty minutes or so each night. I knew what to expect as her body slowly relaxed, went slack, and drifted off to sleep. I knew how to carefully get her out of the carrier and into her crib - gently rocking her head back and forth to get the straps unhooked, placing the index and middle fingers of my right hand behind her head to hold it still while I lifted her up, guiding her head first onto my right shoulder and then down to my left elbow as I shifted her down from the upright position, curling her body just slightly as I lowered it onto the mattress, then slipping my arms out along the arch of her back as she nuzzled into her blanket. Those skills, acquired through much experimentation and mastered through numerous repetition, are no longer needed and the knowledge they represent must now be replaced. More importantly, the intimacy we gained with Polly in the process of all that work will never quite be the same again.
At the same time, there is something comforting in knowing that the practices of infanthood will, if we don’t interfere too much, give way to childhood and eventually adulthood. It takes some of the burden off our shoulders and makes me less fretful about all the other things Polly and Pip must eventually do. So, bring on the toilet training, kindergarten, and the like. I can’t wait to see what the kids will do next.