Weaning: A Time to Feast

Last week, after months of indecision, we decided it was time for our youngest child to say goodbye to nursing. To be honest, I wasn’t really tired of it, but it just seemed like it was time.

I don’t want to bore you with details about how I wean my children, but suffice it to say it is a very gradual process. I start by cutting out daytime nursing, with the exception of naps. Then eliminate the nursing-before-bed-to-fall asleep thing. Then I cut out nighttime nursing. At that point, we’re usually down to once or twice a day, and it’s more for cuddling and comfort than anything else.

That last stage had been going on for several months. My son nursed for longer than my other two children, all the way until the third trimester of my current pregnancy. So I thought I would feel sadness, especially with all these pregnancy hormones.

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My son and me back in the early days.

I did feel a certain kind of sadness. It was the bittersweet feeling you get when you realize your child is slowly outgrowing his or her dependence on you. But what bothered me much more was this other thing I couldn’t quite pinpoint. It was kind of like the feeling you get when a movie ending is okay, but not satisfying.

The Lightbulb Moment

This year I’ve made a resolution to finally read the whole Bible. I’m slowly working through it, one chapter a day. A few days after my son and I had our last day of nursing, I found myself on this passage:

 “And the child grew and was weaned. And Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned.”

Suddenly I realized why I felt so dissatisfied. Where was the feast? Where was the celebration? Our son was entering a new stage of his childhood. He deserved a feast, a ceremony – a rite of passage.

Naturally, I was distracted from my Bible study and decided to do some research about traditional weaning ceremonies instead. I discovered they have been going on for centuries in many cultures, and still are today. Here are a few examples of rituals that celebrate a child’s passing from breast to table:

  • According to this fascinating journal on birth rites: “In many unsophisticated societies, there is a tribal ceremony attached to the weaning process, e.g., the Zulu frequently slaughter a goat or other beast to mark the occasion and to satisfy the ancestors as to its completeness…”
  • In Nepal it is traditional to celebrate the first feeding of rice. This ceremony is known as pasni and is usually held at ages 5-6 months. The baby is dressed in saffron robes and family members take turns feeding him or her rice.
  • It’s hard to summarize the weaning ceremony of this African tribe, so I will let you read it for yourself (page 57-60). Let’s just say it involves wild custard, a comprehensive doctor checkup to expel any lingering frailty, and an overnight visit to grandma and grandpa. In the event that the grandparents are unavailable, they have a backup plan. “Should the weaned child be obliged to stay with his parents, the mother will smear her breast with Jamaica pepper so that he may lose taste for the maternal milk as quickly as possible.”
Elkanah_and_Hannah_discuss_the_weaning_of_Samuel

“Elkanah and Hannah discuss the weaning of Samuel”

To the modern mentality, all this ceremony seems a little misplaced. Isn’t weaning just the end of a biological process? You nurse for the amount of time recommended by your doctor, then you start solid foods. When you wean, you just need to make sure you do it gradually so you don’t end up with mastitis. And of course, since breastmilk is full of healthy stuff, you should feed your baby with fortified baby foods to make sure he or she stays on track on the growth charts.

Instead of weaning ceremonies, we have checklists to keep us on track. And then we have more checklists that tell us when to be concerned if things don’t go according to the first checklist.

Now don’t get me wrong, I love checklists. But Abraham didn’t throw a feast to commemorate Isaac’s fulfillment of doctor recommendations. He threw a feast to celebrate his son’s passage from babyhood to boyhood. This small event was a monument in Isaac’s (and Abraham’s) existence.

Comparing myself to Father Abraham, I couldn’t help but feel a little jaded.

Let’s Celebrate Our Children

We didn’t end up having a weaning ceremony for our son. But every time he climbs on my lap as if to nurse, then looks up at me, shakes his head, and says, “Nursing for baby,” I inwardly celebrate this new little boy perched on my pregnant belly. It’s not a feast, but for now, it’s a step in the right direction.

I’m not weighed down with sadness about ending my nursing relationship with my son. But I do feel a sense of mourning for the loss of something else – those beautiful rituals and rites of passage that pervaded the lives of our ancestors.

Every day our children accomplish tremendous things that go unnoticed because we’re so distracted by the lists. And we all miss out on many opportunities to feast and celebrate. What would life be like if we were more attentive?

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