Images and text by Maggie Jones.
Last October I wrote a piece about breastfeeding my daughter Olive while she battled AML leukemia (you can read my first article, here). She was 11 months old at diagnosis and 18 months old when she passed away on March 6, 2014. Losing a child is every mother’s worst nightmare, and for a good reason. It is every bit as terrible as one can imagine.
Many bereaved parents have regrets, and although I make a concentrated effort not to think in terms of regret, if I go in that direction I can surely find plenty to beat myself up about. But what I really want to share with you all are the things that I do not regret. I do not regret nursing Olive on demand. I do not regret co-sleeping. I do not regret choosing to stay home with her instead of rushing to complete my graduate degree, and I do not regret investing in a carrier and wearing her.
When I wrote the first article my goal was to share my experience nursing Olive through the horror of her cancer treatment. I wanted to let others know how much breastfeeding had helped to keep her body strong and how our nursing relationship had sustained and supported the both of us through an incredibly traumatic time in our lives.
As I said, Olive was diagnosed when she was only 11 months old, which is very young for a leukemia diagnosis, but many women are encouraged to wean their children much earlier. In fact, it was clear to me that the healthcare professionals at our children’s hospital had very little (correct) knowledge about the physical and biological dynamics of the breastfeeding relationship. And beyond a few nurses that had breastfed their own children, no one seemed willing to acknowledge the very real, very important psychological benefits of nursing for both mother and child.
Early on in Olive’s treatment, I was given advice from the hospital nutritionist and several pediatric oncologists to “nudge” her in the direction of weaning by offering her things like juice instead of offering to nurse her. This is not sound advice. It is not sound advice for healthy children, and it is downright dangerous advice for a child with cancer.
This is not a unique situation to this particular hospital. I wish it were. Unfortunately, I see mothers (of children with cancer and without) from first world countries all over the globe writing about poor nutritional advice from their pediatricians daily.
Had I not been entirely certain about the health benefits of child-led weaning, I could have easily been convinced that my decision to continue to nurse Olive on demand (even at the age of 11 months and beyond) was the wrong one. And I can assure you, beyond a shadow of any doubt, it was not.
My next non-regret is co-sleeping. I am so glad Olive shared our bed every night of her life. We decided to spend money on a king-sized mattress for us all to share in place of the conventional crib, and I am so thankful that we did. When I think back on my short time with Olive, the times I cherish the very most are all of our nights snuggling in bed together. I nursed her on demand throughout the night as well as the day, so I have nothing but fond memories of comforting her back to sleep when she awoke at night, which she did often.
Non-regret # 3: staying home. Money was beyond tight for our family when Olive was born. I was in the middle of my graduate degree–up to my ears in student loan debt (I still am), and Tom was trying to start a business. Although we needed extra money, badly, we chose to go without so that I could stay home with Olive. And stay home I did. Everyday. She never had a babysitter. I know this isn’t right for everyone, but it was right for us, and I do not regret one second of it.
And my last non-regret: stumbling across the wonderful world of babywearing early in my pregnancy. Olive loved her baby carrier. She loved being close to me, and this became even more important after her diagnosis. Wearing her became central to her sense of safety and comfort in an otherwise frightening environment.
I read a handful of different parenting pages online and one of the bloggers I follow lost her 14-month-old son to SUDC when Olive was around six months old. I was utterly devastated for her, and I cried frequently when trying to imagine her experience. Little did I know that I too would be grieving the loss of my own child one year later.
But I learned something from this mother. She told everyone that she had no regrets because she had spent so much of her son’s short life holding him. Holding him through co-sleeping, holding him through breastfeeding, holding him through babywearing. It gave her immense comfort to know that she had been close to him as much as possible during the short time that they had together.
Hearing this mother’s words had a profound impact on me, and that is the reason why I share these things with you today. Everyone has a different parenting style. Some of the things that I listed above that worked so well for us will not be right for other families.
My message to you is this: pay close attention to your heart and if your heart is pulling you to be closer to your baby, more than conventional parenting norms allow, then throw all of the advice you have received from your doctor, online, books, your mother-in-law, your friends–wherever–out the window, and DO IT.
Many bereaved parents have regrets, but I can guarantee that you will never meet one that regrets the time they spent holding their little one. The time they spent with their child is more precious than gold. My time spent with Olive is more precious than gold.
My comfort now is in knowing that she never spent a night scared and alone in the dark crying for me and wondering where I was in the name of creating “healthy sleep patterns.” Not once. When she wanted to be close to me and nurse, she did.
As I wrap this up I feel the need to briefly address that some of you, according to our cultural standards, may think that I “spoiled” Olive by responding unconditionally to her needs. But there is a huge misunderstanding that children can be spoiled with love. They cannot.
Olive was a baby and therefore she had the biological expectation that I protect her and be there for her 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Babies do not start to differentiate from their caregivers until toddlerhood, and even then it is a highly variable and gradual process. You cannot spoil a baby with love and responsive care giving–they biologically need this for normal development. You can, however, create a needy, frightened child who may have difficulty completing future developmental tasks with unresponsive care giving.
I am SO THANKFUL that I happened to know this information going into my experience as a parent. And I hope that I make a difference in someone’s life by choosing to pass it on to you.
I will leave you with a few photos of my sweet girl. Mommy loves you Olive Leigh.