Opinion

Breastfeeding my toddler triggered my past sexual assault

"The build-up of stress and anxiety exploded in that instant, and the pain forced me to acknowledge that I’d spent a year sleepwalking through an experience I wanted no part of."

Editor’s note: The following story mentions sexual assault and the language may be triggering for some readers. 

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My third daughter, Eloise, is a strong-willed, fiery, red-haired ragamuffin who at three-years-old was still breastfeeding.

Eloise was born with an atrial septal defect (ASD), which essentially meant she had a tiny hole in her heart. She also refused to eat food in her early years, so aside from the odd strawberry or granola bar, she predominantly relied on my breastmilk for the first two years of her life. I would have loved to wean her, but I was afraid that my waif little girl would shrivel up and rely on a feeding tube if I didn’t push through and continue nursing. What I didn’t realize was how traumatic forcing myself to breastfeed would eventually become.

By the time she was three Eloise was eating homemade granola by the fistfuls, chicken wings covered in barbecue sauce, and thinly sliced apples. She was growing like a weed and my breasts had become merely a comfort, almost a separate being outside of myself that soothed her. Shortly after her third birthday I started plotting how I’d wean, but my preschooler wanted no part in my schemes.

“My mommy milk!” she’d say, forcefully pulling down my shirt and stuffing my breast into her mouth. I’d wince in pain, something I’d been experiencing shortly after she’d turned two when my supply had dropped off. It felt like razors were shooting out of my chest and the more she sucked the more raw and chapped my nipples became. Eloise had become a little dictator over my body and I was teetering far beyond discomfort and into desperate territory.

One night, bleary in the in-between stages of sleep and not-sleep, she crawled into my bed and pulled my shirt down. She bit down so hard that my body instantly recoiled in pain, and I let out a blood-curdling scream. I bolted out of the bedroom and ran into the bathroom, my body heaving with deep sobs. I felt myself slipping into the past, to a moment that had happened over a decade ago, when I was sexually assaulted and discarded like a meaningless piece of flesh. At that moment I knew that I needed to stop breastfeeding.

This was the first time I had such a visceral reaction to nursing, but I realized I’d been unhappy nursing for over a year. The build-up of stress and anxiety exploded in that instant, and the pain forced me to acknowledge that I’d spent a year sleepwalking through an experience I wanted no part of.

In the past nursing my children had brought us closer, and been soul-nourishing for both of us. While I had breastfed my older two children, I hadn’t nursed them beyond my own comfort and willingness. Now, breastfeeding was triggering me, and I was reminded of a time when I was doing things with my body that I didn’t want to do—I couldn’t do it anymore.

Again, I had become a victim, but I knew that this situation was different. I had the power and control to change things. My daughter wasn’t doing anything wrong, but it was time that I established boundaries around my body.

I explained briefly to my husband what I was thinking, and we made a plan to work together to find other ways to soothe and comfort our daughter.

The next few weeks were difficult, and some days it felt impossible. My daughter cried and screamed, and my chest ached with milk that I squeezed out in the shower. At bedtime we started a new routine. I’d rub her back and sing softly to her until she was lulled to sleep. I also untapped a new feeling: empowerment over my body. It had been years since I had complete control over my body, and saying no to breastfeeding gave me the inner strength to endure those difficult weeks of transition.

I also used this time to explain consent to my daughter. We talked about why it was important to listen when someone says no, and that my breasts were a part of my body.

With my two older children, who are now six and eight, I let them know that nursing had made me very uncomfortable, and I needed to say no to nursing to have power over my body. We talked about ways that we might say no, even to people we trust and love, when they make us feel uncomfortable. We talked about tickling, play fighting, and the need for privacy when in the bathroom—all situations that they could relate to and understand, and how we could say no in these situations if we felt uncomfortable and needed space.

It’s been two months since my daughter has nursed, and I’m enjoying the progression of my relationship with Eloise. She’s bloomed and grown, while remaining deeply connected to me. We snuggle most evenings, and I can enjoy the intimacy of the moment without flashbacks or feeling like I’m trapped. Recently she asked me if I could put some milk in my breast for her to drink, and while at first it sounded funny, I chose not to laugh.

“No, sweetheart. I can’t do that. But I can put some milk in a cup for you,” I said instead. It was a small but firm gesture. I have power over my body, but that doesn’t change how much I love my sweet little girl.