I stopped nursing Youngest after 11 months. It became clear to me one day that he was really only nursing for my benefit. Something about the way he was eyeing the bottle while sucking my breast made this obvious. It was as if he knew I treasured the closeness, which he enjoyed and all, but really, wasn’t there some other way we could contrive to find the intimacy while he drank from the plastic nipple with the extra-large hole?
So I gave in. I let him have his beloved bottle though I did not share his love. In fact, I might go so far as to say I had a prejudice against the bottle. I felt there was something vaguely tacky, maybe even vulgar, about it. I don’t know what it is, but I probably inherited it from my mother.
As far as I was concerned, Oldest had made the perfect transition. At thirteen months, he went straight from the breast to the sippy cup. Elegant. Genius. Sure, he may have stopped growing at his usual robust rate for the first few weeks of the transition, but he caught up. And I didn’t have to deal with the bottlebrushes, the nipples getting ragged, the jumble of tawdry plastic.
Youngest, on the other hand, was deeply enamored of his bottle. And though I tolerated it for a while, when he hit three, I was over it. Utterly over it. So I took it away.
I don’t remember the look on his face when I told him that he was plenty old enough, now that he was three, to drink only from a cup. I don’t remember how he reacted. But another thing I inherited from my mother is the belief that I sometimes know exactly the right thing to do. And in this case, that meant heaving every last nipple, bottle and plastic cap into the trash.
I am sure he complained, and fussed, and whined for his bottle for a while. But I persevered and eventually, the complaints faded away. He went on with his little life, and buried the longing somewhere. He was a good soldier. But every now and then the remnants of his discontent would surface – in a wistful request, or just something about the way he drank, with two hands, from his cup. And every now and then he would spy the one bottle left in the house – the one I missed in the purge – and look at it for a beat too long.
I didn’t really think about it. Not for a year maybe.
And then one day it hit me. I had made a huge mistake. He had not been ready. I had forced him to give up his beloved bottle because I, after nine years of bottles, was ready. The decision had nothing to do with what was best for him. It had not, after all, been exactly the right thing to do. I decided to turn back the clock.
I walked into the house and found him parked in front of the TV. I announced, "Youngest, I made a mistake. I made you give up your bottle before you were ready and I’m sorry. From now on, you can have a bottle whenever you want and you can keep on having them for as long as you want." A look of unholy joy suffused his face. "Would you like one right now?" I asked. He nodded gleefully. I went into the kitchen and dug around to find the one remaining bottle. He grabbed it and sucked hard, greedily. Then he stopped, took the nipple from his lips and looked quizzically at it. He looked at it like a friend he thought he knew that turned out to be a stranger.
Something was not quite right. Though he was happy to have the bottle in hand, its return, the fulfillment of his long-held wish, was not a completely satisfying experience. There was something missing. In the year between my decision and my change of heart, he had lost the capacity to suck like a baby. The bottle worked. He sucked and the milk came out. But it was not the same.
Youngest drank a bottle six, maybe seven, more times. Then he gave it up, on his own, for good.
My effort to turn back the clock was better than nothing, but it was not everything. When I realized my mistake, I could find and give him back the bottle. I could find and give him back the the power of renunciation. But when I went back to find the connection to babyhood, that perfect rhythmic coordination between lips and jaw, breath and sustenance, it was gone.