Reflections from a young mother: Co-sleeping, breastfeeding and the cycle of family

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Caitlin McMullen and her baby girl Sage pose in their back yard.

By Caitlin McMullen

A mother, still early on in that journey, I don’t have much opportunity for long-winded conscious reflection. I used to love writing in my journal, actively processing the stuff of my inner life. But that was before the constant, repetitive flurry of tasks and games and smiles and nursing and diapers that is being a stay-at-home mother to an infant. Now time in which I can relax my focused attention from my daughter and her immediate needs is a luxury, one I usually spend sleeping or doing dishes.

I should be sleeping right now. But I am too hopped up on residual extended family energy, or maybe it was the early afternoon coffee that kept me alert on the drive home from across the state. I should be exhausted, and I am, and I will feel it even more tomorrow. But some thoughts don’t keep, so here we are.

Yesterday, I woke up in plenty of time for my cousin’s funeral. When my almost 11-month-old baby girl and I had exhausted our early morning cuddle time, I got up and went to the bathroom and discovered that my period, absent for 22 months during pregnancy and most of the first year of breastfeeding, had finally returned. Cue a comedy of errors to fill the rest of my morning right up until arriving at the church for the service.

I won’t go into all the details, as they aren’t important, but it is striking to me that I was ovulating when my cousin died, and that that first possible but unrealized pregnancy was now passing out of my body, unable to be ignored in the richness of its deep color and its message:

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Sage tackles self-feeding with gusto.

Mama, you are once again capable of turning a couple of well-met cells into a new human. You had a nice, long break while you were cooking your first babe, and then caring for her so constantly and intensely that to carry another child would have been detrimental to you both. Now, apparently, you are ready.

I’m not entirely sure I’m ready for that message. I’m still very much focused on my one baby, who will be a year old in just five and a half weeks.

The thought of another tiny human completely reliant on me for all its needs, while Babygirl is still so young, is intimidating at best, terrifying at worst. But I have been thinking about it and have been considering that it might not be as awfully impossible as it seemed when she was half her age. There have even been moments when I’ve craved it.

Cognitively, abstractly, I’ve known that I would have two babies, but that is a different type of knowing than what is rooted in the body. But it seems these various thoughts have influenced my body, telling it to prepare, to return to cycling with the moon, to finding its old rhythm of building and growing and holding, then softening and releasing, until I have remembered how to feel where in that undulation I currently am, and finally I decide that I am ready to use that knowledge to once again halt that rhythm in favor of the longest game of patience I’ve played yet.

So I’ve been remembering the effect this cycling has on me and have been experiencing the lower energy that I often feel at the new moon, the dark moon, underscored now by my body’s process of cleaning house.

For those months when other, longer rhythms were at work, these monthly rhythms, which had grounded me for so long as I had paid such close attention to them, were absent. I was afloat, adrift on a current in an unfamiliar ocean, far away from the calming, steadying beat of the regular crashing of waves onto the shore.

Now I seem to have found my way back to land, though the terrain is new and unknown. I am glad of this opportunity to experience my monthly cycling with a new perspective. And I find it a gorgeous heartache that this process was finding a new beginning in my body just as my cousin’s wonderful life was, unknown to any of us, coming to a close.

I heard several times the day of the funeral how glad my family was that we were there. “You always need to have a baby at a funeral.” Later that night we celebrated the 18th birthday of another cousin, crossing the threshold into adulthood, still relatively close to the beginning of her path to independence and self discovery.

What a weekend. Full of love and grief and celebration and tears and gladness. This is a lesson our family had learned too many times: nothing is promised. Tomorrow may not come. And it has brought us closer together, through the generations; taking advantage of the time we do have here in this life together, celebrating our differences and our shared love and mutual enjoyment.

I have always loved being around my extended family. What a varied, wonderful bunch, at times raucous, sometimes quiet and considerate. And we always loathe missing others sneaking around having fun without us.

I began to truly enjoy co-sleeping again, and was glad I hadn’t forced it to end prematurely.

I didn’t actually get to talk much with any of my relatives this weekend, because I am in that stage of motherhood in which almost all conversations revolve around the baby, and all eyes in the room certainly are trained in her direction.

Part of me feels inconvenienced by this phenomenon, like I should be free to sit and have in depth conversations without the intrusion, whether literal or figurative, of my baby girl. But that’s just not the time of life I’m in right now, and the part of me that thinks the inconvenienced part is silly and egotistical knows that this is what I signed up for. All of it.

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Snapshot from the moment Sage fell back asleep during a middle of the night co-sleeping session.

There was a moment that spurred on the recording of these thoughts tonight. The babe and I were lying in bed, with her latched on and sleep nursing. Suddenly she let go and rolled over, away from me. She might have stayed there, as she often does. But tonight she woke up, pushed up onto all fours, looked for me and swiftly crawled onto my chest and fell instantly back to sleep.

Now, during a few-week period that passed a couple of months ago, I was so ready to get this child out of my bed and into her own, so I could sleep in a position of my own choosing and roll over when I wanted to without risking waking the baby and having to nurse her back to sleep, thus rendering my change of position worse than pointless. This weeks-long moment coincided with some epic teething and other developmental milestones, so I was dealing with an exceptionally crabby baby during the day, and it was killing me to not get any sleep at night. Then, it passed. I began to truly enjoy co-sleeping (sleeping in the same bed with my baby) again, and was glad I hadn’t forced it to end prematurely.

Tonight was a tiny microcosm of that month. I saw her roll away, I hoped she’d stay there so I could get comfortable and go to sleep. When she didn’t stay, I felt a flash of dread when I anticipated the next chain of events.

But she proved me wrong. She didn’t need me to nurse her back to sleep. She just needed to fall into my arms. Feel the solid presence of Mama. That was all. And it was so precious. I don’t mean in the kitschy way the term precious is often used. I mean that I truly treasured that instant of my soon-not-to-be-a-baby-anymore girl immediately finding the perfect dip between my arm and my ribs to sink into and being so comforted that nothing else was necessary.

I don’t know if it is my cousin’s passing, or the return of my fertility, or a combination of the two and some other things besides. But that moment, being so needed but so completely enough, yet knowing that this little baby is growing up so quickly and these times are numbered, struck me so deeply. And I felt such gladness.

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Sage discovering the great, big world one handful at a time. Photos by Caitlin McMullen

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Caitlin McMullen is a mother, a homesteader, an herbalist, a dancer and sometimes a writer. The common thread between the shifting roles in her life is striving to live with as much intention, personal responsibility for herself and to the rest of the world and joy as possible. A native Floridian, she shares a close connection with oak trees, cypress swamps and west coast sunsets. She is a Renaissance Woman.