January 14, 2014 § 2 Comments
The baked custard came out of the oven with a perfect golden wobble, but still I was anxious. And this wasn’t the usual new recipe anxiety either. My audience: one 13.5 month old boy, who was about to get custard instead of boob for his mid afternoon snack. You will understand my trepidation.
So as not to keep you on the edges of your seats: he gobbled it down, tapping his fingertips together for “more” between each spoonful, mouth expectantly tipped up and open like a little bird. I imagine some of you are shrugging: no biggie. Little more than a year ago, I would have been thinking the same. But here I found myself, breath slightly held, proud of my little guy for his burgeoning independence, and slightly sad for it all the same.
I didn’t see myself as writing much about breastfeeding. But as I started weaning Henry I was infused with a renewed sense of how important this relationship had been. Endings so often bring clarity of that kind. Besides, nursing is about food, about comfort, about nurture, which means it belongs here just as much as any old cake recipe.
Breastfeeding is caught in a tricky cultural space. It’s alternately revered and politely ignored. It’s explained and validated in cool scientific terms, yet often remains a mystery even to those of us in the middle of it. It, sadly, comes with the kind of judgments and prejudices that so often inhabit any space touched by a woman’s body – thrown from all sides of the debate, from advocates and skeptics alike. So I chronicle these thoughts merely as a reminder that this is a deeply personal, yet entirely universal journey, and one which cannot be easily simplified into language of good and bad, shoulds and should nots. (While this is a personal reflection, not a manifesto, I can’t help but go on the record: I believe that all women should be generously supported in their desires to breastfeed, not least through proper maternity leave, which is nothing short of appalling in the US, and supported just as generously both emotionally and practically should they choose or be unable to feed their baby this way.)
There were points – at three days, three weeks, three months and more – when I thought I couldn’t do it, despite our relatively easy situation: good milk supply, textbook latch. The books, with their little pictures of cradle holds and nipple shields, can’t convey the immensity of emotion you will likely feel as your child lies and sleepily nurses, utterly dependent. You may vacillate between terror and existential validation: no minor feelings, heightened by the hormone spikes and dips of the early weeks, not to mention the lack of sleep. Some days felt as though every morsel of my being – every drop of energy and each bite of food – were going solely into those mammoth nursing sessions. Days revolved around the rhythms and demands of breastfeeding which in my case included no dairy, lots of oatmeal and fenugreek, underwear with fiddly release clips, tops with easy access, as I spurred my exhausted body into producing more triple cream goodness.
A man accosted me in the street one day, a half block from home, with a screaming 8ish week old Henry in the stroller, on our way home from grocery shopping. He yelled at me that the baby should be on my breast. I was furious, and full of guilt, and without the words in that heated moment to tell him that of course I knew my baby was hungry, that he had woken up two blocks sooner than I had hoped, that how was I supposed to get groceries, and some air, and stay at home nursing without a break? And how dare he tell me what to do with my baby, with my body? In the fact I just told him to fuck off, whisked Henry upstairs and nursed, my tears falling as his wailing abated. My body, and yet so much not my body any more.
There was that crazy awkward period, around 7 or 8 months, when Henry was so busy learning about himself and the world around that he could barely sit still for long enough to eat. His head would spin with curiosity, either yanking me with him which is exactly as much fun as you might imagine, or sending an arc of milk across the room. We stopped nursing in public quite as much at that point. But we got through it otherwise, both intact.
There’s something purely magical about breastfeeding too. In the earlier days, it’s the panacea for all ills, the way to turn a red-faced, confused and angry infant into a sleeping cherub almost instantly. There’s the wonder of seeing a whole being growing and gaining pudgy little rolls of fat from nothing but your milk. And even later on it was nursing that got us through nights of teeth bursting through gums, of 11 hour flights and 3am jet lag. It was the kind of magical power that almost felt addictive.
The move towards weaning came from both sides, gradually and naturally. Still, it was bittersweet. Right in the thick of that transition, I wrote this:
Of course I will miss those hours together. The little games we play – peekaboo with my t-shirt, Henry making this weird squawking noise with twinkling eyes until we both stop and lose ourselves in a belly laugh. The twilight morning feed nestled side by side that somehow takes us both from asleep to awake. But I’m proud that I’ve done my job and that my little guy is ready to go it a bit more alone. It’s part of this crazy journey of motherhood that I am but a gateway, a facilitator, a stable reference point. By relinquishing a role that I and only I can fulfil, I open up his world to sharing those moments with others, and to seeing more of his own powers and capacities. My boy is growing up and I’m ok with it.
I’m glad I took the time to record my feelings during that time: already it’s impossible to imagine Henry nursing. The weaning went very smoothly and on the other side we’re both very happy. We enjoy different games and plenty of cuddles these days, and I had a fun time underwear shopping. We eat baked custard and rice pudding, go out for steamed milk in the late afternoons, stir waffle and pancake batter together in the mornings. I highly recommend stopping whatever you’re doing and enjoying a baked custard one January afternoon. It’s classic nursery food with its silky smooth texture, but there’s an adult elegance to it as well, especially if you bake individual puds in ramekins and infuse whole vanilla beans into the custard. It’s all still about love.
Adapted from the Leiths Cookery Bible
1 egg yolk
3 drops vanilla extract
425ml very creamy milk, or milk plus cream (or, in the US, half and half)
freshly grated nutmeg
Preheat the oven to 150C/300F. Lightly beat the eggs and egg yolk, vanilla extract and sugar together with a wooden spoon – you’re looking to combine them without making them too frothy.
Heat the milk/cream in a small pan just to the point of simmering. Pour the milk very gradually onto the eggs, stirring all the time with a wooden spoon (not a whisk, to avoid creating bubbles). You have to add the milk extremely slowly to ensure that it doesn’t scramble the eggs.
Strain the mixture to remove any egg threads. You can either strain directly into an ovenproof dish if you plan to make one large custard, or into a bowl if you are going to make the custard in individual ramekins. For the latter, pour the strained custard into ramekins (I use 4 of about a 3 inch diameter). Grate nutmeg on top of either the individual or single custards.
Stand the custard dish or ramekins in a roasting pan and pour boiling water around the sides of the dishes until the water comes about 2/3rds of the way up the sides of the dish(es) (this is called a bain-marie). Bake for 40 minutes for a single custard and about 30 for the individual ones (begin checking around 25 mins). The custard is set when there is a definite skin on the top and the centre is no longer liquid (it will still wobble).
Serve hot, warm or chilled.