The All-Night Nurser

Elisabeth Becker Topkara essays

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Sami Elyesa was born in the outskirts of Berlin, by a rushing river that quieted itself for his entrance in to the world. Despite the stress of an extended delivery, he remained tame, his heart steady at 135 beats per minute, his head engaged and ready, yet taking his sweet time. Born in the midst of the Israel-Palestine conflict, our peace baby (my husband Muslim, myself born to a Jewish mother) seemed small, his lanky limbs and floppy feet at once alien and familiar, mine and other, awkward and enchanting. I recognized his cries immediately, as my husband carried him through the hall of the birth-house. That animal sound roused me to my feet in my dazed post-birth state, adrenaline, alertness and responsibility ascending all I had felt before.

Love for a baby mutes everything else. Myself, an obsessive nine hour sleeper, a never-night cuddler, held Sami in my arms as he slept and nursed, slept and nursed, his small whimpers rarely reaching wails. Months passed like this, my baby growing longer, putting on weight, his eyes remaining the slate blue of many newborns, increasingly filled with curiosity and yet no decreased longing to be close. I was told to wait until he was three months old, slowly he would adjust to sleeping on his own. Three months passed. Six months is the key point, I heard, then he will sleep through the night. We celebrated six months with an all-night nursing session, his teeth almost bursting at the surface of his bottom gums, as steady and stubborn as my Sami in his entrance to the world.

I was told to put him down, let him cry himself to sleep, allow him to scream for controlled periods, move him to another bed, another room. My symbiotic relationship with this small being, an adorable, active extension of myself, prevented this. We held each other during difficult nights, looked sweetly or (more often) tiredly into each other’s eyes. I awoke to his fattening, smiling face, a small hand resting on my cheek, the smell of his freshly washed hair combined with the deep, delicious milkiness of a nursing child.

Was it so bad to be tired, to compromise in (admittedly, all) other parts of my life? Was I doing him harm? It didn’t come down to whether I was an “attachment parent” or not, what label or school of thought I belonged to. The truth is that I knew, as his mother, what he needed. I knew it in my bones, in my soul. The idea of leaving him, as an infant, to cry—my super-sensitive Sami—seemed unfair and honestly impossible. Even when I transferred him to my husband’s arms to sleep—an unpredictable proposition—I could not long resist the sound of his cries.

I was told I was teaching him to be this way, he must be hungry, was spoiled, overly demanding. I was overly worried. I had taught him to sleep on me, to need me at night, to want to nurse. I had taught him to want to be in a carrier, close to my beating heart. These are needs you have created for him. You have made him dependent on you.

My response, six months in, many difficult nights and the blessing of a beautiful, healthy and happy baby: by making him, I made him dependent. In the very act of his creation, his birth into this world, I chose symbiosis with a nursing creature who will one day grow up into his own bed, own room, own self. Rather than teaching him to need me at night, I never taught him not to need me. From the moment he first lay on my chest, almost immediately attaching himself to me, I never taught him not to nurse. I trusted his instincts and I trusted my own. And despite what a lot of people think: we are both all the healthier and happier for it.

My most prized possession, with family and friends, has always been my deep empathy for others, an ability to put someone else first, to see and attempt to alleviate their suffering. My empathy has extended across borders—an acceptance of individuals that led me to befriend those seen as outcasts, led me to work in cultures across the continents of the world, led me to marry a man born and grown in a society entirely different from own but with a similarly hopeful heart. This has driven my closest relationships, my calling, my career. How could I not extend this gift to the most precious being, grown in my womb and growing in my home?

It is not all romance of course. More often than I would like to admit, I am so exhausted that I cry. “I can’t do this anymore!” I shriek into my husband’s ear in the middle of the night, “I am done.” And then I often roll over, pull my baby back into my arms and eventually fall back to sleep.

I do miss my nine hours of interrupted sleep at night, I miss watching movies, I miss sporadic outings alone, getting dressed nicely and leisurely meals with my husband. But knowing—as Sami’s mother, as I know in my bones, in my soul—that he will grow up secure that he is loved, cared for and his needs never compromised on, I also believe he will grow up to be secure in his independence, empathetic to others…maybe even brave.

During our courtship, my husband and I joked about having a peace baby that would represent a step forward for the conflict in the Middle East. Maybe this is true, maybe not. Maybe just naive. What I know for sure is that Sami brought me peace with who I am—as his mother and more—a deep trust in my intuition and a daily taste of what we live for, when we give life, what we live for when we live for love.


About the Author

Elisabeth Becker Topkara

I am a Sociology Phd student at Yale, studying immigration and integration. A native New Yorker, currently European resident, mom to baby Sami, foodie and coffee lover.

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