I’m the mum of three boys, and though I live in San Francisco – the land of organic veggies on every corner and required composting – I’ve never really thought of myself as a poster child for breastfeeding.
But, in the past eight years since my oldest son was born, I’ve spent exactly 43 months of my life breastfeeding a child.
I’m sure you have ideas of who this means I am. I must be wildly free-spirited. I must wear cut-off jean shorts and Birkenstocks and sew my own flow-y shirts. I must be one of those women who don’t wear bras and who have no qualms about pulling the boob out in front of the entire park-going public, while my five-year-old says, “Mother, may I please drink from your breast?”
To answer your questions: No, my older children don’t breastfeed. No, I don’t sew my own shirts. And I’m not – and never have been – what people might describe as “granola.”
Actually, I wear spandex more often than I probably should. I wear makeup and always always wear a bra in public. I have strong concerns about showing my boobs in the park (and anywhere else, actually). And yes, I still breastfeed my 17-month-old.
Here’s what I want you to know about me and my baby, Ace. Ace has Down syndrome and experiences delays in several areas of his development.
He’s the size of a 12-month-old and he nurses five times a day, despite his age, despite the fact that I never planned to still be breastfeeding a 17-month-old as much as I do.
Ace has refused a bottle since he was three months old, and is still working with a therapist to build the muscles in his mouth for cup drinking. He breastfeeds because if I left him to receive all of his liquid nourishment from a sippy cup, he would wither.
Our life is full, so I nurse him in the baby carrier while I pick my older kids up from school or during my eight-year-old’s swim class, or my five-year-old’s soccer game.
I breastfeed him at the park and at the grocery store. I breastfeed him while I play board games on the living room floor. And, yes, I breastfeed him at church.
If I didn’t nurse him in public, I’d be incapable of tending to my older children. If I didn’t nurse him in public, he’d literally shrink.
Pope Francis and the nursing mamas
Back in 2014, the pope surprised a lot of folks when he encouraged some mothers of babies waiting to be baptised to feed their crying infants.
Yes, he meant they should breastfeed their babies. In church.
To quote Pope Francis, “If they are hungry, mothers, let them eat, no worries, because here, they are the main focus … I wish to say the same to humanity: Give people something to eat!”
Will all the mamas out there please stand up and give Pope Francis a standing ovation? Yes, if a baby is hungry, that sweet child should drink some milk.
It is a beautiful thing when a spiritual leader can recognise the good and powerful gift God has offered most mothers and their babies: nutritious, simple food for young ones who need to grow.
When the pope welcomed the women worshiping beside him to feed their babies, he welcomed a healthier, more grace-filled vision of families in the church.
Breastfeeding is not about sexuality
There may be some who hear the pope’s words and shrug their shoulders. Of course women should be breastfeeding in church! Why should this even be a discussion?
But there are plenty of others who view the act of breastfeeding, and the exposure required (even while covered!) to be inappropriate for a place of worship. After all, we know what’s going on under that hooter-hider, and it involves bras unsnapping and a baby’s unhindered gulping noises (not to mention the burping and pooping that often comes with the drinking process). It’s hardly the stuff of holy, prayerful reflection!
I’d have to disagree. Perhaps breastfeeding in church is uncomfortable for some people, but if it is, it’s uncomfortable because of a failure to recognise the holy goodness of feeding a child. It’s uncomfortable because it’s messy, because it’s sometimes loud, because breasts have been over-sexualised in our culture.
Breastfeeding tells the people around you, “I have boobs!” and — if we buy into our society’s glorification of breasts as a man’s trophy to accept or reject as he wishes, to judge and pervert — the acknowledgement of a woman’s breasts can be distracting from worship. But it doesn’t have to be distracting. It shouldn’t be distracting.
Unless the Church chooses to reject our culture’s obsession with over-sexualising the bodies of women, we will buy into a false story of the gifts God has given us. God has equipped mothers to nourish and protect their children, both literally and figuratively. That should be celebrated.
There is no better place for nourishing a baby than the very place where each week Jesus offers us his own body and blood for our spiritual nourishment.
Breastfeeding is not a debate, it’s an opportunity for compassion
There are some who insist that breastfeeding is a private thing and should be done in the home. There are some who will tie modesty to breastfeeding and point to scripture passages that should keep all of us nursing mothers well-covered. And there are some who draw a hard line in the sand, determining when babies should be old enough to move away from the breast.
Still, there are also those who would quickly judge a woman who can’t breastfeed, or has chosen not to. Because of the breadth of beliefs about breastfeeding, women of all opinions and choices have been labelled weak, uncaring, or backward. When it comes to women’s choices and parenting standards, there are camps for every particular belief, a reason to label any mother a failure.
But, then there are Pope Francis’ words: “If they are hungry, mothers, let them eat, no worries.” Church should be a place where hunger is met. Church should be a place where the broken, the beaten up, the weak, and, yes, even the exhausted nursing mothers are welcomed to come and receive from God’s table.
Of all places, let’s bring our babies to church and breastfeed them. Let’s model ourselves after the God who gives us good things, who nourishes, who provides.
And let’s have compassion for one another.
After all, I’m the woman nursing her older baby, worried about his weight and his muscle development. And you may be the woman who couldn’t produce milk, who wept every time you prepared a bottle of formula.
If we heard each other’s stories, if we listened to one another, if we chose mercy over hasty judgment, the ‘Mummy Wars’ might come to their natural and gentle conclusion.
What matters is the beautiful, remarkable work of giving and sustaining life. What matters is how we welcome one another and how we show compassion, whether that happens under the hooter-hider on the back pew, or as we receive the Eucharist at the altar.
This article first appeared forher.aleteia.org