Saturday, May 12, 2012

Breastfeeding: A Private and Sacred Act?

Spiritual Milk
How's *that* for a provocative image?! Jesus and a saint tandem nursing! 
Honestly, I am tired of crusading.  I don't want to be a lactivist.  I'm just a mom, who is enough, thankyouverymuch, just like all the other moms I know who are enough (regardless of what they feed their child).  I half-heartedly shared some articles on the recent Time magazine cover, primarily because I consider one of the models, the lovely Dionna Ford of Code Name: Mama to be both a hero and friend of mine.  I knew to stay far, far away from the magazine comments, and figured that people on my Facebook page are so used to breastfeeding pics and articles from me that it wouldn't provoke any comments from them.

But a friend whom I like and respect said something to the effect that although nursing a three year old is normal, doing it on the cover of a magazine is not.  She commented that nothing was private and sacred anymore.  And she is not alone.  I have heard variations of that from many breastfeeding moms, as well as the general public.  This is my response:

Is bottle-feeding a private and sacred act?  Would you have the same reaction to a three year old drinking from a bottle or sippy cup on a magazine cover?  I agree that there is something sacred about breastfeeding, but I see the same love, beauty and holiness in other acts of a parent caring for their child (including a mother or father bottle feeding with love). 

Sacred?  Yes (although there are plenty of moments when it certainly doesn't feel sacred).  Private?  No.  Why should it be?  Because there are breasts involved?  If that is your reasoning, then you are getting back to the whole breastfeeding is sexual thing, which is quite frankly both ludicrous and offensive.  

As a Christian, I believe that breastfeeding in public contributes to a greater understanding of Scripture passages.  The Bible is full of breastfeeding imagery (in fact, God refers to Himself as El Shaddai, which can mean the many breasted one!).   Psalms describes the perfect peace and contentment of an older child who has weaned.  We are told to desire God's Word the way a baby desires milk.  Yet so many people are unable to grasp the full meaning of this because they haven't seen breastfeeding and are unaware of all the beautiful things that are implied.   As my friend Claire said, that passage isn't just about nutrition.
"Peter's imagining that great big grin as your hungry baby sees that he's about to get what he wants, and the responsiveness of the relationship, and the bonding and the contented, milk-drunk smile at the end... If we don't provide that subconscious imagery, who will?"
What about modesty?  Discretion?  Causing our brothers to stumble?   I get it that breasts have a sexual function.  There are Scriptural passages about the erotic functions of breasts, too, (at least King Solomon was very open about his enjoyment of them...and possibly one of the first poets to compare them to coconuts).  Ahem.  Anyway, despite that, breastfeeding is not a sexual function.  My lips multitask, too.  They can be used in kissing on... in private, but also for eating in public.  I do realize that in this country, breasts are typically covered up unless they are being used sexually, but in other places even women who wear a burqa for modesty are allowed to expose their breasts to nurse their babies.

I reject the idea that men are slavering beasts, under such a compulsion that the act of a mother feeding her child will stir uncontrollable lust.  That is insulting and ridiculous for the men I have known (some of whom, at least--though I haven't discussed it with all of them, to be sure--are fully sensitive to the erotic qualities of breasts in context).  And if it is true in an individual case, I believe that the Godly response is to help that man become free, not to pander to his lustful obsession by insisting that all women everywhere avoid feeding their children in public, just in case.  There are men who are turned on by a woman's feet.  We don't insist that women were furry boots to make sure that they don't cause someone to stumble.  A Christian father sums it up well:
"Our energies should not be put toward 'correcting the behavior' of nursing women because, as I stated before, breastfeeding in public is not a sinful act but a natural one. The breast may occasionally serve a dual function - both for pleasure and for a baby's nourishment and comfort. But you cannot put limitations on nursing, and use God's design of men and women's sexual companionship to support your limitations. They are separate functions - one does not take precedence or dominance over the other."

All acts of love are sacred.  But the sacred and the mundane twine themselves so closely that most of the time they are blurred together.  I have heard too many people romanticize the idea of breastfeeding into the tender, mother Mary halo moment, far removed from everyday parenting.  Motherhood does not mean a life in cloister, locked away from public interaction until the child has weaned.  And if you suggest pumping before every outing, I will gently suggest that your knowledge of how breastfeeding works is pretty much non-existent.

I do not believe that breastfeeding is meant to be a private act.  It is simply a way to mother our children and meet their needs (for comfort as well as nutrition) wherever we happen to be.

P.S.  The friend whose comments sparked this post is a mom who supports extended breastfeeding, and this post is not an attack on her in any way.  I took a comment and ran with it.  :)  We continued the conversation and I think that we agree on far more than we disagree.

P.P.S.  If you really want to put the Time magazine photos in perspective, check out the Historic Photos and Prints of Breastfeeding page on Facebook!

Image credit: quinet on Flickr


Elizabeth Spence said...

I kinda see both sides in this whole debate...on one hand, as a breastfeeding mother, I do wish it was more acceptable to nurse in public, and it would be really kind of people to stop making coarse remarks about it and giving dirty looks to nursing mothers. You're right that it really is just a way - the best way - to feed a child and it shouldn't be sexualized.

However...generally, around my female friends and family, I will not nurse with a cover; I just kinda try to be discreet, partly because honestly, I just don't really want anyone else to see my nipples!! makes my father in law, dad, brothers and some of my friends' husbands uncomfortable so, out of respect for them, I choose to cover up or leave the room to nurse. Sure, I could insist on my rights and try to FORCE them to not be bothered or "lead them to freedom" about breastfeeding, but since it really is "just" a feeding issue, I think it's more considerate to cater to their feelings. And out in public, I'd rather be overly-considerate about some people being uncomfortable. I look at it much as Romans 14 describes...not passing judgment on someone who feels strongly against something, not deliberately and out of selfishness causing someone to stumble, considering them as more important than myself.

dulce de leche said...

Thank you so much for the thoughtful reply! I see a major difference in "causing someone to stumble" and making someone uncomfortable. In fact, I believe that there are times when as believers, the most loving, Godly thing to do *is* to make someone uncomfortable. I am assuming that the men you are speaking of here are not being overcome with lust--they just feel weird. It is possible that by allowing them to come to terms with their own prejudices and feelings that the other women in their lives will also benefit. And by breastfeeding in their presence, unless you are grabbing them and holding their eyes open next to your breasts, which I am sure you are not, you are not forcing them to watch you breastfeed. They are always able to look away, or even leave the room if necessary.

I am not saying that you should have to breastfeed in public if *you* are uncomfortable. There were times, especially when my littles were in the latch/unlatch-look around-repeat stage that I preferred to have more privacy.

The problem is when women feel as though they *should* cover up, or that someone else's hang-ups about breastfeeding get to dictate when and where they nurse their children.

Mrs. Searching said...

This is a fantastic post! I am totally sharing it to Facebook, lol. Also your comment about men made me laugh because I was discussing breastfeeding with my cousin and sister recently, and my younger brother walked in and Mom freaked because we allowed him to hear the word "breast" (gasp!). We all collectively rolled our eyes and after she left, commented about how stupid it was to think that a boy/man will have to go and masturbate or who knows what after hearing that women feed their babies from their boobs. And my brother laughed and said sarcastically, "No, it just makes us hungry!" as he exited the room. Which was soooo gross and made us all go "Eeeuuuww!" But we figured he had no way of knowing how gross that sounded because he can't understand the emotional bonding that goes with breastfeeding. Hehe.

Brittany Thomas said...

While I agree that ultimately lust is an issue on the man's part, it is also for us women to support the men and not make it more difficult for them. Just as I wouldn't wear a low cut shirt. Sure it's my right to wear whatever I want but that wouldn't be loving to the men around me. Now I'm fine with nursing without a cover if you HAVE to (some babies just can't handle it) but I do think that if you can they you should. It's not that big of a deal and I'd rather side on the "too modest" side than the "it's my body and my baby's right" side.