Monday, June 21, 2010

Breastfeeding in Church: A Picture of Christ's Sacrificial Love

By Ruth Engelthaler © 2010
Mother nurses her child in church. The stained glass window of Lansdowne Church in Glasgow, Scotland by Scottish artist, Alf Webster

As a mother of three children, all of whom I nursed in church, I would like to share my perspective on breastfeeding.

A factor I see coming into play with regards to breastfeeding in our culture is the over-sexualization of women. They are constantly depicted as objects of men’s desire, for their pleasure, rather than as coequals in Christ. Since men in our culture are constantly bombarded with sexualized images of women, including pornographic images, I can understand their knee-jerk reaction to viewing a woman’s breast, as well as those of a protective husband who does not wish to have another man lusting after his wife. Men have been conditioned to responding to a bare breast in a lustful way through this media bombardment.

However, I would like to propose that allowing women to breastfeed openly in church is a way in which the dignity of woman can be reclaimed. For the very dignity of woman is in her ability to give of herself. There is a very special grace given to women in that only they have the physiological ability to give over her very own body to the growth and development of a human child.

The very act of nursing an infant is a sacrifice. Believe me, after nursing three children, they don’t always cooperate with a woman’s desire for modesty nor do they time their demands to suite a mother’s convenience. Viewing the act of a mother nursing an infant provides the opportunity to explore an image of self sacrifice that God encoded into our very DNA.

Each person’s human dignity and wholeness is rooted in our ability to give of ourselves. We are called to follow Christ’s way of the cross. We are called to live his life, death and resurrection. “No greater love has anyone than to lay down their life for another.” Nursing by its very biology is a laying down of one's life. It takes a tremendous amount of physical energy to nurse a child. In the act of breastfeeding a woman is making her body available to nurture another life that is completely dependent on her. She has to die to herself again and again in order to respond to the constant needs and demands of a breastfeeding infant. Any woman who has breastfed knows the sleepless nights and the patience required to be available around the clock. She is familiar with how much time in her day ends up being devoted to a child who’s demands necessitate her constantly setting other priorities and tasks aside in order to care for the needs of her infant.

If pastors could be more open to exploring this image of self sacrifice, they could be influential in desexualizing the image of a woman’s breast and putting the men in their congregation at greater ease. Possibly men could even find that by understanding the purpose of breastfeeding in God’s design as a picture of His sacrificial love, they could reprogram their responses to images of women’s breasts, and in turn gain a greater appreciation of the dignity of the woman as created in the image and likeness of Christ.

The Holy Family by Luca Signorelli, 1490


Ruth Engelthaler is a writer by trade and is in the process of transitioning back into her professional career now that her children are older and her youngest is becoming self-sufficient. Engelthaler holds an MA in creative writing and enjoys research involving mothering and women's dignity issues within Catholicism.

'Jesus nursed in public' shirt from

~~~~

25 comments:

  1. I nurse in church almost every Sunday. It's a quiet place where I'm holding the baby the whole time, so it's no wonder he wants to nurse. And of course I'm not going to stop him, letting him cry and disturb everyone! However, I do get a little uncomfortable sometimes because I do know that there are people out there who think church is an inappropriate place to nurse. (Which just astounds me -- what place could be more appropriate?)

    I think it would be great if churches would post a notice near the entrance: "Nursing mothers are welcome to nurse their children during the service." That way we'd know we were welcome. Also, in some states (I believe Pennsylvania is one), the law protecting breastfeeding in public does not extend to churches, on the grounds I suppose that it would be an infringement on freedom of religion. Therefore it would be helpful if churches made clear they are voluntarily complying because they support breastfeeding mothers.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I love how you worded this argument. I have thought about this quite a bit, but have not been able to put such a perfect description of my feelings into words. Thank you for treating the subject with such sensitivity and understanding.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Long, quiet moments = nursing for DD so every Sunday we nurse almost the entire time. I often reflect on the relationship Mary had with Jesus. Imagine the depth of intimacy between a mother and her child...and in their case it was between a human and her saviour. What an astonishing and blessed example of how much intimacy we can have in our own relationships with Christ. He has made Himself vulnerable and available to us, just as He was a helpless infant nursing at Mary's breast.

    So far, I have not encountered any trouble with nursing my toddler in church. I know our priest supports it and thinks it is lovely. If anyone were to ever comment, I would give them a slip of paper with Christopher West's name and website. Maybe it would be a opportunity for them to learn more about their faith and the dignity of the human body.

    ReplyDelete
  4. How wonderful you are for writing this.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Great post! I am a convert and my hubby's whole extended family are breastfeeding Catholics, so I was a little surprised to discover how many Catholics think it's immoral and/or immodest to nurse in mass! Being a nursing mom has definitely made me reflect on how special Mary must have been, as I thought of her nursing Jesus in the middle of the night, and when he was teething, and how she was really serving God with not just her mind and spirit, but also her body.

    ReplyDelete
  6. When i first started nursing in church i was told to go to the crying room to nurse my baby,and i was ok with that at first,than i was like i could stay at home because of being away from the people,so i have decieded just the last couple of sundays that i was going to nurse in the pew i was sitting in,and nurse from there.At first it was a struggle,but once i got the hang of it,then i was ok! Got to say,though that you do feel the eyes all over you,and wondering what they are saying! I feel like i should not have to go to a crying room,when i can as well be around others....

    ReplyDelete
  7. OMGoodness. Thank you so much for writing this. Soooo right on. I always have to nurse in church. Always.

    ReplyDelete
  8. I nursed my children through every mass we attended. I was oblivious to anyone who felt negatively about it as I was there to worship and participate in mass. It is so sad that people have a stigma attached to nursing. I nursed my firstborn 20 years ago and received a lot of flack about it at times. I simply asked if their baby were hungry would they not feed her/him a bottle? That usually got the point across.

    ReplyDelete
  9. I left a church and joined another church because I was asked to go into a separate room to nurse my baby daughter. I quietly reminded the usher that Jesus was breastfed and I am sure you would not have denied Mary that priviledge. I now belong to a different church and have had no problems or gawkers.

    ReplyDelete
  10. This was so well said. During my homebirth of my first and only baby (so far) I thought often of Mary giving birth to baby Jesus with no help, no hospital, and no intervention. I knew if it was good enough for our Savior, it was good enough for my baby. I am always saddened at church because most of the time, they encourage and support seperation of mother and child. You would think of all places, church would encourage breastfeeding and attachment parenting.

    ReplyDelete
  11. The pastor of a church I went to for a very short while asked my husband to tell me to go to my car or nursery to nurse. The church was held at a middle school, and their nursery was the hallway of the school office. The best part? The pastor is my husband's uncle. (Well, ex-husband, but that's another story.) At first I was offended. I told him "Jesus was breastfed. It's natural." But his response was that I could be causing another man in the church to sin. Ooooh, that made me so mad! Then I was told that my MIL and FIL were uncomfortable seeing me nurse, even in my own house! Sadly, for a short time I questioned it. I thought that maybe he was right. Shouldn't it be my goal to not offend others? He said that Mary did breastfeed Jesus, but her clothes were different than our clothes, and Jesus would have been underneath.

    Anyway, I'm venting, and this post brought it all up again. I'm actually happy for this post, thank you for it. It has helped to put my feelings to words. :)

    ReplyDelete
  12. Thank-you. I have had a horrific day after a confrontation with the Children's pastor at my church over breasting in the hall outside the nursery. She said there have been complaints for years about me (not my first kid). She said the men that volunteer in the nursery have complained. She made it sound like the whole church is uncomfortable with me. This morning, I feel like Satan is winning.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Like Sheila I nurse my daughter in church I always have (she is now 2 1/2) most of the older women who have had children are fantastically supportive most have also fed in church. But I do get dagger looks from the occasional one usually the never married.

    No one would dare complain my Vicar is a retired health visitor so used to supporting breastfeeding Mums and started at the church a few months before I moved here and my daughter was born one of the first things she did was stick a breast feeding is welcome card on the notice board :D

    After reading the comments I feel really lucky to have had such a positive experience.

    ReplyDelete
  14. I've been struggling with this very thing. My son is due in late April and I've been wondering how appropriate it would be for me to NOT get up and go to the nursing room when he's rooting and hungry and just nurse him there, discreetly, in the Sanctuary. I know most of the people in my church are pro-breastfeeding, but I'm not sure how pro-NIPing they are.

    I've been trying to decide what to do. So thank you for this entry. It helps put my mind at ease that I wouldn't be doing anything wrong if I did decide to just sit there in the pew and nurse my son.

    ReplyDelete
  15. @Virginia and to all the others who have had to deal with people who find breastfeeding in public offensive. (BIG HUGS) When you go to church, you go to worship not to be stuck in a room somewhere so that you can nurse your child and not offend someone. Although I do not go to church, if I did and someone came up to me saying that people where having a problem with my nursing in service I would be making an announcement in front of the whole congregation. It is not a breastfeeding mothers fault if a man is having sexual thoughts about her because she is using her breast for the reason they are there in the first place.

    ReplyDelete
  16. Virginia- I was told something similar once. I told them to "go to hell and await Christ's mercy". And to have a nice day.

    Satan isn't winning, he just likes it when you think he is sister - keep giving your children the best. I'll be praying for both you, and your Pastor. Blessings to you and your family- GP

    ReplyDelete
  17. When I was still pregnant, a woman sitting in the same row as me nursed her baby during the service. I probably wouldn't have even noticed except that I was pregnant and honed in on things like that. I was so encouraged by it! That woman is the reason I feel comfortable nursing in church. We go to a large church so I've never seen her again, otherwise I'd thank her!

    ReplyDelete
  18. Beautiful. I've never left Mass to breastfeed - not that there was anywhere to go at my last parish, unless I wanted to be in the cold. Church should be one place where women feel completely comfortable to NIP, in my opinion.

    ReplyDelete
  19. i do not attend church, nor do i belive in a singular man-god but i attend catholic services with my grandmother on occasion and i am always very respectful of the beliefs and faith that is present. once, my son got hungry, he was only a few weeks old, so i fed him. after wards, my grandmother told me that if i was going to do that in church i shouldn't come. it makes me sad that people have such faith in this very old religion but cannot extend that faith to anything else from the same time.

    ReplyDelete
  20. When I was a young mother, I was invited to attend a special Easter service at this amazing OLD German Church, with some kind friends (women) who were wives of my husbands Coworkers. My husband was deployed overseas, and I hadn't ever nursed in front of HIM. So I'm sitting there and my infant starts getting fussy. I'm trying to figure out what to do! It was dark, I had NO idea where to go if I did need to leave. And to top it off I was sitting next to a man - a Chaplin - who had also been invited to attend this service with my friends.
    Nearly 20 years later I still think he did the kindest thing anyone ever could have done for me! Seeing my discomfort and my babies increasing need/desire to nuzzle in and wanting to eat, this kind man leaned over to me and said, it was just fine for me to go ahead and nurse my baby right there. I was so relieved! I proceeded to nurse my baby and all was well!

    I have always nursed in my own church meetings, and sometimes I have felt a tiny bit awkward, depending on the set up. In service in pews no big deal. In a sunday school classroom where the chairs are set up in a circle and I'm actually facing others, especially men, and the children are all in their own classes so it's not quite the family feel; but over all, I'm discreet, and if it got the baby to be quiet and often asleep during our three hours of services, I was going to do that! It actually makes me sad to see young mothers leave services to go off to some quiet room, to be alone while BF. I have nursed for a total of 8 plus years (6 children), and that is a lot of time to 'sit out' of church services and fellowship of my friends and family. As one poster said, if I wasn't attending my meetings, I may as well stay at home. 8 years to stay at home is a Large part of my life! So, I decided early on with my first, that "I refuse to be banished from society because I choose to breastfeed my children!" There you have it.
    Thank you for this post and for putting it quite eloquently. Mothering is certainly a sacrifice, one I willingly made. I don't know that I had thought of it quite like this; as in giving of myself in that way to mother and nurture, including Breast feeding my babies was a sacrifice of giving of myself in a spiritual way as well.

    ReplyDelete
  21. Wendyrful - your comment made me cry because I've always been too scared to nurse in church and it has kept me from going for many weeks and months when I have a baby who nurses all the time. I wish so much someone would say that to me. What a wonderful man - I hope he knows the impact he made. :)

    ReplyDelete
  22. This is such a timely piece for me, though I can see it was written several years ago! Last week I discovered a beautiful statue of Mary nursing Jesus as a toddler. I was away on holiday on a remote Scottish island, and the statue was in a tiny Catholic church there. I just posted photos of it on my blog and would love it if you'd have a look. Thanks for what you've written here. www.lisahassanscott.co.uk

    ReplyDelete
  23. My church, Hope Trinity Anglican Church in Mackenzie, BC Canada, is wonderful for nursing moms. I often nurse my little guy right in the pews during service, or if he is fussy and squirmy they have a nice big comfy chair in a windowed room attached to the main room. Its the kids playroom and it has speakers so you can not only see the sermon through the big glass windows you can also hear it. The Reverend's wife is a nurse and we have multiple families with young children so no one even bats an eye at breastfeeding. They help us younger moms realize the miracle of our bodies!

    ReplyDelete

LinkWithin

Related Posts with Thumbnails