Fertile Imagination

A Catholic Perspective on Breastfeeding in Public


Welcome to the July 2010 Carnival of Nursing in Public

This post was written for inclusion in the NursingFreedom.org. All week, July 5-9, we will be featuring articles and posts about nursing in public (“NIP”). See the bottom of this post for more information.

***

Image of the Virgin Mary breastfeeding the baby Jesus. Circa 2nd century

There has been alot of coverage within the natural parenting circuit of recent incidents where mothers have been harassed for breastfeeding in public.  On occasion, I have seen it suggested that the issue behind much of the public breastfeeding debate is a kind of Christian prudishness that’s ingrained within North American and to a lesser extent European society.  While I admire many of these talented writers for their views on attachment parenting and other topics, I’m not convinced that we’ve arrived at the answer here.

While it might seem that the church is a likely target, when you really examine what the church says you’ll see that it’s actually extremely supportive of breastfeeding and mothers who breastfeed (and I’m talking about the Catholic church as I can’t speak about the other Christian denominations).

First, a Catholic Perspective on Breastfeeding: Christopher West, who has spent years of study and contemplation ˝unpacking˝ the late Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body describes a nursing mother as ˝one of the most precious, most beautiful, and most holy of all possible images of woman˝ because our bodies are designed for feeding and for comforting our children at the breast.  While JPII was a Pope in this modern age, the uplifting of the act of breastfeeding and the breastfeeding mother are firmly entrenched in church history.  The oldest known image of the Virgin Mary is of her breastfeeding the infant Jesus.

And, if you Google the words ˝Virgin Mary˝ and ˝Breastfeeding˝ you get over 69,000 hits.  There are even paintings from the 15th and 16th century that depict Mary squirting milk into the mouth of St. Bernard.  A rather odd story, called the Miracle of Lactation, in which we learn that St. Bernard of Clairvaux was praying before a statue of the Virgin Mary nursing the baby Jesus.  Apparently Bernard begged Mary to ˝Show that you are a mother.˝  The statue came to life and …well, you already know the punchline.

There is also a story of the Virgin squirting milk into the mouths of people in purgatory. Upon receiving the milk, they are cleansed and ascend into heaven.  JPII himself said this about breastfeeding: ˝So human and natural is this bond that the Psalms use the image of the infant at its mother’s breast as a picture of God’s care for man (cf. Ps 22:9).˝

Bernhard of Clairvaux – Miracle of Lactation, 15th/16th Century

Catholic Perspectives on Breastfeeding in Public:

˝Our Lady, over the centuries, has been shown ‘breastfeeding in public’ in ecclesiastical art.˝

There’s a sense that breastfeeding is natural and part of ˝the plan˝ and as such, doing so in public not only provides good witness but also brings people back to reality.

A poll from Catholic.com showed that 94% of Catholics who participated in the survey thought that public nursing was perfectly fine, and 52% felt that mothers should NOT have to cover themselves while doing so.  From a different thread discussing breastfeeding in public, commenters were quite unified in their opinion that breastfeeding in public is an everyday, normal thing that shouldn’t be scorned and definately shouldn’t be shunted off to a public restroom.  Here is one such comment from a breastfeeding-supportive dad:

˝I can’t comprehend the line of thinking that would lead one to say that, since they aren’t comfortable with a woman feeding her baby in the healthiest, most natural way possible, exactly the way God designed her to do, she should take her baby into an unhygienic toilet stall or uncomfortable (and potentially dangerous based on the temperature) car just so they don’t have to be offended by possibly seeing a partially exposed breast. Breastfeeding not only gives the baby the exact food it was designed to eat straight from the source, but also helps form a bond between the mother & child. I don’t see a mother breastfeeding her child as immodest (and certainly not appalling); instead, I view it as one of the most wonderful, beautiful experiences a mother can share with her baby. I think it’s horrendous that anyone would try to portray it as anything else, whether shameful, immodest, disgusting or appalling. What sort of message does that send to kids, particularly daughters, that taking care of your baby in the best possible way is something they should be offended and shamed by? And as far as being worried about a boy seeing something so terrifyingly depraved as a naked breast, maybe if our sons weren’t taught to be so hung up on them as these ultra-sexualized taboos, they wouldn’t grow up to have such issues with objectification and pornography.

You know, I don’t like when people chew with their mouths open, but I’m not going to tell someone who’s doing that to go finish their dinner on a toilet because I don’t want to see what they’re chewing.˝ – Gordan Simms, Aug 8 2009

Whereas breastfeeding in public received more general support, opinion about breastfeeding during the Mass is more split.

While several people cited ˝distraction˝ as their chief gripe, proponents argued that failing to breastfeed at those times when a child is hungry (as inconvenient as it may be sometimes) shows a lack of charity for the needs of the child and that done discreetly doesn’t bother anyone.  In the end, whether or not a mother nurses during the Mass is based on personal comfort with the prospect rather than prohibition from the Church.

Finally, I am Catholic and I breastfeed in public. I am not embarassed by it but I am discreet. I’ve never received dirty looks, negative comments or been made to feel like I was doing something inappropriate.  I guess I am one of the lucky ones.

Do you breastfeed in public?  Do you place limits on where you breastfeed?  Have you ever been made to feel uncomfortable for breastfeeding in public?


Art by Erika Hastings at http://mudspice.wordpress.com/

Welcome to the Carnival of Nursing in Public

Please join us all week, July 5-9, as we celebrate and support breastfeeding mothers. And visit NursingFreedom.org any time to connect with other breastfeeding supporters, learn more about your legal right to nurse in public, and read (and contribute!) articles about breastfeeding and N.I.P.

Do you support breastfeeding in public? Grab this badge for your blog or website to show your support and encourage others to educate themselves about the benefits of breastfeeding and the rights of breastfeeding mothers and children.

This post is just one of many being featured as part of the Carnival of Nursing in Public. Please visit our other writers each day of the Carnival. Click on the links below to see each day’s posts – new articles will be posted on the following days:
July 5 – Making Breastfeeding the Norm: Creating a Culture of Breastfeeding in a Hyper-Sexualized World
July 6 – Supporting Breastfeeding Mothers: the New, the Experienced, and the Mothers of More Than One Nursing Child
July 7 – Creating a Supportive Network: Your Stories and Celebrations of N.I.P.
July 8 – Breastfeeding: International and Religious Perspectives
July 9 – Your Legal Right to Nurse in Public, and How to Respond to Anyone Who Questions It

30 comments:

  1. Kgreen says:

    I am Catholic, and I breastfed all three of my (now grown) children.
    As the author above noted, the operative word is ‘discreet’. For the most part, covering child and shoulder with a light blanket worked perfectly.

  2. Kimberly says:

    Now that we’re in the throes of summer, it’s just too hot for all of us involved to cover up. My solution these days is to park myself in a cool, rather secluded corner and face away from public view. I have a favorite spot, facing a piece of art. Even with that, very little is actually visible even if someone were to walk around to the other side (which they won’t).

  3. I know I love that every time I run a search for breastfeeding art, image after image of the Virgin Mary and Jesus pops up! It’s really quite beautiful and uplifting to see such a normal and lovely act celebrated throughout the centuries.

  4. Kimberly says:

    To be honest, I wasn’t sure what I’d find when I began researching the Catholic angle. I knew what I thought! In the end, I was really very pleasantly surprised to see such overwhelming support for breastfeeding in general and NIPing in particular.

  5. Sheila says:

    I certainly have found this true in my own experience. I have nursed at Mass for almost every Sunday of my baby’s life — he is always calm and quiet while nursing, a real advantage! — and have never been criticized for this. People even have come up and talked to me after Mass, while I’m still nursing, and don’t seem uncomfortable! Most of them have nursed their babies too. (Did you know the La Leche League was founded by Catholics? I am almost positive our breastfeeding rates are higher than the surrounding population.)

    One time I did get some dirty looks, though I’m not sure whether it was because I was nursing or because the baby was fussy. (He was latching on and yanking off fussing, repeatedly — I hate that!) What do you know, the reading that day was, “Oh, that you may nurse with delight at her abundant breasts!” After Mass at least half a dozen people came up to me to compliment the baby … I wonder if the reading reminded them they should be supporting me? I’ll never know, but it sure made me laugh.

  6. Kimberly says:

    Hah!

    Glad I found this through the Carnival. I need to send it to my very single sister who is thinking (and praying and learning) about converting to Catholicism. She is also VERY suspicious about me nursing my babies, even at home or at our parents’ house. She always makes noises about me being “discreet” and looks vaguely disgusted. She has at least one very good friend who has a large family. I wonder that she doesn’t see her nurse her babies (though that woman weans at six months, which I think is odd, but might also explain why she has a baby every 18 months….). ANYWAY. Beautiful post!

  7. Erin says:

    Thank you for covering this from a Catholic perspective! As a Catholic mother who breastfeeds for years per child (as opposed to months), along with other attachment parenting practices, I really appreciate finding other Catholic moms who have similar parenting values. Being Catholic is what brought me to extended breastfeeding in the first place, actually, through the Couple to Couple League – which led me to La Leche League (all the founders were Catholics, I havesince learned)… breastfeeding goes along so beautifully with Catholic teachings. I too have been dismayed to read of others who sare my same parenting values speaking of Catholics (and Christians in general) as “prudish,” saying religion is the reason for shame that some feel surrounding breastfeeding, and that Catholic teaching is oppressive to women. I think the Catholic Church has the most beautiful view of women, and yu have captured part of that view here as it relates to our role as nurturers via nursing our children.

    I nurse my children during Mass, and if anyone calls it distracting, I would quickly point out: which is more distracting? A crying, tantruming toddler, or one who is immediately quieted at the breast (which you can’t even really see). It is more distracting when there is crying and the up-and-down of a parent taking the disruptive child in and out of the room. Of course, in the area where I live, a lot of people think that all young children should be in the church nursery… another issue entirely.

    Thanks for your post! :)

  8. I agree completely that breastfeeding in public is not an issue of “modesty” per se. It has to do with distaste toward breastfeeding. Interesting article, thank you.

  9. “There’s a sense that breastfeeding is natural and part of ˝the plan˝ and as such, doing so in public not only provides good witness but also brings people back to reality.”

    Back to reality! Yes, yes, yes! I love this entire article. I’ve talked (via email) with my friend and Catholic writer Kate Wicker several times about the Catholic Church as a whole seems so much more in tune with all things natural parenting – particularly breastfeeding. Thank you so much for sharing these insights!

  10. The story about St. Bernard made me chuckle, and I couldn’t help but think about a post Melodie at Breastfeeding Moms Unite recently did about squirting breastmilk at her daughter. Something tells me the statue of Mary might be one of the very few breastfeeding mamas to do that in public – intentionally at least ;)

  11. the grumbles says:

    interesting perspective! my very-catholic mother-in-law had eight kids and breastfed them all. she (AND my father-in-law) have been fabulous supporters of my breastfeeding, including feeding my son at our niece’s baptism mass in church. i thought they were special but it’s nice to hear that other catholics seem to hold the same opinion.

    (and i’ve always loved images of mary nursing jesus, lovely)

  12. Maman A Droit says:

    As a convert to Catholicism, I LOVE the family-friendly attitudes of the Church, and have found that it extends to breastfeeding as well. Did you know other popes have also made pro-breastfeeding comments? If you check out the blog at NFPandmore.org they had some great info about cardinals and popes in favor of breastfeeding.

    I nurse in mass but don’t use a cover-up or blanket cause my son would definitely not tolerate either. But I do try to stay covered up with my nursing tops!

  13. Crystal says:

    I’ve nursed frequently during, before & after Mass. I never use a cover but I must be discrete as I’ve had several elderly gentlemen and even our priest come up & begin to play with my baby while she’s feeding. They don’t realize what’s happening until they are quite close to her face. Then they usually apologize, blush and hurry away. Its quite sweet actually. lol.

  14. I’m Catholic and I breastfeed during mass frequently. The only comment I’ve ever received for doing so was a mother of seven telling me, “Good for you!” I nurse wherever I need to, including when priests have been dinner guests in our home. No one has ever appeared to be embarrassed by it in the least, and my current priest, who’s 30 years old is the oldest of seven and was home-schooled. So I assume he grew up seeing his mother breastfeed his younger siblings.

  15. Jenny says:

    I’m Catholic and I’ve nursed during mass. I’ve even nursed an older child (21 months) last month because he was just a cranky mess that could not otherwise be distracted. I’ve seen other moms nurse during mass, not because we’re not discreet, but because I can just tell. ;)

    No one has ever said a peep about nursing during mass, but I have gotten tons of compliments on my various slings/MTs and wraps. :)

  16. Kimberly says:

    I didn’t know that about the LLL! Thanks for the info!

  17. Kimberly says:

    I’m so glad to hear that you and the other commenters are able to nurse at the Mass without problem. I’ve read mixed reviews of nursing in church but my sense was the it was supported, in general, with a smaller group of very vocal opponents. Thanks for the comment!

  18. Kimberly says:

    Like everything, it probably boils down to parish to parish variation. Sounds like your parish has a lot of youthful energy, which is how a parish should me IMO!

  19. Kimberly says:

    Oh my gosh, that’s such a great story!

  20. Kimberly says:

    There’s everything in Catholic land. I’m a convert too, from the Methodist Church. Thanks for the suggestion on the link. I will check it out!

  21. Kimberly says:

    I know OF Kate Wicker, don’t know her personally, but she’s a great writer and witness to the faith IMO! Thanks for the comment. I’m a longtime reader of Sorta Crunchy :-)

  22. JulietsButterfly says:

    I’ve been nursing my son during Mass since April 27th, 2008 (the first Sunday after he was born). While I think I could get away with it now, I started nursing with a cover during Mass when he was about 5 weeks old. I keep the cover in the church bag and church is the only place where I make him use it. At 26 months old, if he wants to nurse during Mass, he finds the nursing cover and hands it to me (or puts it over my head) and tucks in. My mom rolled her eyes when we did it the other week, but he was quiet all the way through the homily and we only stopped when it was time to stand for the Creed.
    With my next baby I’ll probably only use the cover for the clumsy first months. I’m glad Catholics have such a strong stance on nursing! My mom only nursed me (and my brothers) because her Catholic MIL came to help her take care of us and showed her what to do. My son is the first one in the line that has nursed past 9 months (my aunts and uncles and brothers and I magically weaned at that point).

  23. Melodie says:

    Have you read A History of Breastfeeding? It has that painting of the squirting milk in it that you have here and a lot of religion-based information as well as information about the artistry around breastfeeding and how it changes through the centuries. I learned so much from that book. AS requested, here is the link to the post I wrote that Dionna mentioned. http://www.breastfeedingmomsunite.com/2010/05/do-you-ever-get-the-breastfeeding-sillies/

  24. DawnN says:

    As a non-Catholic Christian, not only do I breastfeed before, during and after the service anywhere I please, but once, while leading worship, I was NIP’ing right in front of everyone! She was in a sling, and most of the congregation thought she was just sleeping, but some moms knew, and everyone was fine with it– at least, no one complained or said anything. ;-)

  25. [...] about. I nurse her when she needs to be nursed and have never had a problem (as I talked about in my submission for the Carnival on Nursing in Public a couple weeks ago). Perhaps the lack of babies in plain [...]

  26. physician assistant says:

    Valuable info. Lucky me I found your site by accident, I bookmarked it.

  27. Kimberly says:

    Lucky me, too:-) Nice to see you :-) Welcome!

  28. Great, I never knew this, thanks.

  29. Melissa says:

    Any church where I need to feed my kid in a bathroom or under a blanket is a church I won’t attend again. No one’s ever bothered me while I nursed my son during Mass. :)

  30. goodt post, thank you alot

  31. [...] A Catholic Perspective on Breastfeeding in Public [...]

  32. HP Bryce says:

    I see no problem with breastfeeding in public. Americans are by far too prudish. I am an American but I have not lived there in many years.

2 Trackbacks

  1. [...] about. I nurse her when she needs to be nursed and have never had a problem (as I talked about in my submission for the Carnival on Nursing in Public a couple weeks ago). Perhaps the lack of babies in plain [...]

  2. By World Breastfeeding Week on July 30, 2010 at 12:38 am

    [...] A Catholic Perspective on Breastfeeding in Public [...]