Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Our Lady of La Leche, Pray for Us!

If you're a Catholic mom who has ever had to nurse during Mass, you'll enjoy this piece by Kate Wicker (HT: Mark Shea). And you probably won't believe some of the comments.

Why is it that so many Catholics are so uncomfortable with the idea of nursing mothers? We've come a long way--and not in a good way--from the days when shrines were erected to Mary under her title "Our Lady of La Leche," depicting her as a nursing mother with the infant Jesus at her breast.

There are probably many reasons why nursing mothers cause such furor. We could point to various Protestant or neo-Manichean attitudes about the physical body, especially about the female body; we could look at our culture's sick fascination with the female body and the tendency to view the breasts in a pornographic manner which is entirely divorced from their actual, and primary purpose; we could look at the influence of the Irish Jansenists on our Catholic culture, and its lingering effects on our Catholic identity. And all of these would probably play some part in the attitudes that range anywhere from discomfort to utter disgust at the notion that some nursing mothers might, sometimes, have to breastfeed in public--and even in church.

Take, for instance, the oft-repeated comment that nursing is fine--so long as the mother doesn't "force" others to witness it. While the cartoonish mental images this phrase can produce are amusing, I don't know of any woman who deliberately drags her infant out in public just to force others to endure her breastfeeding efforts. Most new moms, and especially first-time nursing moms, would much rather not have to nurse in a public setting. But unless they're willing to remain at home for at least the baby's first six months of life, chances are that sooner or later they're going to have to nurse in a public setting.

And nearly all the moms I know who've done this have wanted to be discreet, and have gone to great lengths in search of that discretion. But unless you're going to equip moms with those black shields that S.W.A.T. teams use, chances are that, if you're staring at her closely, you may see a tiny bit of skin as she desperately tries to maneuver baby, blanket, shirt, nursing bra, nursing pads, etc. into position so baby can eat. Remember, she's trying to do this all one-handed because her other hand is supporting the baby, and she's also keenly aware that you, the censorious critic, are staring at her with a look of horror and disgust the whole time. And all she wants to do is feed her crying, wiggly, fussy baby; the last thing on her mind is the notion that she's "forcing" you to witness anything at all.

Now, some critics at this point say that Mom should have brought a bottle instead. But nursing moms know that getting a nursing baby to take a bottle is a chancy business--the breast isn't just a food dispenser, and the baby who is used to being close to Mommy while he or she eats isn't all that inclined to accept a plastic substitute.

Other critics say Mom should have timed things better. But breasts, alas, don't come with little ounce markings, so you never know quite how much baby had to eat at his or her last feeding--so even if you try to nurse baby in the parking lot five minutes before Mass begins there's no guarantee that baby will eat.

Still other critics say Mom should leave the church pew and take baby either to the crying room or the bathroom to nurse. Bathrooms aren't usually designed for this purpose, however--would you want to eat a meal in one? And cry rooms can be so noisy and chaotic that even the most placid baby will go into full-blown meltdown instead of settling down calmly to eat. If the church provides a special room for nursing mothers, that's great! And if Mom can leave with baby to get to that room without having to climb over the knees of a large group of determined end-of-the-pew-sitters, equally great. Unfortunately, many such rooms end up being full of dads with bouncy toddlers, making it even harder for Mom to nurse quietly and discretely than it would have been in the bench in the first place.

I have heard some Catholics actually suggest that Mom should just stay home with the baby and any toddlers who are too young to "get anything" out of the Mass. Mom isn't sinning by missing Mass, they point out, as the care of small children is one of the valid reasons to miss Mass on Sunday. So Mom shouldn't bother--there'll be plenty of time to go to church when baby is older.

But that's such a negative view of the graces we can get from attending Sunday Mass with our families that I reject it entirely. The family that prays together stays together, and the family that patiently and kindly teaches its children from earliest infancy to come to Jesus on at least a weekly basis is a family that will stay close, and strong in the faith. If Mom or Dad or both have to scoot to the back of the church with a teething infant or cranky toddler, they should get smiles of understanding from the other attendees, not frowns and scowls of cold and bitter dislike. Where is the future of the Body of Christ, if not in those infant forms and wiggly, sometimes disruptive little bodies?

I'd be willing to bet that no mother sets out planning to nurse her infant at Mass, or even in the church at all--but she has to be prepared for the possibility. And just as her infant receives his nourishment and sustenance from her, so do we receive ours from the bosom of Holy Mother Church, who feeds us on heavenly fare, and strengthens our souls for the trials yet to come.


Anonymous said...

We had one poor mom that went into the confessional (no confessions at the time) during mass just to breast feed! Only to be scolded by the priest later. I say, ya gotta do what you gotta do. And who wants to breast feed in a bathroom!!! I assure you, if you are in the cry room, and you get ready to breast feed, if there are men in there...they most likely will leave post haste!!!

Alexandra said...

I figure if they don't like it, that's their problem. Feeding my child comes first. That being said, I bought this wonderful long bib contraption with an adjustable snaping strap. You could peak down hands-free while positioning the baby underneath. Brillant!

I bought it ten years ago, and still have it - ya' never know. ;) I also used it to pump in the car ...just plugged in my Medela pump-in-style to the car battery and pumped under the bib. No one could tell because it looked like a puffy blouse.

Those slings offer quite a bit of coverage as well. You really don't have to flash the skin if you make a little preparation ahead of time. Most time no one notices if you've got a cover. There's always some jerk, but what are they looking at anyway - turn away for crying out loud!

monique said...

Beautiful post! From someone who has nursed more then a few times during Mass. ;) I figured if anyone ever asks me about it I'd say, "How do you think Mary fed Jesus?"

nicole said...

I don't like nursing in church because of my own comfort. My baby is noisy sometimes, and the transition from one side to the other is not always smooth. I prefer nursing privately, but we don't have a cry room or nursery in our church. I go outside. I would just sit in the back, but there are no chairs. I've been told our priest is working on that. If I do end up nursing inside, I am way more self-conscious than anyone watching me should be. I do think people need to relax about it--we see just as much skin walking through the mall or eating out.

John Thayer Jensen said...

I guess we are just lucky here in our small town in New Zealand. Several mothers breastfeed at need, wherever they happen to be - in church, whatever. My wife and I lived in an island in the western Pacific during the breastfeeding age of the little ones, an island where the ladies normally wear only a 'grass' (it isn't actually grass :-)) skirt anyway, so we certainly didn't have an issue.

Just one thing about bringing a bottle - don't know about others, but my wife had a fair amount of trouble with our first one just keeping the milk going. Supplementing with a bottle, which she tried once or twice, seemed to reduce her milk so she didn't do it with the others. Don't know if other women have the same issue or not, of course.


Anonymous said...

I think what troubles me the most about this issue is the well-meaning but completely unhelpful advice of the "not in front of me" crowd. It's always, "Just take the baby out" "Just don't come to Mass" "Just wear a blanket/shawl/burka" as if these solutions were not: a)already known, or b)always practical or even possible. It just tends to impart an inordinate amount of guilt on a nursing mom and results in her worrying about every little mishap. Tense mom = more mishaps!

Red Cardigan said...

Amen to that, Anonymous above!

Kate Wicker said...

Thank you for your support, Red Cardigan!

The Evil Breastfeeding Heretic Herself,
Kate Wicker :)

God bless!!!