I’ve been working on this essay, off & on, for several weeks. I’m pretty proud of it, although I’m still tweaking it. I think that, despite needing further detail edits, my voice is pretty strong here. I’m satisfied enough to post it.
I realize that someone my read this who could choose to be offended by it, either the subject or my attitude regarding it. However, I feel strongly that breastfeeding in church is a pertinent issue affecting moms today, and that it is relevant to my personal life, to the breastfeeding world at large, and to the strangely oversensitive Christian church & culture, in general. I won’t apologize for these personal beliefs.
So if breastfeeding offends you and you have nothing nice to say about it, please disregard this post and seek your mental nourishment elsewhere.
I’m sad that I even have to say that. :-(
For those who will, enjoy my recent essay. :-)
I was not breastfed as a baby, nor were any of my siblings. None of the people we spent time with breastfed either. However, I remember with distinct vividness the one time I actually saw a mother breastfeeding her baby, and it was at church one morning in the Midwest.
That one event completely changed my perspective, and with it, my life.
I can’t remember my exact age, but I think it was somewhere in the 6-7 years range. Church was over, and everyone was milling about the large foyer/hallway that ran the width of the sanctuary with doors on either end leading to parking lots.
In the midst of all the controlled chaos, I noticed a woman whom I’d never seen at the church before. I think she may have been a visiting missionary or something, but I don’t trust my memory on that point. This woman, though, was a stranger to me, although she fit in with the rest of the adults, and was sitting in a chair next to the wall of the foyer while everyone chatted around her. No one was speaking to her. No one seemed to be with her. She sat alone within a mass of people quietly nursing her baby.
I was old enough to know that breasts were “inappropriate” and “sexual,” but I was completely enthralled. I kept trying to look away, because breasts were “private” and “sinful,” but my eyes were immediately & constantly drawn back to what must surely be forbidden church behavior. Women who showed their breasts were bad! People who looked at breasts were sinful! This should not stand!
And yet, this woman, this stranger, who was completely covered from neck to feet in a long-sleeved, collared, button-up shirt and ankle-length skirt was sitting there brazenly putting her child to her breast, and no one said a word to her! There were men around! For the love of all that is holy, there were children present! (I even saw her nipple. Gasp!)
I kept watching, partly waiting for someone to chastise her, but mostly because I thought her breast was fascinating. I had only ever seen breasts in the few brief moments it took my own mother to hastily put on a bra. I had never really thought of them as functional, even though I’d heard of breastfeeding. To me, breasts had only ever been purely sexual, which inherently made them sinful. (And yes, we could go into a long discussion about over-zealous Christians, body shaming, & more…but I’ll try to avoid that for now.)
I remember trying to not be obvious, but considering my age, I failed. She actually looked me in the eye a couple times with a slight smile, so I’m certain she knew that I was watching her. Yet she didn’t cover. She didn’t act ashamed. She was bold & fearless while feeding her child.
And I was captivated.
She was never at the church again, which is probably why I suspect she was a missionary or something. I never saw another woman breastfeed, there or anywhere else. Yet I never forgot. 25 years later, I can still see it in my mind’s eye. It was that impactful. It was also the moment when I knew I would breastfeed. Yes, at the tender age of, say, 7, I knew I would breastfeed.
Fast forward another 20+ years, & I was pregnant with T-bug, my first child. We struggled to breastfeed for three weeks. I cried. She cried. I had no family to help me. I hadn’t seen a baby breastfeed other than Youtube videos and that one experience at church so long ago. I was failing, & I was scared. Then I sought, & received, support & help from another woman at my current church. She helped me learn while I taught T-bug. And then we had it. We were breastfeeding! I had committed to breastfeeding, & I succeeded!
And I owe much to that woman who publicly breastfed in a church. Seeing her breastfeed without fear, without apology, without shame, was a lesson to me, and it inspired me to embrace the most maternal act a woman can commit short of giving birth. She inspired me to breastfeed when no one around me would.
I am still nursing my second child, NBG, and we nurse on-demand, wherever and whenever she wants. And we do it without a cover, even at church.
Because I owe it to all the littles, including my own T-bug. They deserve to see a woman feeding her child the way God designed it to be done. Their children deserve to eat the only food that is perfect and perfectly designed for them. They deserve to see that a woman’s body is not shameful or overtly sexual. They deserve to see breastfeeding as normal, healthy, and non-restricting. They deserve to know that breasts are not sinful (and neither is sex, but that’s another post).
And if I’m the only mother they ever get to see publicly breastfeeding in a church, then I’m going to do it.
I also owe it to all my sisters, young and old, as we learn to accept and embrace the wonders of our bodies, free of guilt or shame.
Yes, many older women at my church have a problem with me breastfeeding without a cover (even though no one can see anything once NBG’s latched). However, a few younger moms like me have actually praised me and thanked me, because apparently, I’ve inspired some of them. (THAT feels awesome, by the way.) I’ve been told by some that they admire my strength, and they wish they were confident enough to do the same.
No, I’ve never had to address any issues because none of those disapproving women apparently feel strongly enough about it to say something to my face. I’m ok with that. If someone did, I like to think that I would handle it by graciously acknowledging their discomfort before kindly correcting their skewed view on a nursing mother’s breasts.
And let’s stop and consider the evidence for a moment. It’s not like I’ve ever stood up in the middle of a sermon, pulled my top off, and started pole dancing. Obviously, that would be both attention-seeking and sexually suggestive. (And there’s no pole at church.) Breastfeeding is neither attention seeking nor sexually suggestive.
Besides, NBG will not allow a cover (she’s 22 months old, ‘nuff said), so a cover is not an option. A cover just screams to everyone that I’m going to whip a boob out anyway. Thanks, but I don’t feel the need to broadcast it. (Some women feel more comfortable covering, and more power to them.) I could leave and go to another room, but then, what’s the point of going to church? It’s not like I can hear the sermon or participate in the singing in another room. I might as well stay home if people really expect me to leave, especially when NBG is on a particularly strong nursing run.
And even if I could hear the sermon and singing, the fact is that I would still be separated. Set apart simply because I’m a woman who is feeding my child. I’ve never liked to be treated unfairly, and I find singling out nursing mothers and banishing them to far-off lands to be incredibly unfair.
My personal opinion? If a church is not a safe place for me to feed my child with God’s intended first food, then I don’t know where is. If Christian men can’t see my breast as I feed my child without becoming sex-focused, then there is no hope for any man in our society to do the same. If Christian women can’t see my breast as I feed my child without becoming angry, threatened, or insecure, then there is no hope for any woman in our society to do so.
As a Christian, the one place on Earth where I should feel completely safe and protected while tending to my child’s needs is church.
Children understand context. Even at the tender age of 7, I knew what that woman was doing was not sexual. I knew it wasn’t sexual even without fully understanding breastfeeding. And as I watched everyone around her ignore it, I understood that what she was doing was ok. It wasn’t wrong. It wasn’t shameful. It was ok.
I live somewhere that breastfeeding is not a strange anomaly. Where I live, alternative lifestyles are generally accepted, even by those who disagree with them. I am very blessed in that regard. It means I don’t have to battle stereotypes or harassment. I can’t imagine how I would’ve successfully breastfed in another environment.
And so, since the rest of my local society is fairly accepting of my breastfeeding, I’m able to channel my strength toward normalizing breastfeeding at my church, because many of those negative attitudes about nursing in public still permeate the Christian church. And it shouldn’t.
Because church should be safe. Church should be accepting. Church should be supportive.
Church should not view a nursing mother as sexual, immodest, or obscene.
It’s less likely for local children at my church to never see breastfeeding (although I know of at least one who hadn’t before I started nursing T-bug). However, I believe it needs to be seen everywhere. It needs to be normal everywhere. And that includes church, where regular attendees spend at least one day of their week, 52 days a year. Plus, I travel, providing me with several other churches to breastfeed in.
And it needs to be normal for the adults, too.
Breasts have been hyper-sexualized in our culture, and it needs to stop. Openly breastfeeding my children, even in church, is my contribution. Combating the hype where I am is the only way I know to fight the sexualization of my body. Allowing people to observe this most natural act regardless of age, sex, or indoctrinated beliefs is my weapon.
Breaking the cycle of breast hyper-sexualization requires seeing “working boobs.” Men, women, and children need to see breasts as the tools they are. Breasts are nurturing, maternal, and functional. Of course they can be sexual, but so can a mouth or a hand. Yet they are not inherently so. The sexual nature is second to the functional nature.
The primary, intended use should be given precedence.
How much of the skewed sexualization of breasts and women would be combated if children grew up seeing working boobs? Would advertisers have to find a new sales tactic? Would Hollywood have to stop marketing their own brand of sexuality and sexual expression? Would body-shaming and slut-shaming see their imminent demise?
I don’t know.
I can’t help but think that a generation of American children growing up with the knowledge of breasts as functional and maternal and safe and comforting and loving would completely upend our society’s current breast obsession, perhaps even dislodging some of the rape culture. It might even help set women free from the fear and shame automatically assigned to any person who owns a vagina.
There are people who like to compare breastfeeding with relieving ones bladder or bowels or with ejaculation. To those people I say, your innocence has been ripped painfully from you, and I pity you. To equate mother’s milk with bodily waste or reproductive fluids is so incredibly ignorant and painfully deluded as to warrant almost no response at all beyond pity.
My argument remains that breasts are not inherently sexual. Indeed they exist for the primary job of nourishing and protecting offspring. To fear a child observing the primary function of breasts is to say that one prefers that child to accept breasts as primarily sexual and as something to either ogle or fear being seen.
Please do not lick your lips. The tongue is sexual. Do not eat a banana. It is visually akin to performing fellatio. Do not wrap your lips around a water bottle to drink. Some people might get the wrong idea. Don’t stroke things with your hands. It’s sensual.
Is anything I’m saying making any sense???
It wasn’t easy at first, nursing in church without a cover. Nursing in public in general, actually. I felt awkward and obvious. I was embarrassed, afraid, & self-conscious. However, each time got easier. I persisted, and now, I can’t imagine doing anything else. These are my babies, and I will feed them wherever we are. My first obligation is to them, not to someone else’s misguided view of breasts, modesty, and sexuality.
I publicly breastfeed in church without a cover, and I will never apologize for it.