Imagine my surprise on Saturday night when I received an email from BBC Radio, inviting me on as a guest to talk about my experience breastfeeding in the Sistine Chapel. It’s a cool story and all, but BBC?! That was kind of exciting! You can listen to a small sample of the interview HERE.
Oh and don’t worry, I resisted the urge to go off-topic and get all chatty about Downton Abbey. But barely.
Days before my midnight debut across the pond though, I was already planning to revisit this topic here on the ol’ blog. I’d noticed that Christianity Today recently ran an article about Pope Francis’ encouragement to mothers, which I thought was wonderful because this whole “should women feel ashamed to nurse their babies in public” question is relevant to many, many women. But of course not everyone felt that way.
There aren’t many comments in the actual combox of the article itself, but on the Facebook share? People were not happy. As in, they were voicing their displeasure over the fact that CT had dared mention the pope at all, some were disgusted that a woman would dare nurse a baby in a church, and maybe my least favorite of all the objections?
The patronizing, women can nurse discreetly thing.
You know, as opposed to all the unchaste mothers who take baby’s lunchtime as an opportunity to garner attention from men.
Incidentally I’ve been a mother for ten years or so and have NEVER seen a woman flaunting herself while nursing a baby–my goodness, you see much more walking down the street on a hot summer’s day. But I digress.
Now there are some things I suspect many critics of public breastfeeding simply don’t realize, and so I thought I’d talk a little today about why exactly society–and religious leaders–ought to follow Pope Francis’ example and support and encourage breastfeeding mothers. I’ve found over the years that regardless what opinions anyone holds, the vast majority of people mean well, aren’t monsters, and really just don’t know. Of course I’m not any sort of activist and speak only from personal experience, having nursed four babies–one of whom is still going strong, and one of whom I did indeed nurse in the Sistine Chapel.
1.) Breastfeeding is a natural function of the female body. That alone doesn’t make it appropriate for public settings, because there are assorted other natural functions that are (and ought to be!) relegated to that-which-should-only-be-done-behind-closed-doors, but I would argue that it’s a good starting point. And here’s why: part of the reason our sex-saturated culture has an issue with “breastfeeding in public” (as opposed to nursing in a dark broom closet) is because we have done our darndest to separate procreation from sexuality. What does that have to do with anything, you ask? Well, think about it: if the female body is primarily (or only!) about enticing men or being some sort of over-sexualized symbol, then yes–pretty much anything that necessitates lifting up your shirt should be off-limits in church, the grocery store, and at the park for that matter. BUT. If the female body is part of the female person, and if persons are integrated body-and-soul beings with value that goes far beyond their sexual activity, then certainly feeding a child is more than appropriate.
2.) Breastfeeding is not obscene. Provocative magazine centerfolds are obscene. The distorting of the female form and the exploitation of women and men as done by the pornography industry is obscene. A loving mother feeding a precious, hungry child is NOT. There are some false puritanical notions floating around out there in churchland that would put a nursing mother in the same category as a woman who takes her clothes off for pay, and that is positively SHAMEFUL. Not.the.same.thing. At all. Sorry Mayflower-sailing-pilgrims, but the human body is not intrinsically evil or dirty–God made our bodies! To secular public breastfeeding naysayers, I would say it is a disturbed culture in which we live when it is more socially acceptable to bare yourself for profit than to nourish an infant. Also? Short of some sort of epic nursing-disaster-fail, nothing untoward is actually showing. (And in the case of a fail, show the lady some grace–sometimes nursing a fussy baby is more akin to a full-contact wrestling match than serene Madonna/Jesus painting.)
3.) Motherhood is intrinsically chaste. What does that mean, you ask? You don’t hear the word much these days but chastity is a virtue. And something to cultivate whether married, widowed, single or celibate. The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes it using terms like self-mastery, integrated, and in imitation of Christ, and Christians have historically believed that babies and motherhood itself are ordered towards chastity because chastity in marriage includes an openness to children. Anyone trying to say otherwise is giving in to that whole puritan thing again and trying to call something natural and good, unnatural.
4.) Women have dignity. Bloggers have this penchant for stating the obvious and yes, that’s what I’m doing here because yes, I am a blogger. But when I hear people talking about breastfeeding mothers like they’re gross, awkward, or boldly indignant exhibitionists, I start to wonder how much of this stems from a general lack of care and concern for women as women. A society does well to look out for the unique interests of women being that we ladies are the ones bringing children into the world, educating those children, and contributing to the culture in countless other ways. Jesus Himself was borne of a woman. And being a mother is hard, oftentimes grueling and thankless work that needs to be recognized and acknowledged. So we all need to do EVERYTHING WE CAN to ease the burden, lighten the load, and accommodate the beautiful yet challenging work of mothering small children.
5.) The Catholic Church is a champion of women. Yes, I just said that. Before Joel Osteen’s smile and mega-churches with jumbo-trons and electric guitars, before Anabaptists and Martin Luther and John Calvin and the great schism, and before the Bible as we know it today, there was Christianity. Because that whole thing that Jesus kicked off when He gave the keys to Peter and the authority to the apostles to bind and loose sins and stuff? Yeah, that was old school, but somehow managed to spread throughout the world and the human race and will continue to do so until the end of time. And as irrelevant as some of Christianity Today’s readership might think the pope and the Sistine Chapel to be–which is really kind of sad, because have you seen Michelangelo’s paintings depicting the story of salvation? Why would anyone not want to claim that heritage?–it is simply the truth that this oldest of earthly institutions isn’t going away. And in times and places where women have struggled, been oppressed, and fought for equality (hint: that’s all times and places), Jesus–and His Church–have been there. Standing for truth, love, beauty, and hope. Standing against destruction, hatred and fear. Women are esteemed pretty highly in our church (Mary, ahem) and I’m admittedly both grateful for and proud of that.
So please remember when you see us mothers sitting in the pew or eating at a restaurant or, if we’re really lucky and out of our element, standing in line at the Sistine Chapel, and we offer our babies something to eat? Proving a point, causing offense, or creating a disturbance is the farthest thing from our minds. In that moment, we are instead living out the mystery of our vocation in one of the most amazing and dignified ways possible, by giving of ourselves in order to love our child. It is innocent, natural, and common to women ’round the world. But when we tell breastfeeding mothers that they are dirty, inconvenient, or obscene, or when we hide them away in the back of the church/store/whatever because our sensibilities are just too delicate to deal with it, we are marginalizing women. And children. Period. And that sort of mentality really has no place in a church.
So rock on, Pope Francis, and thank you for giving voice to something that we all needed to hear. This breastfeeding mother, and countless others no doubt, thank you for speaking up.