Pope Francis and nursing mothers

madonnanursingjesusImagine 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 chasteWhat 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.

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6 thoughts on “Pope Francis and nursing mothers

  1. Thank you for writing this! You’ve expressed perfectly so much of what’s been on my mind the last couple of years as it relates to breast feeding. I think I’ve come to the conclusion that this is largely an American perspective – this sexualization of nursing – and largely a modern one. I think it’s fair to guess that back when the average family had 5, 6, 7 kids, and breastfeeding each one was the norm, children grew up entirely used to this natural part of family life. Societies were used to this natural part of life! But now we are truly perverse in our view of such things, and as such, seek to relegate them to hidden spaces while we denigrate the mothers who dare “flaunt” such behavior in public. I actually wrote about it a year and half ago, and can’t believe things aren’t really getting better! Even in the Church. More women and men need to be beating this drum!

  2. So funny because I used to think bf’ing in public (w/o a cover) was just…awkward. I had no problems with being covered but I definitely found myself judging a little if the mama was doing it openly. Go figure I have a baby who HATES the cover. He will focus his time and energy on pulling that thing out of his face…and when that’s complete…he’s happy. God has a funny sense of humor eh?

  3. I don’t think this is necessarily an issue that is even about whipping your breasts out in public, I think this goes deeper to the issue of our society not being open to life. Right now we have 4 children and when we go places together we take up space. Waiting in a crowded doctor’s waiting room for instances is sometimes uncomfortable because we are present and loud (because kids just are!) and people don’t always appreciate that. Our own pediatrician won’t schedule well checks for more than 2 kids at a time because we take up too much time with our one family! Why that matters, I don’t know, but the place that specializes in kids isn’t even family friendly! This brings me to the point that our culture isn’t family friendly and a lot of people simply don’t value children which is why people pray at abortion clinics or pack up their family of 8 and drive to DC for the March for Life. If people valued life, then I don’t think a mother nursing her baby in public would be a hot button issue at all.

  4. Thank you, Brianna! This post is amazing! I have never left a comment before, but I have been reading your blog for about a year now. I just felt the need to thank you for writing this. I have 6 boys age one and a half to 13. I have nursed them all and not one of them was “nice” enough to let me cover myself and them with a blanket while nursing. They all wanted to see the world (and not be overheated) while they had their meal. I have wished for a long time that people would realize and appreciate that nursing mothers are not “putting themselves on display”, but simply giving sustinance to their child. Thank you again. I really love how your words flow when you write: very eloquently.

  5. Thank you for this post. I am a long time reader and may have commented once or twice before. My 16-month old daughter is in the process of weaning, but nearly all of my top stressful breastfeeding moments have involved trying to avoid exposing any portion of my breasts to male family members (some of whom were visiting my home) and trying to figure out where and how to nurse in church. It always seems so odd to me that our culture acts as if I should be embarassed by something that is so natural and nuturing. I try to be modest in my clothing choices, but you put into words so nicely how I feel about breastfeeding- it is about my relationship with my daughter, my role as a mother, NOT about tempting the opposite sex. Additionally, I work outside of the home, so I want to SAVOR the times I am providing breastmilk to my daughter through nursing and not through pumping and nursing covers, dark rooms, sitting in the front seat of a car get in the way of that experience. Thank you again for your encouragement and for challenging some long held beliefs I had about the Catholic church.

  6. Really enjoyed this article and your one on the Sistine Chapel:) Just breaks my heart and makes me so mad when I hear of women receiving negative comments etc re breastfeeding. Though I’ve been breastfeeding for 20 years I’ve been very blessed to never be on the receiving end of negative comments and I always feed in public, in church each week, in the shopping centre etc.