Monday, August 01, 2011

National Breastfeeding Awareness Month (and the time I nursed my baby in the Sistine Chapel)

Grace, a sweet online friend of mine (and a wonderfully active participant here at Just Showing Up!), recently asked about breastfeeding in public.  She wrote:

I would love to hear more of your thoughts about BFing in public. I do BF in public and have since my first (and have done so more "freely" as I've become more experienced) but I still feel uncomfortable if I am in a more "crowded" place and BF without a cover. What about BFing in church?

Oh, breastfeeding.  One of nature's most natural, yet somehow simultaneously most controversial, activities.

I'm not going to preface this with any sort of disclaimer--hopefully we're all mature enough to realize that not everyone chooses to breastfeed (for any variety of reasons), and I truly am not the least bit concerned with how you feed your baby.  I've got my own kids to worry about, and plenty of them at that!  :)

I have breastfed all three of my biological children until the day they weaned themselves.  Nine months old for the first baby, seventeen months old for my second, and my third is still going strong at twenty-one months of age.  As you can imagine, breastfeeding has occupied a large space in my life these past seven-plus years.

And while I have always loved nursing, I do remember being a little nervous anytime I nursed my oldest in public. 

What would people think?  Would they be uncomfortable?  Are they going to, horror of horrors, stare at me?

But by the time my second baby came along, I found that I cared a whole lot less.  This may have had something to do with the fact that I simultaneously had three toddlers running around.  Who had time to care about what people thought of how/where I fed my baby?  Survival mode, people!

And now with my third, I'm over it.  Totally and 100% done with feeling self-conscious about the fact that God gave me the ability (and privilege!) to nourish and comfort my daughter in this way.  If she needs to nurse, I nurse her.

I do have a nursing cover that I sometimes use.  But you can be discreet (sometimes moreso) without a cover, just using your shirt if it's long enough.  (It's a good way to keep from getting over-heated, too--gotta love when your baby emerges from the nursing cover red-faced and soaking in sweat!) 

Truly, I believe our society's discomfort with breastfeeding stems from the over-sexualization of our culture and from the (all-too-related) separation of  procreation from sex.  Something is dreadfully wrong, for example, when we don't bat an eye at the trashy magazines at the grocery store checkout, or think twice about womens' immodest clothing choices, yet are repulsed by a mother quietly feeding her baby. 

Now I assure you that modesty is something important to me, because I believe it is important to God.  I try not to wear low-cut tops or super-short shorts or skirts.  I even wear a one-piece swimsuit.  (How old-fashioned, I know.)  I want to present myself respectably and reflect well on my husband. 

But is this inconsistent with public breastfeeding?  Is breastfeeding inherently immodest? 

In a word, no.

Because there is nothing inherently sexual about feeding a baby, nothing inherently inciting about a child receiving milk and comfort from his or her mother.  If I am covered, with nothing meant-to-be-private showing, why should it matter whether my baby is eating or not? 

And natural law would ask, isn't that what breasts are for, anyway?

But wait a minute, you say.  Stop right there.  Our society has told us otherwise!  They've said that sex need not include the bearing of children.  That our bodies are (if not primarily or even exclusively, then at the very least equally) intended for recreational use, for aesthetics and pleasure and all of that.  So children?  Who needs 'em?!  They get in the way.  And breastfeeding?  What an inconvenience.  We want our bodies back!  (Because apparently those little bundles of joy and their need to, um, eat, are the enemy.)

What God designed as a beautiful, natural function that:

promotes bonding,
greatly reduces the risk of breast cancer (if you breastfeed for a minimum of two years during your lifetime),
often acts as a natural child-spacer,
reduces the risk of various reproductive system cancers (thought to be due to fewer menstrual cycles over the course of her life),
and nourishes a baby ever so completely,

has been scandalized and sexualized and demoralized by a broken world.  

And no, breastfeeding is not always easy.  With all three of my daughters, I had horrible pain when I began.  Like really, really awful.  Thankfully, in my case, it subsided over the course of a few weeks each time.  I've also had mastitis once--not fun either.  Be glad if it hasn't happened to you!

And yes, some people are really uncomfortable with women breastfeeding their babies in public and feel the need to say something.  Ironically, sometimes these are the same people who are down with the grocery store mags and scantily dressed women.  To them I say, whatevs.  Get over it.  (Not really, but that's what I'm thinking.)

As for nursing in church, I have belonged to churches where I didn't feel comfortable doing so, and churches where lots of people nurse from their seats (thus, so did I).  I don't personally think there's anything inherently wrong with it, though if it would be a huge issue in a particular church, my conflict-avoidant, people-pleasing self would kick in and go sit in the back or the lobby.
Now for my craziest-place-I've-ever-breastfed story.
You ready?
Kevin, Mary and I were in Rome in April.  We spent a good portion of one of our days there at the Vatican--it was two days after Easter, and one week before Blessed John Paull II's beatification.  SO, kind of a busy time to be in Rome.
Needless to say, the Vatican was more than a bit crowded.  Winding through the museum, we were packed in wall-to-wall with weary pilgrims from all over the world, come to see Michelangelo's most greatest creation. 
And right before we reached the Sistine Chapel, Mary lost it.
Understand that we were hot, sweaty, tired, and not unlike sardines in a can.  Thus she was upset.  Frustrated.  Crying.  Lots of people were staring and teenagers were telling each other they were NEVER going to take their kid on vacation.  Oh, to be young.
Anyway, as the guards let us into the breathtaking chapel, shushing everyone as they entered, I darted towards a dark corner where I could sit and pacify Mary the only foolproof way I know: nursing.  Uncomfortable, because it was such a sacred place, but I had my handy dandy cover and if I faced away no one would know what I was doing.  (Everyone was staring at the ceiling anyway!)
And the guards saw me.  They began shaking their heads "no" while gesturing., I thought.  I'm going to have to leave with Mary because she's fussing, and I will have missed getting to enjoy the Sistine Chapel, and I'm going to get thrown out of the Vatican.  
But that's when I saw them unrope the off-limits area.  By the altar.  And point to a bench.  And tell me, my baby, and my husband to sit there.  So that I didn't have to nurse my little one on the floor.
And so we sat.  I nursed Mary (now quite happy) while we slowly drank in Michelangelo's masterpiece.  Right there where the papal enclaves are held and Church councils too.  While everyone else had to stand and eventually be herded through, we got to sit--and my daughter got to nurse--in a place normally withheld from the public.  It was actually a really beautiful moment.  One of the highlights of our trip for sure.
So there you have it: the ultimate "breastfeeding-in-public" story.  Mary will always be able to say that she nursed in the Sistine Chapel.  I will always be able to say that I sat by the altar while enjoying a beautiful piece of Church history.  Maybe I offended some of the other tourists, but hey, it was Vatican-sanctioned...and they wield a decent amount of authority, I'm told!  :)
Happy National Breastfeeding Awareness Month, friends.  Here's to the miracle of motherhood and the joys, and challenges, of breastfeeding!
Thanks for asking!
***All paintings are of the Blessed Virgin Mary nursing Jesus, by artists like Rembrandt and DaVinci.  Some currently hang in the Vatican.  I love them all, but there is something especially sweet to me about the third one, where the angel is looking intently at Jesus.  And I do love the way Mary is looking at her Son in the final one.


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