Monday, June 24, 2013

Madonna and Child and Me: Breastfeeding in Church

It was a lovely sanctuary, golden and glittering, and Sophia charmed the people sitting around us by bouncing up and down in the pew to get a view of the altar. She gabbled during the Creed and crowed during the Alleluia. At the Passing of the Peace, all the little old ladies smiled and told us she was sweet. We kept the hymnal out of reach, but the family in front of us wasn't as quick, and their little one removed #631 and tried to eat it before they could pry the book from her hands. When Mass ended, a middle-aged man came up from where he'd been sitting far behind us.

"Are you new here?" he asked. Ah! How familiar. At Memorial, this is the point where we would be asked if we had just moved to town, and did we have a church, and would we like to grab lunch somewhere, and just say the word if we need anything, anything at all.

"We're from out of town," my mother-in-law said. "We're visiting."

"I have to tell you I was shocked by what I saw today," the man said. "Just shocked. You know, there are women's rooms for that kind of thing." He breathed heavily, huffing and puffing with rage. After a moment of silent confusion, we all realized that he was talking about how, during the homily, when Sophia started to cry, I took out a giant wrap and fed her beneath it. 

I stammered something about a right to breastfeed, and he repeated himself: "It was shocking. I have never been this shocked. I was prevented from worshiping by what was going on. There are women's rooms for that kind of thing," and marched away. As we left, I saw him angrily talking to the deacon and turning to stare at me. Tattling.

The self-righteous part of me (and it's the big part) wishes that I'd said, "I'm sorry; what 'kind of thing' are you referring to? BREASTFEEDING? Is there something about my BREASTS that you'd like to talk about? Because we can talk about BREASTS if you'd like to hear about the benefits of BREASTFEEDING, which is feeding a child with the milk that comes from BREASTS. BREAST BREAST BREAST."

Or, "Section Three of Pennsylvania's Freedom to Breastfeed Act states that 'a mother shall be permitted to breastfeed her child in any location, public or private, where the mother and child are otherwise authorized to be present, irrespective of whether or not the mother’s breast is covered during or incidental to the breastfeeding.' Unfortunately, your right to make me ashamed of feeding my baby is not recognized by the state of Pennsylvania."

Or mostly, "I'm sorry; I thought I was in a CATHOLIC church. Which way to Saint Anne's?" Because I have sat through homily after homily after homily against birth control, and no Catholic gets to tell me off for lactating, anywhere, any time. 

And no good Catholic would. There's a specific form of iconography that portrays the Virgin Mary with her breast exposed as she holds the infant Jesus. The point of this is to proclaim the human nature of the Christ. When Christian artists created images to tell us about the incarnation, to show God as part of his own good creation, they did it by showing him suckling at his mother's breast. Fully divine and fully breastfeeding.

We were traveling through Pennsylvania back to Northern Virginia when we stopped at the church. The priest, a family friend, hugged us and took us to the rectory and fed us and rolled his eyes when I warned him that the deacon might pass along a complaint. I'm pretty sure that, did that man live down here, he would know not to voice his opinion on breastfeeding. NoVa is a progressive region. What are we progressing towards? Anything, as long as it's shiny and new and you can name a cocktail after it. Helicopter parents are very in. Attachment parenting, enrichment classes for toddlers, splash parks on every corner, upscale children's boutiques to ensure your child is clad in the hottest designer duds. Moms gather at the coffee shop up the road to sit on the patio, bounce their babies on their knees, and sip wine. Arlington has a privately-run mom support group that I'm no longer eligible for, since we moved to one of the undesirable zip codes. I looked out the lobby of my office building one day to see a woman pushing a Ferrari pram (list price: $900; age limit, 3 months) along the faux-historic brick sidewalk. Of course, to become a parent you've got to acquire a baby, but don't worry: turn on any radio station and you'll hear the Shady Grove Fertility Clinic advertise "over 30,000 babies born," which for some reason makes me crave McDonald's.

What I'm saying is, this place is parenting central. So now that I have an infant and notice that kind of thing, I see breastfeeding moms everywhere. Breastfeeding moms in designer multi-layered nursing tops, breastfeeding moms with designer nursing covers, breastfeeding moms who unbutton their blouses or hike up their t-shirts and go bare. It looks so simple. But it means a lot when people see me feeding my child and come over to praise me. Because it isn't simple, and I know I'm one of the lucky ones.

I know more than one person whose postpartum complications required medication, so she had to quit breastfeeding and switch to formula. I know women whose bodies simply wouldn't provide enough milk for their children. When we first started out breastfeeding, I had a series of problems that culminated in outpatient surgery, an incision into my body that I had to keep open for weeks. I would sit on the bathroom floor and cry with pain and feelings of vulnerability, looking at my disfigured breast in the mirror, summoning the courage to touch the injury and re-pack the dressing. There is a permanent scar, a reminder each morning when I dress that being a mother has hurt me.

And this is the easy part. This is the part where all my child needs is food, a clean backside, a safe place to sleep, and lots of smiles and hugs. But the world is flawed, and my body doesn't work like the medical textbooks say it should, and I will never be exactly the mother that my child deserves. I worry that even now, during the easy part, my everything isn't enough. I go to church and I'm told that God will add grace and it will be enough. I go and I sit and understand why it's called sanctuary.

So shame on the man who was outraged by the knowledge that I'm a nursing mother, who said that when I fed my child it came between him and God. Shame on anyone who offers less grace and praise to a mother in his own church than the State offers her. Shame on condemnation where hospitality is due. And praise to the god who chose a small and vulnerable and dead-set determined young woman to be born to, a woman whose breasts are proudly displayed by the Church, a woman who suffered more than I can understand, a woman whose image is displayed to tell us that it was never going to be easy, and that with God's grace, there will be enough.

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