The Virgin Nursing the Infant, by Lucas Cranach the Elder

Jesus and the Art of Breastfeeding…or Not

I am also a mother. I’ve had one baby and I’m getting ready to have another. I research, experience, and interpret parenting all the time in order to further my understanding of the practice but unlike my academic work, however, I feel like I don’t know anything about it.

Some days I know I’m doing it all wrong and other days, well, I know there is a medal coming for me anytime (which usually looks more like my kid sleeping through the night in his own bed). In all the wrongs and rights that I see in my own parenting, I’m constantly reminded that so much of mothering is controversial in the public sphere. There are a million and one ways to do it and each method has studies, critics, champions, success stories, and downfalls. Some of the controversy I understand and some of it is nonsense (see anti-vaxxers). Some of the controversy I’ve been able to brush off and some of it has been painful for me to navigate. Such is the controversial issue of breastfeeding.

Breastfeeding, in some way or another, touches all parents. From the beginning of a pregnancy, people are invited into the world of breastfeeding practices, language, expectations, and assumptions. Parents of children who are adopted deal with questions around attachment and bonding because breastfeeding may not be an option. Christians, Jews, and atheists all have militant groups of breastfeeding lactivists that swear by the practice as the only way to be a good and faithful parent. There are people who choose intentionally not to breastfeed for myriad reasons and there are babies who choose not to breastfeed for reasons some known and some unknown.

From birth my baby and I struggled to get on the same page about breastfeeding. He never developed a “proper” latch so I had constant thrush. I leaked all the time. And the lactation consultants I was able to get in touch with were either rude, didn’t take insurance, wouldn’t come to my house, or weren’t taking new clients. Indeed, breastfeeding was difficult for me, so you might think that I was relieved when my 5 month old pulled away and refused to latch anymore. I wasn’t relieved. I was ashamed, heartbroken, confused, and traumatized. I tried desperately to coax him back to nursing. I read articles and tried all the tricks, but he was insistent that he wanted no more milk from mom’s breast. I had failed. Here I was, 5 months into being a parent and I had ruined my child forever. You see, during the process of trying to get my child to return to breastfeeding, no one told me that it was natural for him to make the choice to self-wean. In fact the only natural thing, according to most of the voices around me (in person and on the internet), was to do whatever I could to get him to breastfeed again.

My most dominant struggle with breastfeeding was that I experienced something called Dysphoric Milk Ejection Reflex (D-MER). D-MER is basically the opposite feeling of euphoria that a lot of women feel when they breastfeed. When I nursed or pumped, I felt like a very heavy cloud was weighing down on me. I wasn’t able to talk to anyone, I often made my husband leave the room, and many times I would just sit there and cry. It was awful and scary and yet when I brought this up to “experts,” no one told me that I was totally normal if I chose to stop breastfeeding or that I should make whatever choice that was best for me. I desperately wanted to breastfeed my baby, but I needed it to be a very different experience than it was and that was devastating. I was so reeled by my perceived failure as a parent that I continued to pump for another 4 months after my baby quit nursing.

After my first year of mothering, my mind started to clear. My baby started sleeping through the night more regularly, we weren’t dependent on expensive formula as much, and my body was recovering from the mental and physical trauma that comes along with having a baby. It was then that I really started to understand how bad it had been and really how dangerous it was that no one was helping me in the way that I needed.

To be clear, I didn’t need more studies or hacks or tips or secrets about breastfeeding although I acknowledge that access to information is different for everyone. What I needed, and what I think most women need, was to be constantly assured that what I was doing was good. Breastfeeding. Good. Not Breastfeeding. Good. Supplementing with formula. Good. Exclusively formula feeding. Good. Trying out different options. Good. The information was secondary to my need for support.

The Bible is full of literal and metaphorical references to breastfeeding. Indeed, the practice of breastfeeding and keeping our children close to us, to rely on us for sustenance, is an ancient one. Something that stands out in ancient texts like the Bible is that breastfeeding in antiquity was practiced under very different conditions. For example, it was not left up to the mother to be the sole responsible party for making breastfeeding happen for her child. It would have been common for other women in the community to nurse a baby when the mother’s supply was low or when the mother was resting or if the baby was particularly hungry and wanted to nurse often.

When I was struggling with breastfeeding, the most dominant message I received from “experts” (all women) was something like: BREASTFEEDING IS TOTALLY NATURAL! AN ANCIENT PRACTICE! SOMETHING WOMEN HAVE BEEN DOING FOR MILLENIA! YOU’RE DEFYING NATURE IF YOU DON’T DO THIS! THIS IS THE BEST WAY BECAUSE IT IS THE NATURAL AND **GOD-GIVEN** WAY!

It seems like we’re only doing half the work of empowering mothers to empower their children if we don’t acknowledge that we do not live in a context that allows for this totally natural, God-given human act to be practiced in a totally natural, God-given way. And to be honest, I’m not that sad about it. No, my post-partum context did not consist of an entire community of women who had nothing better to do than to surround me and my new baby to ensure we were both healthy and thriving. My post-partum context did not allow for an extensive practice of rest and exercise. I couldn’t up my dopamine levels with meditation and mindfulness practices. That is not my millenial life and there are joys and challenges to that reality. Notably, I’m grateful that I don’t live in a context that confines me to the rules and expectations that were put upon women in ancient Biblical times (see other Biblical texts about marital rape, denial of self, forced prostitution, etc). Moreover, I am grateful to have a choice about how I share my body, which is also a Biblical and ancient practice (see Queen Vashti in the book of Esther, The Syrophoenician Woman, the Woman at the Well, etc). Shaming, judging, side-eyeing, patronizing, or scrutinizing a mother because she has made an adult, informed choice about how she shares her body is simply repeating the patriarchal patterns that are recorded in the Biblical text. Afterall, the Bible tells a story of human history - one we can choose to repeat or one from which we learn and grow.

And here’s my message to women who think they are liberating other women by hyper-promoting exclusive breastfeeding: If we are pro-choice about a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy because she has the right do what is best for her body, then we also have to be pro-choice about her decision to share her body or not with her baby. No one has a right to a woman’s body. Not even a baby. We can help to liberate each other by simply saying, “Parenting is hard, I support you.”

When I was struggling with pumping and D-MER, my best friend from college said, “Don’t let [breastfeeding] be the hill you die on.” She sent that in an email after I desperately reached out to her for support. When I read it, I cried. Finally, someone was making some sense. I knew then that there would be other victories and other challenges throughout my lifelong parenting journey. Breastfeeding wasn’t the end and yet I had been made to believe that breastfeeding was the only way my child was going to be his best. Anything else was a drastic and devastating compromise. I know that is not true more now than ever. As I anticipate the arrival of Baby#2 I am excited that my confidence in my choices as a mother are much stronger and that I don’t rely so much on what other people think I should be doing. I am more indignant now more than ever that my body should be my priority. That is the best way I can be the best parent to my children - Honor my body. Listen to my body. Place boundaries. Hold steady my right to body autonomy. Cuddle and hold my baby close because I want to not because it’s what’s “best” according to “experts.” I can also trust that God is with me when I am making difficult parenting choices and that if I listen to that still small voice, I will hear a powerful truth that assures me - this is my body.

Children's liberation theologian, intergenerational church creator, certified candidate for ordination in the PCUSA