Welcome to the July 2010 Carnival of Nursing in Public
This post was written for inclusion in the Carnival of Nursing in Public hosted by Dionna and Paige at NursingFreedom.org. All week, July 5-9, we will be featuring articles and posts about nursing in public ("NIP"). See the bottom of this post for more information.
I'm going to attempt to write a post about breastfeeding as it relates to the Christian religion, or at least my experience of same. This is not going to be a religious treatise by any means, just an exploration of some of the issues at hand.
Sam and I grew up in the Christian church, and when we moved to Seattle, we joined a fairly young and hip church, where we settled for several years. When we first started attending, there were no children apart from the pastor's and one other family's, but as the church grew, so did the children's ministry. I've moaned before about how I seemed to be the only one within that growing body who breastfed, or at least who did so openly.1 I read articles on our children's pastor's blog about how she only breastfed in stores' private nursing rooms, arranging her errands so she could stop at each in turn, and then how she had switched to formula (I wasn't surprised, given how restrictive her breastfeeding must have been for her, and I say that genuinely). I sat in the cry room with other mothers discussing bottle feeding and felt out of place with my larger baby still on my breast. We felt discouraged from attending the service with a loud infant (even if babbling, not crying), but then found the nursery's policy barring parents from entering through the half-door less than conducive to calming our separation-anxious baby, nursing him occasionally during the service, or taking him to the potty for EC purposes. The nursery guidelines allowed babies to cry for 10 minutes before a parent was buzzed on a beeper to come down from the service — as a fierce advocate of not practicing cry-it-out parenting, such an extended period of distress and loneliness was unacceptable to me (and I did get to witness one such inconsolably wailing baby, and the long time it took to decide to page the parents and then actually follow through).
I don't think our church was less family-friendly than your average church, though. I've attended dozens in my life so far, since we moved around so much growing up, and I can't remember a service where babies routinely spent time in the sanctuary, making their baby noises and slurping at the breast. I do remember the scattered times I saw that as unusual and intriguing, such as when a mama with a ring sling sat in front of me in our church in Indiana, and I could hear her baby sucking and swallowing; I'd had no idea nursing could be so delightfully noisy!
Mamapoekie at Authentic Parenting wrote a little post about how the culture in Cameroon was much less prudish than in European cultures, and she threw in a line about religion:
"In general, Africans are very much in tune with their sexuality. To us prude Europeans, they might even seem a little obsessed (but that is just us trying to impose our religiously inspired worldview on them)."
I think this was misunderstood by some of the readers, as evidenced in the comments, but I agree with her actual point (that our religiously biased culture — because whether you in particular are religious or not, Western sexual morals stem from Judeo-Christianity — colors our perceptions of how the rest of the world treats sexuality) — as well as with the point the commenters were arguing against: that religion does in fact affect our comfort levels with breastfeeding. I don't think religion alone is the reason breastfeeding is mischaracterized and vilified by so many in my (American) culture — but I think religion has played a hand in creating this culture where breasts are sexualized and therefore expected to be tucked demurely away.
I want to attempt a little explanation for the prudery in Western culture being based on centuries of religious belief. I run several risks in doing this:
- I might get it completely wrong, from a theological or historical standpoint. I did not attend seminary or grad school, after all; nor do I have any degree in religious studies. This is true especially since I will have to simplify and
perhapsassuredly oversimplify to keep this to one blog post.
- I might offend and alienate religious people, who think I'm attacking them. I'm not. I'm one of you. I'm just trying to explain. I'm not going into specifics about what particular denominations believe, so that no one group will feel targeted. If you're curious, I was raised in the evangelical Protestant tradition and am sort of still in the same fold.
- I might bore and alienate non-religious people, who can't figure out why anyone would want to talk about religion at all. Though, in that case, perhaps you shouldn't be reading an article clearly marked as having to do with religion? On your head be it if you continue…
The Jewish, and therefore biblical (in the sense of the Old and New Testaments accepted as the Bible by the Christian faith), view of a human is a holistic view. We are not bodies with minds within. We are not, to be more precise, minds with bodies without. We are people, body, mind, soul, all bound up together. You can't remove one without making us less than human. In fact, you can't remove one at all. This is why the Bible speaks so longingly about the resurrection of the body. It's not enough that we "fly away to heaven" after we die — if our bodies do not live with us, we have no hope. Disembodied souls are not good enough, biblically speaking. I won't go into this topic more here, but read Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, by N.T. Wright (bishop of Durham), for a very thoughtful and helpful explanation of this concept and how common church teaching (and, therefore, cultural understanding) has gotten this so wrong for centuries since Jesus' time.
The problem is that the church early on embraced Gentile, i.e., Pagan, brethren (sistren, too — actually, especially sistren!) into the fold — obviously, this was not a problem in itself, but those new Greek members necessarily brought with them Greek ways of thinking, which then infiltrated the church. In church lingo, we call these influences "heresies." They were insidious, and they stayed with us.
The one that I'm thinking of most right now is the Gnostic heresy, from the Greek "gnosis," meaning "knowledge." Most Greeks had a dualistic view of humans, which will be entirely familiar to us — that humans are part body and part spirit/mind/soul/personality. (See — insidious, yes? Did you even know you thought like a Greek?) In the Gnostic way of thinking, philosophers felt that the bodily (material) portion was the lesser part, and the mind portion was the higher. They sought either to disregard the physical, corrupted aspects of themselves, or purposely demean it. That is, either they felt they could do whatever they wanted with their bodies (eating gluttonously, having sex, etc.), or they felt they had to punish their bodies for even existing (flagellation, fasting, etc.). In either case, they wanted to concentrate more on the mental and spiritual aspects of themselves.
This way of thinking entered the church early on, and even though leaders like Paul and John fought hard against it, it took root — and you can probably guess that the second way of (mis)treating the body became the more popular. That's how you get the exaltation of celibacy, the insistence on sexual purity, the piety of fasting and self-denial, that you can see throughout church history and into the present. Don't get me wrong — those religious elements predated Gnostic thinking (Paul speaks admiringly of celibacy, and fasting was an ordained Jewish practice), but I can see how it was amplified and codified as the church grew — and grew more Greek in its way of thinking.
How does this relate to breastfeeding? Glad you asked.
I think breastfeeding still couldn't have been entirely disparaged back in a time where every baby was breastfed. It just wasn't possible. I assume that it was so ubiquitous for centuries that public breastfeeding couldn't have been too big a deal, in terms of being "un-Christian." That said, I do think there were women who would put themselves beyond the need to breastfeed by remaining celibate, or if they were richer mothers, by hiring wet nurses, so they could avoid such animal needs. And I think the atmosphere in general was so degrading of women, which needs to enter any consideration of how breastfeeding was perceived — women in general were considered substandard, and their breastfeeding would have been one example of the way in which they were set apart as more of the animal nature (menstruation and pregnancy and childbirth being other facets). If each human was dualistic, body and mind, then the human race was as well: man as mind, and woman as flesh. This didn't change until about the Industrial Revolution, when there was a switch to viewing men as animals (they can't help their sexual natures, etc.) and women as pure and angelic beings above such things. Unless they weren't. And then they were unnatural. And this is a tangent I'm not going into, but you can see there are centuries of sexism to unpack here.2
So now we come to today, with a quick stop off in the Victorian era to say that the prudery of that time has persisted to this day. As the ability to feed infants by other means grew more common (with the rise of better infant milk substitutes, which became a bona fide industry in the 1920s, and new-and-improved feeding containers, and as more women entered the ranks that could afford wet nurses), breastfeeding became more and more what physically centered sorts did. In other words — women who were lesser than, who fell on the hierarchy down at flesh rather than up in the exalted plane of mind.3
As Western society has sought to break free of the prudery (starting, for simplicity's sake, let's say in the 1960s onward, but of course at various prior times as well), it's gone in one direction primarily — toward a declaration of sexual independence. Toward an acceptance of sexuality as a whole, and an acceptance of women. And in certain cultures, toward a liberation of breasts as sexual and as accepted in that sexuality.
All of this is good, I think. Sure, there have been excesses (according to some perspectives) and negative unforeseen consequences, but I think it's great that people are attacking and picking apart the religious (mis)teaching that sex is bad, that bodies are evil, that minds are better than flesh. Because this is not in fact what Christianity says, and it is completely ludicrous in the face of a faith that believes humans (male and female) are made in God's image. Not our minds in God's image, but ourselves, and Hebrew thought sees no artificial division between our true selves and our selves that include our bodies, with all our natural bodily functions. As people like to point out, Jesus ate; he drank wine; he pooped; and — more importantly, to this discussion — he breastfed. The pro-breastfeeding bumper sticker that reads "If it was good enough for Jesus…"? Yeah, that's true.
I think the problem is twofold:
- The church has been scared of the sexual liberation and has fought it by trying to keep bodies, and breasts (in cultures that have a narrow-minded view of breasts' function, such as the United States),4 even more tightly under wraps. Instead of allowing an excising of Grecian heresies, the church (as a monolith, not on individual levels) has clung to its position that bodies are worse than minds, and therefore the breast (again, in certain cultures) must not be seen.
- Secular society has so thoroughly rejected the standard of sex-is-bad that breasts in some Western cultures have become worshiped and hyper-sexualized, to the point they cannot be seen as having any other function in such cultures.
I believe there is a middle ground between the two poles, but I feel like we're pinging between them. In every comment flame war on a breastfeeding-in-public news story, I'll read these two camps shouting back and forth, sometimes within the same comment. "Breasts are private! They're for your husband to see, you hussy!" smacks of both positions tied up in one — a sense of breasts have a place, and their place is in the bedroom, where all such sexual deviance belongs.
I think for centuries, even though the church perpetuated the false dualism of body=bad, mind=good, breasts were excluded from this equation, which is why you have centuries of church-sponsored adoration of Mary nursing Jesus. But when breastfeeding could be set aside, the function of breasts was lost, and thinking was perverted to include breasts in the sex=bad camp rather than in a benign or neutral category. This is why you get people in churches warning women to be "discreet" lest a man spy a breast with a baby attached and be led to sin; in prior centuries, men knew well enough that a breast suckling a baby was not an object of lust. With the miscategorization of breasts as solely sexual comes the religiously inspired prudish backlash of needing to cover them up.
Please keep in mind I'm not attacking the church from the outside, or suggesting that the teachings of the church (if such an entity did indeed speak as one) or of individual churches promote such a skewed view of breastfeeding as a matter of doctrine. I think it's been a long road to get to this place of cultural mishmash and misunderstanding, and I think — I hope — we can unravel it and return breasts to their rightful place: on a woman's chest, just doing their thing, whether that thing is being attractive or feeding a baby.
I hope I'm also making it clear that it doesn't matter whether you personally go to church, or whether your church is like this; my point is that Western culture has been irrevocably shaped by church culture. Our moral standards are affected by what the Bible teaches (or how the Bible has been interpreted to teach) is right or wrong — and this is true whether we're holding fast to those standards or rebelling against them.
Now, for my own experience in my own churches, I haven't encountered overt negativity. When I speak of "flame wars," I do mean strangers online, not to my face or within my congregation. I've felt uncomfortable nursing in church — but, then again, I've felt uncomfortable having a child in church at all. I actually think this is an extension of the false duality of the body and the mind. Spirituality, whether it's in the church or in meditation or whatever it might be, is generally considered to be private, personal, and undistracted. The first thing a baby or child does in a service? Distract you. I have a different theology that speaks to whether prolonged concentration is truly necessary for worship, but that post will have to wait for another day. Suffice it to say, I'm against the separation of families (adults go here; children go there) that goes on in most churches, and this circles back to why breastfeeding has a hard time gaining acceptance within a religious service: because children aren't supposed to be there in the first place.
I'll just finish with a little anecdote from a conversation I had with a good friend who has become a Catholic nun. I was complaining to her about how we felt ostracized by our church, and she was dumbfounded.
She said to me, in her own wording:
How can the church turn children away when Jesus himself bid the little children come to him? How can the church discourage breastfeeding when Mary herself fed Jesus?
She encouraged me to continue parenting within the church, breastfeeding my son, and being vocal within my religious faith.
Because there can be change, and there is hope.
I want to include two addenda, articles that were written for the carnival today offering two different and specific perspectives on the issue, which I hope you will read and enjoy:
- "Tzniudnik Nursing: Judaism and NIP" at The Covered Wagon: A Jewish perspective, which notes the specific Jewish laws encouraging (requiring) breastfeeding and exempting nursing in public from any modesty backlash, which reinforces my belief in Judaism's holistic view of the human.
- "A Catholic Perspective on Breastfeeding in Public" from Fertility Flower Community — which shows most Catholics support nursing in public, and I agree. My point above, and I hope this is clear, is that our culture as a whole has been affected, even as individual church traditions might have recognized the natural beauty of breastfeeding. From the article: "While it might seem that the church is a likely target [for the lack of acceptance of breastfeeding in public], when you really examine what the church says you’ll see that it’s actually extremely supportive of breastfeeding and mothers who breastfeed." Again, agreed! I just think the effects on culture (being as complex and ingrained and long-lasting as they are) have happened despite the church's efforts to teach the good of breastfeeding.
What have been your experiences with breastfeeding and religion? Have you ever nursed in a place of worship or felt discouraged from doing so? Any stronger theological or historical minds ("minds" — see, Greek dualism again!) want to dissect and reimagine my argument here?
Welcome to the Carnival of Nursing in Public!
Please join us all week, July 5-9, as we celebrate and support breastfeeding mothers. And visit NursingFreedom.org anytime to connect with other breastfeeding supporters, learn more about your legal right to nurse in public, and read (and contribute!) articles about breastfeeding and N.I.P.
Do you support breastfeeding in public? Grab this badge for your blog or website to show your support and encourage others to educate themselves about the benefits of breastfeeding and the rights of breastfeeding mothers and children.
This post is just one of many being featured as part of the Carnival of Nursing in Public. Please visit our other writers each day of the Carnival. Click on the links below to see each day’s posts - new articles will be posted on the following days:
July 5 - Making Breastfeeding the Norm: Creating a Culture of Breastfeeding in a Hyper-Sexualized World
July 6 – Supporting Breastfeeding Mothers: the New, the Experienced, and the Mothers of More Than One Nursing Child
July 7 – Creating a Supportive Network: Your Stories and Celebrations of N.I.P.
July 8 – Breastfeeding: International and Religious Perspectives
July 9 – Your Legal Right to Nurse in Public, and How to Respond to Anyone Who Questions It
1 I have a specific post of mine in mind that I won't link to here, because on rereading it, I can see it's insensitive to women who bottle feed. At the time I was just feeling upset and unpacking my own insecurities, but I realize now I don't know what the situation was with the mothers I saw bottle feeding — what their stories were and how they came to choose that for their babies. See, even bloggers can mature, right?↩
2 To be perfectly clear here, too, the church did not invent sexism and in fact the early church worked quite strenuously against it — but the tides were powerful. A great majority of the early church congregation was female, including some of the leaders, and Jesus is a prime example of inviting women into the fold — not as helpmeets but as full partners. But the hierarchy of the (Jewish and Greco-Roman) culture was deeply ingrained and persisted.↩
3 Note that even though most women breastfed until very recent history, that does not mean that breastfeeding was more exalted than the act of hiring a wet nurse or, later, buying substitute milk if you could afford it. After all, any woman could breastfeed, but only the elite could afford something "better." Note that even Mother Mary lived in poverty and really had no choice.↩
4 I can only speak to my experience in the United States, with its high level of prudery regarding breasts. See in contrast PhD in Parenting's take on Germany's breastfeeding culture, where there is a perhaps more nuanced view of breasts as fulfilling different functions based on context. I could talk a little more about U.S.-specific prudery and Puritanical influences, but I'll stop here for now with a general note that Europe is considered far more "post-Christian" than the USA, and I am using that term neutrally; I'm just pointing out that, despite individual beliefs in the U.S., the nation's culture is still very churchy, for lack of a better word.↩