Boobs and breastfeeding have been a “protuberant” topic these days.
First there was the recent TIME magazine cover story that sent ripples through the blogging community. “Are You Mom Enough?” went the headline. By first impressions, the picture shows a Photoshopped model (young, white and upper-class looking, I might add) casting a blank, vaguely defiant, slightly seductive stare at the camera while a boy who looks to be as old as five stands awkwardly next to her, his mouth stuffed with her left breast. (It turns out that the woman posing is actually the mother to the little boy in the picture, who is an over-sized three-year-old.)
Then there is my five-year-old son’s fixation of late.
“Guess what, Mommy?” he said one day last week after school, his face brimming with the same wonder and excitement that must have splashed across Benjamin Franklin’s face at the discovery of electricity. “Ms. Patrick’s boobies are bigger than Ms. Hawkins’!” (Ms. Patrick and Ms. Hawkins are assistant teachers in my son’s pre-K class.)
“Yes! And, Ms. Hawkins’ boobies are bigger than Ms. Casey’s!” (Ms. Casey is my son’s primary teacher.)
“And Ms. Casey’s boobies are bigger than yours!”
At that: “Now Cam, I hope you’re not talking about boobies like this at school in front of your friends and teachers.”
(By way of an aside, I haven’t told my son that I am now writing a whole article on the subject.)
Then there was my friend’s own quandary as a leader in her church. When I bumped into her two days ago, she was on her way to have a conversation with a woman who had been publicly breastfeeding her four-year-old in mixed company to the passive aggressive complaints and alleged departures of a few uncomfortable people in the church. Apparently nobody had confronted the woman and my friend had decided it was her duty to do so.
I listened without saying much, and couldn’t help but sympathize for a moment with the apostle Paul when he writes to the church in Corinth prescribing that women wear head coverings in worship (1 Corinthians 11). In Paul’s context, the church sat yards away from a pagan temple where women priestesses engaged in wild, sexual orgies; Paul is therefore drawing an intentional contrast here between how women in the church should comport themselves in worship, and how these ancient erotic dancers and prostitutes are carrying on.
But, where does this leave us with respect to the quandary my friend was facing? Our culture tells us that boobs are important mainly for how they can attract men. They’re about as valuable as a pretty quick surgical procedure, too- a couple thousand dollars tops for some juicy implants that can at least withstand the gravity of aging if they manage not to leak and cause all kinds of painful side effects.
It is rare that our culture actually blesses breasts’ other, arguably more essential, life-giving function, however. I still remember being asked, as a nervous, first-time mother unsure of herself and trying to breastfeed, to leave my son’s pediatrician’s reception area: “it might make some of the dads feel uncomfortable,” I was told. Even in the company of all women, I would sometimes be offered a “private” room in which to feed my son, and it was unclear whether the invitation was more for my comfort or for the comfort of the women present. When I went back to work as a pastor after my daughter was born, I remember the looks, usually of the grossed-out kind, when I had to leave gatherings every few hours to use a breast pump while leading a mission trip. These experiences probably contributed at the subliminal level to my decision to use a nursing cover and to wean my daughter at nine months.
Our culture and our churches have a whole lot of hang-ups when it comes to the use of boobs for the purpose of feeding a child. But, when a woman chooses to breastfeed, she engages in what was once Nature’s exclusively necessary right of passage for the survival of the human species. To this day, the World Health Organization recommends two years of breastfeeding as the ideal. The American Pediatric Association sets the bar at one year. Those who choose usually for the sake of their children to continue beyond these prescriptions often face mockery and derision, as was evidenced by a tide of unkind comments elicited by the Timecover story in response to women who subscribe to this attachment form of parenting. (If truth be told, I would be the first to admit my own personal discomfort, if not outright disgust, with the concept of breastfeeding my five-year-old.)
I brought these questions and admissions to the precocious mommies in the weekly Bible study I attend at Clairmont Presbyterian. Each of us had had different experiences with breastfeeding. Some had stopped after only a few weeks or months. Others had continued until the culturally prescribed one-year mark in this country and then stopped. Others had continued well beyond this time, so that one in our bunch was now still occasionally breastfeeding her four-year-old child.
Together we mused, leaving no stone unturned. What does it look like for the church to make a cross-cultural statement about women’s bodies with respect to this sacred and necessary, life-giving act? If the larger culture obsessively finds ways to expose women’s breasts for their sexual, rather than mothering potential, what is to be the church’s response in this context? Must men’s hang-ups and a prescription for women’s modesty come at the expense of a woman’s child needing to eat, or at the expense of a woman’s sense of self-respect and decency about her calling as a mother? Should a mother breastfeeding in church settings be asked for the sake of modesty or the weakness of male congregants struggling with sex addictions to find a private place to breastfeed, even when such reactions only perpetuate a woman’s sense of shame about her body doing what it’s supposed to do? Should she be asked to wear a nursing cover? What if the child is older than a year and nursing covers no longer work as effectively in hiding the goings-on?
While we did not land on any one, definitive answer to all of these questions, we sliced and diced away until one common sentiment emerged: that while we women would all make our own choices on this issue of breastfeeding in and out of church, we could do a better job of supporting one another’s decisions, whatever they looked like. Asking a nursing mother to hide herself away for the sake of modesty or for men struggling with sexual temptation is really only on a spectrum at the extreme end of which is asking women to wear burqas. Whether a mother chooses to wear a nursing cover or whip out her breast in mixed company for a child older than one year of age, we women could and should be doing a better job of supporting one another’s choices in these critical and difficult years of rearing young children. We could be telling one another that we were plenty good enough because our God was good enough, to paraphrase Rachel Held-Evans in her recent post.
As for the woman my friend was on her way to see? We mommies agreed: chances are she was not in the right church in the first place; maybe she should reconsider her Sunday morning commute.
So…what do you think about the contentious issue of breastfeeding in public and how the church is to respond?