Breastfeeding as Spiritual Practice

The mother can lay her child tenderly to her breast, but our tender Mother Jesus can lead us easily into his blessed breast through his sweet open side, and show us there a part of the godhead and of the joys of heaven, with the inner certainty of endless bliss (Ibid. 239).

When my husband and I signed up for our labor and delivery classes at Meriter Hospital, I looked forward to these sessions with both excitement and trepidation.  It was unfortunate that we missed the last class, which was on breastfeeding.  I never really thought it would be a big deal.  After all, my mother never had any problems, and I knew women had been doing this for ages.  The thought of taking a class on a "natural" biological event seemed a bit strange.

When my infant son was born with a full head of hair and a round little face, the nurses plopped him on my breast as I was lying prone recovering from surgery.  I didn't know anything about latching him on, nor did he.  He lay on top of me like a little papoose snuggling into me for warmth.  As we waited and waited for my milk to come in Elias, my little baby, started to lose weight.  In the meantime, I felt so helpless and was helpless to the helpless.  I was amazed that this tiny creature had to be taught how to eat, how to breastfeed.  I thought of our Lord as an infant getting his own clenched fists in the way of his mouth and of his source of life.  Who could imagine that the King of the Universe would have struggled like Elias did to learn his source of sustenance and succor?  While Elias had his own struggles, his mother wondered about her ability to mother, especially without the powerful gift of strong feminine milk.  The milk finally came in, but soon we were to learn that the mother/son pair just couldn'€™t find a great symbiotic rhythm.

After a couple of weeks of lots of trial and error, it was discovered that I did not produce enough milk to keep my son going.  It was no wonder we started to pray the hours more than even a monastic community.  You see, every time Elias needed to eat we would set ourselves up in the breastfeeding chair.  During those moments of desolation, that place became a place of prayer.  A simple, "Please, Lord, help him get enough" was enough to keep the prayers going to God.  Once I was put on medication to produce more breastmilk, my prayers changed in nature.  I began to gather my Daily Office book by my chair and read the offices when it became time to nurse.  We started with Morning Prayer, a midmorning individual devotion, noonday prayer, midafternoon individual devotion, Evening Prayer, and then, of course, Compline.  If it was a good night then we had no more daily offices until Morning Prayer again as the little one woke-up ready to eat.  It would be a bit of an exaggeration to claim that I was praying the offices in the strict understanding of that concept.  I wasn'€™t singing canticles or reciting the Apostles' Creed.  I was, however, gathering my day around the rhythm of life and sustenance of the monastic offices.  I was being fed by Scripture, and my son was being fed by the holy food of life.

My chronological time became "cairos" time, God's time, as we moved to the chair endlessly and sometimes, resentfully, throughout the day.  There were times when I thought I could cook dinner, and instead had to leave the recipe half open on the counter for my husband to finish.  Elias was living in God's time, and he was trying to suck me in. Back to the couch to sit and feed, to stare out the window, to reflect on life.  Time had taken on a whole new meaning.  Although there were times where I felt like I did nothing all day but breastfeed, I can tell you that there is nothing quite like seeing your child gaze up at you as he eats, as he is nourished, and then slowly reach a sense of peace when his eyes fight sleep.  Elias and I began a new spiritual practice together.  Now as he has reached six months our daily offices have decreased.  We now only gather three or four times a day on that chair, but we both have been fed by the spiritual food of Christ as we have shared in this holy gift of life-giving tenderness.

Comments

So true!

I've heard the image from medieval mystics that Christ is like a mother pelican who will feed her young from her own body to keep them strong and flourishing.
Nursing is a sacrifice and a joy, an endless giving and a blessing both. I remember the worries and struggles too.
And I can imagine how monastics who read the hours faithfully and also got little sleep had such powerful visions and dreams of God, a sleep deprived mother can understand!

nursing for me was both spiritual and a discipline. thanks for capturing this idea so cleverly.

Nice. Bottlefeeding Moms and Dads can also participate in this kind of Holy Time.

I love that this was posted the very day my daughter was born and we started learning the ropes of this spiritual practice. Thank you for a wonderful and deeply relevant article.

I am currently breastfeeding my son (who is about to be a year old already!) and could relate to much of what you wrote. I wish I'd had my wits about me enough when he was first born to pray during the time spent in our "nursing chair." I continue to grow in my understanding of breastfeeding as a spiritual practice so I was really excited when I got my copy of the Christian Century this week and the cover story and picture is of the Nursing Virgin. The sculpture pictured on the cover seems a little like Jesus is tugging on Mary's nipple with his teeth, but I really love the icon featured on p. 23. In that one Jesus is looking towards the viewer and, according to the writer, inviting us to be nourished at the breast of the Virgin also. The accompanying article is interesting, too.

I am currently breastfeeding my son (who is about to be a year old already!) and could relate to much of what you wrote. I wish I'd had my wits about me enough when he was first born to pray during the time spent in our "nursing chair." I continue to grow in my understanding of breastfeeding as a spiritual practice so I was really excited when I got my copy of the Christian Century this week and the cover story and picture is of the Nursing Virgin. The sculpture pictured on the cover seems a little like Jesus is tugging on Mary's nipple with his teeth, but I really love the icon featured on p. 23. In that one Jesus is looking towards the viewer and, according to the writer, inviting us to be nourished at the breast of the Virgin also. The accompanying article is interesting, too.

So true. I've been breastfeeding our son, Gideon, for four months! The chair, looking through the window, leaving a recipe... It's all so familiar.
Before I gave birth, a friend sent me a copy of "Great with Child" -- a sweet reflection by Debra Reinstra on becoming a mother. The chapter on breasfeeding explores the mystical sort of underpinnings of breastfeeding. It's really a good read.
Debra quotes Julian of Norwich: "The mother can give her child suck of her milk, but our precious Mother Jesus can feed us with himself, and does, most courteously and most tenderly, with the blessed sacrament..."
But not all of Debra's reflections are that serene. There's some good humour about the possibility of glorifying God with leaking breasts...
Thanks for sharing your thoughts with the rest of us, Melissa.

Thank you for sharing this. I had a very rough time feeding our daughter and gave up at 6 weeks. I am expecting our second little one and plan of being more proactive and prayerful with this one. Your story was very encouraging.

I've just concluded my career as a nursing priest--our first nursed until he was about two, and our second was weaned right after he turned three--and I found that while I did a lot of praying during those nursing times, I couldnt' do it "by the book".

That said,the feeling of knowing in my body when they were hungry, because I was full of milk, and having my milk let down when they were in need of me, was honestly the closest I've ever felt to the Divine. Nursing was the hardest thing I've ever done (lots of problems in the early days, big babies with constant increases in demand, etc.) but probably the most rewarding.

(I also cried a lot, smelled like spoiled milk and watched a lot of court tv, so it wasn't all spiritual bliss ;).

What a lovely article. I also found nursing to be a spiritual practice, particularly with my third son, when it was the only time I wasn't up meeting the needs of my older two. I ended up making a little page of prayers that I kept next to my rocking chair to use as my liturgy of the hours, because it was too difficult to turn through a "real" prayerbook and too intellectually demanding, sometimes, as well! A gift to me from my youngest son has been that even after he weaned, I have continued using some versions of the liturgy of the hours, once nursing taught me to hold prayer as the weft of the fabric of my day. there was something profound in the way praying during nursing made it a gift the baby gave me, rather than the sometimes soul-crushing commitment I made to be physically available to him day, night and dinner time.

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