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Caitlin Kennell Kim, seminary grad, baby wrangler, ordinary radical, writes about the life of a convert in the Catholic Church and explores how faith and everyday life intersect.

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September 17th, 2013

Our Lady of La Leche: On the Radical and Holy Act of Breastfeeding

 
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A painting of Mary breast feeding the infant Jesus is seen at the Milk Grotto chapel in Bethlehem. (CNS photo/Debbie Hill)

A painting of Mary breast feeding the infant Jesus is seen at the Milk Grotto chapel in Bethlehem. (CNS photo/Debbie Hill)

I was waiting to see my doctor for my final post-natal appointment. And, because my doctor is kind of an awesome big deal obstetrical rock-star, I was waiting a long time. A woman and her mother sat down across from me. The mother began to chat with her daughter about a news story she had read about a woman in China who had been issued a warning for breastfeeding while riding a scooter. (I know it’s not polite to eavesdrop. Shame on me. I couldn’t help myself. I had read all of the magazines and I couldn’t watch another minute of early afternoon network television without causing myself serious psychiatric harm.) The daughter laughed. The mother remarked that the worst part of the whole story was that the baby was 18 months old. This, she assured her daughter, was disgusting. Breastfeeding a one and a half year old was the objectionable part of that story … not, you know, racing along on a scooter steering with one hand while holding an infant who was not properly secured.

As a person who has spent the better part of the last six years lactating, I have some thoughts on this matter … the matter of lingering societal heebie-jeebies unjustly attached to breastfeeding. I have been given the stink eye for nursing a little one in a parked car, in restaurants, on park benches, even in church … all while wearing a nursing cover that stretches from my collarbone to my waist. It seems the mere suggestion of a bare breast scandalizes folks. I find this deeply problematic.

At the risk of causing my readers to blush, I hereby proclaim that breasts are AWESOME. They have the ability to make food with profound nutritional and medicinal properties. They give comfort. They are beautiful. But, for some reason, we seem to shy away from thinking of breasts as powerful mediators of nourishment and solace and loveliness. Breasts, according to every magazine in the grocery store checkout lane and every third television commercial during an NFL game and every wire contraption disguised in lace at every Victoria’s Secret store, are meant to be bound, taped, surgically enhanced, and packaged. Breasts are not powerful, beautiful parts of a woman’s body that give life and love. They are objects used to sell things, used to determine a woman’s worth, used to … well, just plain used.

In many ways, breastfeeding is a radical and holy affront to this objectification of breasts in particular and women in general. It is sweet and almost mystical and doesn’t make anyone a dime. It is both a natural, God-given gift and an art passed down from one generation of women to the next. When someone gives me a look of disapproval for having the unmitigated temerity to bring a hungry babe to my breast in public or when I hear someone mutter under his/her breath about the presumed age of the little one whose tiny sneakers peak out of my nursing cover, I think of Our Lady.

One of my favorite images of the Blessed Mother comes from a small book with a torn paper cover I found on the clearance shelf of a Catholic bookstore many years ago. It’s a drawing of Mary entitled “Nuestra Señora de la Leche.” In it, Mary is cradling the infant Jesus in her arms as he nurses happily at her exposed breast. The image illustrates Christ’s humanity. The image shows Mary’s tender love for her Son … a love to which all believers are called to aspire. The image affirms the dignity of women’s bodies … in all of their beauty and messiness and possibility. When I think of Our Lady, I am filled with a reminder that I am fearfully and wonderfully made. That the tenderness I feel stir inside me for a nursing baby is a wise spiritual teacher. That holiness is in our small moments of self-gift.

So, the next time you see a mother nursing her child, smile. If you feel that thing rise up inside you — the thing that wants to be offended by this scene — think of Our Lady. Think of her beauty and wisdom and humility and strength. Think of the radical and holy inherent to breastfeeding.

October 11 will bring the Feast of Our Lady of La Leche. Show your solidarity with poor families around the world (who are the very image of the Holy Family) by donating to La Leche League International (started by Catholic women in the 1950s when only 20% of American women breastfed) or UNICEF (which promotes breastfeeding education and support throughout the developing world). Print out an image of Our Lady of La Leche or an image of St. Bernard receiving spiritual milk from the Blessed Virgin. Whatever your vocation, seek to imitate Our Lady’s tenderness and devotion in your interactions with the little, the small, the weak. Because Christ is most present in the little, the small, the weak. And we are called to hold him close.

 
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The Author : Caitlin Kennell Kim
Caitlin Kennell Kim is a full-time baby wrangler, writer, and ponderer of all things theological. She earned her Masters of Divinity in Pastoral Ministry and Theology from Union Theological Seminary in New York City. She currently lives in Northeast Ohio with her husband and their four small children.
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Please note that the editorial staff reserves the right to not post comments it deems to be inappropriate and/or malicious in nature, as well as edit comments for length, clarity and fairness.
  • Megan Wilson-Reitz

    I suppose I’m lucky enough to be a nursing mother in an environment that is happy to see hungry babies being fed (and cranky toddlers soothed). In the nearly 5 years that I have been nursing my two children, I can count on one hand the number of times that anyone has given me a hard time about it.

    Even at Mass, where my two-and-a-half-year-old demands loudly during the homily, “Mama, want mama miwk NOW!” it only gets grins from the other folks in the pews, not glares.

    Nursing in public IS a social justice issue, not because I have the right to flash my breasts in public if I feel like, but because it can make the difference between success or failure in breastfeeding. In the first few difficult months, if a nursing mother fails to nurse her baby on demand, or supplements with bottles when in public, it frequently (perhaps invariably) affects her milk supply, leaving her babe to go hungry or to be fed more and more with formula. Sometimes this is unavoidable — but it should not be caused by society’s censure of something as simple as breastfeeding in public.

    As for Mary’s role as breastfeeding mother (and as Mother of God who nourishes us all), my hands-down favorite image is this one: Alonso Cano’s 17th century painting of the vision of St. Bernard, often called “the Lactation of St. Bernard.”

  • MotherGinger

    Thank you for your wonderfully written article. I have been breastfeeding my 5 children for the last 15 years with never more than 2 months off, and it has been pure grace and gift.

    I just wanted to make you aware that UNICEF supports some very anti-life causes. http://www.lifeissues.org/UNICEF/unicef.htm (esp. starting at para. 6)

    God bless you.

    • Caitlin Kennell Kim

      Thanks, MotherGinger! I had no idea. I appreciate the heads up! God bless you, too!

  • PWB

    I think a big reason women don’t breast feed is because of the social stigma our culture has unfortunately attached to it. As a physician who also happens to be a man, I encourage my female patients to breastfeed, however I admit I feel kinda weird imploring a woman to do something that I would never be in the position to do. So, because of this, I think it is of paramount importance that we revere the mother-child bond… certainly there are few things that exemplify this more than breastfeeding.

  • Diana X. Muñiz

    I love the image, it is indeed a Holy image and our Lady did it in the intimacy of her home, privately. I think that is the right and proper place to bond with a baby. Not to confuse, the image does not make breastfeeding “cool”, “hip” or the thing to do in public, it is an intimate act. It is not just biological, it is spiritual, it is bonding, it is holy and it is not for public consumption-and if the baby needs to be fed in public, throw a blanket, he/she will appreciate the privacy. : )

    • Mary Rainer

      Dear Diana, much love to you, it IS spiritual, biological and holy, a true everyday gift -Mothers who breastfeed know that babies actually think the whole blanket to cover is a fun game, you know, like peekaboo, and that they are suppose to unlatch from the breast pull off the blanket and thereby wave it, (like a big flag) bringing unneeded and extra attention to the whole process- not to mention … in places where mamas have third world problems instead of internet; breastfeeding is not a shameful thing they have to isolate themselves to do (a baby needs to be fed every 60-120 minutes at birth so…stay home all day?) its something they are BLESSED with so they can live a normal life. And so it should be in the first world, it concerns me that the Leaders of fashion in this world have, instead, brought the use, abuse of breasts as a marketing tool, both unempowering and shaming mothers from using our breasts as they were meant to be used. gracefully, Mary

      • Diana X. Muñiz

        I’m a third world country girl, born and raised in Nicaragua (see my funny name?). What applies to Nicaragua in a social context (poverty, etc.) is not the same as here. I grew up seeing women breast feeding and it did not shock me there. Here it is a total different dimension and issue. Lets be clear about that.

      • Mary Rainer

        I do agree that America MUST BE different culturally- it sounds like you have vast more experience than me with different cultures tho- I am glad when you encountered breastfeeding it was not a shocking experience in Nicaragua, I can see how many things must differ greatly between here and there, altho I think the breastfeeding in public aspect of that culture (along with other customs I am sure)- is beautiful and healthy and appropriate and I can only hope that us 1st world mamas will begin to use this gift so often and freely, for the sake of our children and our society. Interestingly, women in every culture, need to be out relating to each other, grocery shopping or taking their OTHER kids to school or sports or, even working, OFTEN in fact, working. Here in America women NEED to be welcome with their babies to grocery stores, the movie, resteraunts ect- and how can we do that if we cannot breastfeed the way God intends us to? Does God want us to raise our infants in isolation or leave our other children alone in public everytime the baby is hungry? no, God wants us all to take care of our baby’s needs while baby is close and sage, at our breast, while we are able to tend, at the same time, to other important things. As mothers we are such multi taskers. Maybe in the first few days or weeks we can stay home, but eventually WE HAVE TO GET OUT I say that in caps because its SUCH a strong feeling!) much love! and thankyou for sharing your feelings, thoughts and experience!!

  • Karen

    Breastfeeding is also a neglected pro-life issue. How many babies in Third World countries die because they were fed artificial baby milk instead of mother’s milk? If we truly care about all life, then we will take steps to help women initiate breastfeeding and continue doing so well past the baby’s first birthday.

  • Karen

    Defending a woman’s right to breastfeed in public is a social justice issue much neglected by the Church. Why is it okay to exclude a lactating woman from public life? Would we require someone with a disability to hide herself in a special room because others are offended? If people are offended by lactation, then they need education.

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