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

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.