Thursday, October 7, 2010

How my boob, my baby and myself offended a parish

Nursing 2 month old Cole at Grant's Farm in St. Louis

(I'm going to say it up front: I do not want any negative comments about Christianity, the Catholic Church, Mary, Jesus or whoever and how the oppress women, babies, nursing infants, House Elves or the like. We all know that the Church and Christians as a whole are not anti-breastfeeding. We know what happened to me and Cole is NOT a reflection of the Holy Roman Catholic Church or even my parish as a whole; rather it is the result of a very few people being very vocal.)

I've breastfed all my babies and, with every child, have done some sort of volunteer work while they were nursing. I always brought my babies with me and nursed them as if we were at home: on demand, without a shawl or blanket. (I have nothing against shawls or blankets but I just don't use them.)

As a new mother, I often asked if it was okay if I brought my nursing baby with me. Obviously, if they said no, then I would have had to back out of my commitment but I was always told yes. To my surprise and pleasure, I found many, many mothers at my old parish who nursed babies AND toddlers openly. Some women used blankets but most did not. Children of all ages were accepted and welcome at the functions. As another mother told me, "Laura, if you are going to be pro-life and accept the Church's teachings on birth control, you have to be welcoming to children of all ages!" As time went on, I stopped asking and simply brought my children with me. Once they became a distraction, they stayed home with my husband but young, nursing infants simply joined me in my endeavors.

With Joseph and Camille, I never had any problems. No one cared, even when I accidentally forgot to pull my shirt down after feeding Joseph... in a mall. Ops. (I quickly realized what happened and fixed the, um, situation.)

With Georgie, I received comments in public both about breastfeeding and then again about formula feeding. I was even fired from a job as a swim coach, in part, she said, because I was "breastfeeding the whole time." (That wasn't the real reason but we'll leave it at that.) I told my mother that I am pretty sure my sweet Puddin Pie made me a whack magnet.

Last year, we moved and began attending New Parish, We love NP and it completely fills our needs as parents of young children. We are all enjoying the opportunities to grow in our faith. That last year was the only year I did not volunteer to teach CCD to the Confirmation aged children to work in the Atrium with CGS. Instead, I focuses on my family and surviving my pregnancy with Cole.

This year, I am teaching Confirmation with a co-teacher and again working in the Atrium at another parish.

Right before the CCD year began, the Director of Religious Education contacted all the teachers and asked if we would like to take an additional training. I said yes, of course, but I would need to bring my  nursing infant. She said that bringing Cole would not be a problem and, "we love babies at NP!" I brought Cole to all the trainings, nursed him on demand.

At the end of the training, I was talking to the DRE about bringing him and said he would stay in his backpack (Ergo) the whole time. I did not specifically mention nursing to her, as we had discussed pumping and breastfeeding and I knew she knew I was nursing him.

During our first class, we had the teens do a "get to know you" activity. Cole needed to eat, so I stepped out of the circle and fed him. Some of the students could see me; others had their backs to me. I participated in the activity by making comments and asking questions, but still sat apart from the group until he finished eating.

I was unable to attend the next session because my husband was out with my oldest and I failed to get a baby sitter for my middle two.

The next class, I remembered a blanket and toys for Cole. I made it a point to feed him in the classroom before class began, with only my co-teacher and her daughter present. During class, one girl asked me why I brought Cole. I said, "I am nursing him and so I need to bring him in case he needs to eat. He won't take a bottle."

Today, I got a call from the DRE about feeding Cole during class. She was nice about it but said some of the boys were uncomfortable. I understand; young teenage boys are young teenage boys and I can see how knowing there is a breast out (even if it is covered) could be uncomfortable for them. She told me some of the mothers had complained to her and her assistant.

She said she had no problem with me bringing Cole to class, but I would need to take him somewhere else to nurse. I agreed and suggested just stepping outside. She said no, as the other students in other classes might see me.

She then suggested the adults-only restroom down the hall, adding that she would put a chair for me in there. The only reason I did not freak out? The bathrooms are large, very clean and brand-new. We have CCD in the school building; in the actual church, the bathrooms have lounges attached to them with couches and chairs.

I suggested the RE room, which is large, with tables, soft chairs. She agreed, as long as "no one is using it and you close the blinds."

"Close the blinds?" I asked. "But if I shut the door and sit in the chair, no one is going to know what I am doing unless they try to look in!"

"We need to be as discreet as possible. We have to be respectful of everyone and their different beliefs."

Ah, here's the rub. I agree with her.

Yes, I think I should have covered up at that first class. I knew some teenage boys might not be down with the boob out. However, we are trained to have two adults with the students as much as possible. Cole needed to eat; he was sucking on his fingers, drooling, and arching towards my breast with his mouth wide open. It was my fault for not bringing a blanket or warning my co-teacher that I might need to leave.

I agree we should be mindful that everyone has different beliefs.

BUT! BUT! I was teaching at a Catholic Church! We all have the same beliefs, the same faith in God, the same religion. It was a religious class aimed at children of the same faith!

That faith has a long history of art depicting the Blessed Virgin Mary nursing baby Jesus. For many centuries, churches were adorned with statues and icons of Mary and a baby (or toddler or young child) Jesus receiving nourishment from Her breast. Why? Because, yes, Jesus was breastfed. All babies were breastfed, unless the mother could not nurse. In that case, a wet nurse would be employed or the baby would receive milk from another animal or, yes, die.

(Considering that God could work a miracle and have a virgin bear His Son, He surely made sure that She had enough milk for Her baby!)

In many of those pictures Mary was anything but discreet. She used no blanket, no towel, no Hooter-Hider. Jesus is nursing out in the open, looking around. Why? Because this is how babies nurse! Most nursing mamas have a story or ten about how their baby likes to play "latch-on, latch-off" and smile at people while enjoying a snack. It's funny and frustrating and, until about the Victorian period, very normal.

Then came the wars, mothers going back to work, formula and bottles and prudish Puritan beliefs. People became appalled at the thought of -gasp!- baby Jesus sucking at a breast for nourishment! Mary lactating! How... un-divine! (Although apparently there once was a devotion to Our Lady of La Leche. Go figure.)

I also agree that we need to be respectful of different cultural beliefs. However, in my culture, babies are breastfed as long as the mother desires. In my culture, babies stay with their mothers as long as the mother wants them with her. In my culture, babies don't "need" bottles unless the mother wants her baby to take one. Babies are worn on the  mother's body, sleep in the mother's bed. That is how I was parented and raised; that is my culture.

In asking me to respect their culture, a culture that views breasts as only sexual objects not as a container for feeding babies, they are disrespecting my culture. By asking me to hide in a room with the blinds drawn in case someone might chance to look in while I was feeding my son, they are saying that part of my culture needs to be hidden. They are saying my culture is wrong.

I have formula fed a child and supplemented with formula for another. I respect a woman's right to make a different choice than I have. I know first had how hard nursing can be and I understand why a woman would stop trying to nurse and use formula. I would never, ever ask her to bottle-fed her baby in a closet, bathroom or with the blinds drawn. She is feeding her baby. How is that a problem?

I suggested using a blanket and, if I forgot it, leaving the room. This is not an option, nor is nursing in the empty classroom before class. She does not want to me nurse in front of my co-leader and her daughter, as it might make the daughter uncomfortable.

There's an irony here. Cole is a high needs baby who loooves to be held and loves attention. He also likes to grab at paper, drool and put everything in his mouth. Instead of hanging out in the Ergo, he was bouncing around  laughing, trying to flirt with all the girls. Class is during bedtime, when he likes to cluster feed; Adam doesn't like being left alone with a tired baby who wants to nurse and can't. But he is SO demanding that I was going to try and leave him with Adam. I'm only gone 2 hours and I know he can go two hours without nursing. Now though...

Part of me wants to go with my original plan. Part of me wants to leave him with Adam; he'd probably be happier jumping in his doorway jumper at home than hanging out with me. But part of me, the militant lactivist part that would happily stage a nurse in, wants to bring him. Part of me wants to park it in the back of the room and nurse like no one said nuttin. I want to show them that they can't win, won't win and that my baby belongs with me. It is normal, natural and, yes, what women have been doing for ages.

I want to keep teaching; I love teaching Confirmation. I have a baby who needs me but who can also be left with his father for short periods of time... maybe. I need to decide how much of an issue I am going to make this and how much I am going to let slide.

But, in the end, I am going to do what is in Cole's best interests and his alone.


  1. Shouldn't the parents of the teenager's be thanking you? First of all breast is best. Secondly, if the kids find it so distrubing wouldn't breastfeeding be a great reminder to keep it in the pants!

  2. Okay, that's the problem with our culture RIGHT THERE.....that teen boys might be all agasp at a nursing breast! Perfect example of how we need to normalize breastfeeding....perfect reason why so many don't do it at all or have problems nursing due to the pressures of society!! I would nurse my baby right there, with a cover and DARE someone to break your rights to nurse your baby (that are PROTECTED BY LAW) by asking you to leave. But that's just me, I don't care if I upset the prudes of the congregation. These parents, instead of complaining...should be taking this as an opportunity to talk with their boys about the actual purpose of breasts, letting them know they are not sex objects for marketing beer, motorcycles and hot rods. Hmmm, maybe your pasture could include this information in his next sermon. ;) We are not doing these boys, or our society, any favors by asking a nursing mother to "leave".

  3. Or, much as you love teaching Confirmation, quit teaching. I wouldn't want to, either. But, if teen aged boys preparing for Confirmation are not YET ready to learn about breastfeeding, and if their parents are STILL scandalized that *gasp* a mom is feeding her child, then far more education is needed than JUST Confirmation prep.

  4. I doubt the DRE got complaints from the moms of the boys in the class. I'm betting the co-teacher mentioned it to her and it's entirely the DRE who has the issue.

    I would therefore step down and tell the DRE I'll return to teach again in two years. This is a season, and Cole needs you now. If the DRE is unwilling to make a reasonable accommodation for your LEGAL RIGHT to BF Cole wherever you happen to be, then the DRE can find another teacher and explain to the class that you're leaving because she fabricated complaints (and potential complaints: the daughter of the co-teacher MIGHT be offended?) and now she can find another person to co-teach the class.

  5. I would honestly be surprised if the DRE had a problem with me nursing. She has a child Cole's age and she breastfed's him. She did say that she has recieved negative comments from students when she was running a retreat and left the room to fed her son. (It was to the tune of, "OMG, you're feeding him like THAT?!") But, if she did... her problem. A big problem but hers.

  6. Hmmmm, that is tough. I'm interested to hear how things are resolved. I too attend a Catholic Church. I nurse my little guy (now 13 months old) during mass based almost exclusively on what I'm wearing. (In some of my dress-up clothes I practically have to show my undies to expose the nip, so then I go ahead and step out. But mostly I nurse right in the pew: mass falls smack-dad in the middle of nap time and Cheerios only keep a fella content for so long.) Breastfeeding and normalization of all that goes with it are very, very important to me, and yet if I had to name a place that I feel the least comfortable NIP it would be in church. I think this is because I see it is the most likely location where someone will react negatively and also as a Catholic, Pro-life, Conservation-Minded, Family-Friendly, Human-Dignity-Extending community a place that REALLY no one should. I have thought through how I hope to respond if someone were to suggest I should nurse away from the congregation over and over in my head because I'm so afraid that the educating calm I hope to extend would be overtaken by indignant defensive anger. I admire your ability to not freak out, and I very much hope that you get to keep teaching and keep nursing your wee one in front of teenage boys, who frankly are not given enough credit as thoughtful humans who can and should handle the real world of both religious ed. and babies in the same sitting.

    P.S. I found your blog through a facebook post of the Nursing Freedom reprint. Congratulations on not only writing an honest and insightful essay on an important subject, but for inspiring thoughtful commentary among many clever readers.

  7. As a Christian, I totally understand your dilemma. I often have an issue with nursing in church, however, I'm on my second baby and I decided not to be ashamed of it this time. I have not been asked to leave, or go to another room. But if I was, I wouldn't comply. And my husband is the youth minister at our church, so it would be a big conflict. Our head pastor's wife never breastfed so I am not sure how breastfeeding friendly he is, or if he would have an issue about it. I always wonder. Our other pastor's wife does breastfeed, but she ALWAYS uses a cover and he has made it clear by some general remarks that he thinks women should be covered. *sigh* So I wonder what is going to happen one day when I have to nurse right in front of them.