In Defense of Breasts

Apparently, I have a lot to say about breastfeeding and publicly doing it. You can check my Twitter feed for confirmation of this. It’s interesting because I couldn’t breastfeed any of my children. I tried with my first two but my milk never came in. With my third, I decided to skip the stress of trying and knowing it wouldn’t work and formula fed her from the beginning. Fed is best. But I have never had to entertain the scruples that come with being a Catholic breastfeeding mom. And there are a lot of them. To be clear, I’m talking about choosing to breastfeed uncovered and people shaming you for it. You can choose to cover-up or go to a different room or whatever. You need to make the choice that is best for you and your baby and no one else gets a say in that. It’s that other people trying to have a say part that I’m talking about.

I claimed, many times and in many ways, yesterday that sexualizing breastfeeding, calling doing it publicly uncovered immodest, and saying women who post pictures of it are doing that for sexual attention, is a symptom of porn brain. What I mean by “porn brain” is seeing everything around you as sexual and projecting that on to others, whether or not they have the intention of presenting themselves as sexual. When you see everything around you as sexual, especially in a negative way, you have a problem. You have become a victim of pornographic culture, which wants you to see everything as sexual.

There are two ways of being sucked into pornographic culture: 1) by actually participating in pornography by making or viewing it or 2) by being so prudish that everything is a supposed threat to you because it “might cause you to sin”. Both of these lack cultivation of virtue. In fact, these both lack the cultivation of the very first virtue, which governs the others, of prudence. Prudence is the ability to govern oneself through use of reason. Practicing this virtue means being able to put all your faculties and passions to use for the good of yourself and others. For instance, you want chocolate cake. There is only one piece left. However, you have already had several pieces, know that you need other sustenance to not get sick and you have other food options, and your child would also like to have the last piece of cake. Using reason, you can put aside your desire for the cake to make a healthier choice for you and an act of love for your child. This is the virtue of prudence in action.

In regards to the sexual realm, prudence operates as being able to avert your eyes from something that could lead you to sin and not putting that onus on the other person who is not doing anything wrong. It also operates as not participating in sexual acts that are illicit for your state in life. It also means learning to not see everything as sexual but rather for and with the inherent dignity God has granted it!

Back to breastfeeding. If you know basic anatomy, you will know that in order to breastfeed a baby, the woman will have to uncover her whole breast from whatever clothing she is wearing to expose it for the baby. The baby then has to take the breast into his mouth to suck on it and receive sustenance. I think there may be a misconception here that the baby only needs to suck on the nipple of the breast. This is wrong! Any lactation professional (or a good pediatrician) will tell you that in order to latch well, have a good suck, actually get milk out of the breast, and not hurt the mother, the baby has to take a significant portion of the breast into his mouth. With this knowledge, it is then obvious that a mother would have to take out her entire breast for baby to get the correct latch and get sustenance. There is no just taking out the nipple for this to happen. The whole breast must be available to the child in order for the child to eat. Period.

While breastfeeding, covering up may be uncomfortable for mother and baby (for a number of reasons) or distracting for the baby. The use of a cover would be solely at the discretion of the mother needing to feed her child. If it is hot, a cover may make it hard for either to sit comfortably, which then makes it difficult for a good latch to happen. Or perhaps this particular baby is extra curious about the world around her and needs to see in order to be calm enough to latch and eat. Or maybe a baby is just extra wiggly and a cover would do nothing more than to complicate the process. In none of these situations does sexuality come into play. The breast is not being used for a sexual purpose or in a sexual way.

Exposing the breast to feed the baby is not sexual! If you are seeing it as sexual, then you have a problem with cultivation of virtue (or perhaps past trauma. There are a myriad of possibilities here but all lay with the bystander, not the mother).

I can say that seeing everything around you as sexual is a you problem and not a them problem because I have lived it. I have been the person who saw someone’s shoulder and thought, “My gosh! It’s like he wants me to jump into bed with him!” or “He clearly wants me to see him as a hot, sexual being,” and shamed women for their clothing choices and the like. For a while, even Christ on the cross was sexual to me. I did take it out on others. And I was wrong. None of these people asked me, directly or indirectly, explicitly or implicitly, to see them sexually only and to entertain impure thoughts about them. “If he wasn’t so hot, I wouldn’t think about him this way,” was a thought that used to run through my mind regularly. But then I realized that it didn’t matter what clothes or lack of clothes someone was wearing, I was still having sexual thoughts about people. Their clothes didn’t matter.

I sought counseling and spiritual direction when the guilt and shame became too much for me to bear on a daily basis. While I did realize I was in the throes of an addiction, I also learned that to overcome this way of thinking, I was going to have to do work. It was about me and becoming strong in all of the virtues that led me to see people first and foremost with dignity they’ve been made in. It was a slow process and, in some ways, it’s ongoing. You will not ever need to tell someone to “cover up” or “feed that baby elsewhere” if you cultivate virtue. Virtue is your shield and, more so, your right vision. Virtue allows us to see each other as God sees us. God sees a breastfeeding mother and thinks, “Exactly as I designed her body and that baby to work together.” He sees His creation and knows it is good. He loves.

Breastfeeding is a beautiful gift between mother and child that reflects the nourishing nature of God. It’s a very grand work. Literally nourishing another person with your body! In fact, it’s an image of the Eucharist. Who else gave His body to feed us? Who else’s body do we literally feast on and put at the center of our faith and our lives? Jesus! “Take this, all of you, and eat it. This is my body, given up for you.” Jesus fed at the breast of Mary and then gave His body to feed and free us. A mother is sacrificing her body, giving it up, to feed her child. When you see a breastfeeding mother, you should rejoice in this Eucharistic image built into our daily, natural lives! What an incredible gift! To be able to see God and His love and sacrifice everywhere is the truly great gift. Christ completely exposed Himself on the cross. Mothers expose only the part of them designed to nourish. That Christ builds Himself right into our most basic needs being met….that is truly remarkable. Praise God for breastfeeding mothers. They are mocked and jeered just as Christ was. As Mary will always lead us directly to her Son, so, too, can we let Christ lead us to Him through His breastfeeding mothers (and all mothers. As I said, fed is best and all types of nourishing are a reflection of God’s goodness. I was not a breastfeeding mother but I can still revel in awe at the miracle of breastfeeding and the miracle of feeding my child).

A final thought, eating is supposed to be a communal event. The fact that we say “share a meal” is evidence of this. At the center of our Catholic faith is also a meal, one that we share together, Eucharistic communion. When we eat together, we participate in each other’s lives and grow in bond and in holiness. God is a communion of persons, after all! So to shame away mothers from breastfeeding publicly or uncovered, shoving mothers and babies in small, secluded rooms or even bathrooms, says that we are not interested in communion with these people. This is not Catholic at all. In the Church, all are welcome. And I don’t mean the buildings, which certainly also applies. I mean the Church which is the Body of Christ, you and I. Welcome the hungry child and the mother providing. Give them a place. Rejoice in this act of humility and service with them. Aid them in it, when necessary. Heck, give them a place a prominence! And praise God for the ways He nourishes you, through Himself and through others. If we do not humble ourselves, we will not find entry into the Kingdom of God. Remember that you are a nursling, sucking on the teats of the Church for the grace of God. For really, we are all babies in need of nourishment from our God. Remember that and be humble.

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