Thursday, January 19, 2012

Modesty and Breast-feeding

As a Christian woman, I'm really concerned about being a godly woman-- a big part of that is modesty. If you're like me, you've probably read several books on the topic, heard many sermons, seen "are you dressed modestly?" checklists, and had lots of discussions about it. There's no question that in our society we do NOT value modesty or the chastity it protects and proclaims. I firmly believe that how we treat and display our bodies reflects our view of our Creator, in Whose Image we are made.

As a Christian mom, the topic of modesty & correct use of the body has gained a new facet: breast-feeding. I've been disturbed to hear some mothers come to the conclusion that a nursing mother should always isolate herself while nursing her baby for the sake of modesty, even from her other children and other women. Others -- not only Christians in this case, but Westerners in general- I've known were unable to breast-feed because they "felt uncomfortable doing it." On the other end of the spectrum, some women hold "nurse-ins" where they join together to nurse their babies in public with no covering at all.  Which of these approaches is most appropriate?  How does nursing fit in with Christian modesty?  I think we have to step back a little further to even start to get an answer, and ask: how does nursing fit into our understanding of our bodies as women?

It seems to me that a primary function of the whole female body really is nurturing-- I'd even go so far as to say that it's crucial and central to our view of femininity. We are built to nurture, it's part of our image of God. (Isa. 49:14-15, 66:12-13, Hosea 11:1-4)  It starts in Genesis with the naming (defining, in many ways) of the First Woman, and it carries on through every list of womanly virtue in the New Testament.
"The man called his wife’s name Eve, because she was the mother of all living." (Gen. 3:20)

"No widow may be put on the list of widows unless she is over sixty, has been faithful to her husband, and is well known for her good deeds, such as bringing up children, showing hospitality, washing the feet of the Lord’s people, helping those in trouble and devoting herself to all kinds of good deeds." (1 Tim 5:9-10)

"Likewise, teach the older women to be reverent in the way they live, not to be slanderers or addicted to much wine, but to teach what is good. Then they can urge the younger women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no one will malign the word of God."  (Titus 2:3-5)
A very basic part of this nurturing is the bearing, feeding & care of children.  We, as opposed to our male fellow Image-bearers, have the body parts to carry children, to give them birth, to nurse them, and tend them.  We've got the hips to carry them around, the multi-tasking brain to attend to a household, and the type of sleep that enables us to wake at a child's cry (read a fascinating article on this from the NY Times).  Child-safety expert Gavin de Becker says that women are more likely to stay with a lost child until the parents are found, while a man is more likely to merely direct the child to help.  My point?  Whether we physically care for children or not, nurturing is still a part of our feminine make-up.  Women who never bear children should still see their bodies as instruments of nurture. We are nurturing when we pick up our kids (or a neighbor's) and hug them, put an arm around a hurting friend, make a meal for a lonely person, care for a sick patient, tend a garden... we are nurturing, we are women, we are being God-like.

This PERFECTLY captures what I'm trying to say!
Our culture's attack on modesty has led to a hyper-sexualization of breasts, it seems.  They are used to sell everything; is it any wonder that some moms can't bring themselves to breast-feed because all their lives they'd grown up thinking of breasts as exclusively sexual?  Some wean their babies very early, as soon as the child showed any signs of being able to ask for milk, because they're disturbed that their child can now "ask for it." Poor babies! There's a breast-feeding doll that's come out and if you read the comments, you'll see that many people are appalled, saying it as "sexual" and "inappropriate." I'd say that's the furthest thing from sexual there is-- the feeding of an innocent child!   Surely even adoptive children can grow up with a proper understanding of nursing children, of knowing that's one very big reason why God gave Mommies the anatomy He did.  [I wouldn't spend $90 on such a doll, though... Eowyn "nurses" pretty much any ol' stuffed animal happily.]

That said, we are not animals, and there is a difference between a human mother feeding her baby and a cow feeding hers.  People wear clothes.  Animals don't.  There sure are other functions animals take NO efforts to hide that we humans treat (appropriately) as very private-- we have the glorious burden of being made in God's image, we have the shame of a sinful nature.  In an effort to show respect for my body, to keep any others from stumbling (into lust), and to be considerate of those whom it might make truly uncomfortable, I practice & encourage discretion in public or around guys (covering up is not really a big deal).  BUT, there are just no guarantees. I've had to nurse all over the world in all sorts of settings and I'm sure someone somewhere has seen some skin, lol, not by choice, but that's just life. The nursing of a child is a totally natural happening and it's something good. (Kind of like kissing your husband, I think-- we're not going to flaunt it and make out in public, but if someone catches us smooching we have nothing to be ashamed of!!)  [As a culture check, in our church care group we had a single guy who grew up as an MK in Papua New Guinea, where women nurse children on one side & suckling pigs on the other, with no covering at ALL... everywhere!!! As you can imagine, he was absolutely comfortable around breastfeeding women, especially if they were covered up (and lacking in suckling pigs).]  I do hope that my own children grow up in a world where it's not even an issue, because everyone knows that's just how babies are fed naturally!

As far as it being potentially inappropriate for children to see maternal breasts, from Scripture it would be almost impossible to say.  However, kids were weaned around age 3 in Biblical times, kids were plentiful and in many families there were multiple moms in a household.  It is a stretch to think that kids would grow up watching their parents & other women nurse?  

What are your thoughts on this topic of modesty/feminine Image of God intersecting with breast-feeding?  Do you think of nursing as an aspect of feminine nurturing, as a mere biological process, or what?

**Please note:  this article is not trying to assess whether or not Christian women who are able SHOULD breast-feed or not (nor in what manner they choose to do that), but rather examining the question of how nursing fits in with our view of Christian feminine modesty.**


The Russells said...

Well, I breastfeed... but it has not been an easy road for me. It took many many weeks (maybe 5?) before it stopped feeling like knives poking me. After countless visits to the lactation consultant and the doctor, it still took that long before I wouldn't cry when it was time to feed Wilson. As someone who worked so hard to make it work, I'll be honest, I'm looking forward to the 12 month mark - With the 3 blisters I have right now, nursing hasn't been an enjoyable road for me. Now, will I do it again? Yes. Will I be sad when he turns 1? No. I fought through it and have also nursed in every transportation device imaginable, plains, cars, buses. I do cover-up. I don't flaunt it... partly because Wilson makes enough noise anyways and kicks around enough that there is no question what's going on and I just don't want to bring any more attention to myself.

All that being said, I do think that it is part of our womanly/femininity. I believe it enough to push through the hardest 11 months so far of my life.


Eowyn's Heir said...

yeah, it wasn't an easy road for us, either. Eowyn was averse to feeding and would SCREAM every time I fed her for the first 5 months of her life. My only recourse was to walk around while nursing her, singing, bouncing, whatever to distract her enough to get her to eat. That and feed her in her sleep. Then we turned that corner and it became the easiest thing in the world. As she got older (I nursed until 21 months and HIGHLY recommend waiting until summer to wean until the year mark, as I've blogged previously), she got way quieter. She was eating, she was all business, she was quick about it. Covering up became less of an issue.

So proud of you, Julie! Keep at it; you just might turn that corner and it become the most easy convenient thing EVER!! You're definitely doing the best thing for him!

Patty said...

Totally agree with this post! I breastfed my first daughter until 16 months (summertime and the beginning of my second trimester with #2) and I am now breastfeeding my 3 month old. It is simply not practical to leave the room every time a child needs to nurse (which according to this baby is ALL THE TIME, haha!). I do try to be discreet about it, but even then I get comments/looks. I was in the sitting area/powder room of our ladies bathroom at church (separate form the bathroom, but accessible only to ladies) and was asked if I wouldn't be "more comfortable" nursing in a more private place! Are you kidding me? I even had a blanket around the baby so you couldn't see anything! I obviously don't want to cause division in the body of Christ, so I tried to be as nice as possible, but I was quite annoyed. She was actually lucky I happened to be in the ladies sitting area because normally I nurse discreetly wherever I want to...those couches just seemed the most comfortable that morning!

And my toddler nurses her baby doll every time I nurse the baby! I didn't necessarily teach her to do it, but I think it's totally appropriate.

Oh, and last, thanks for the article about men not waking up to a baby's husband and I got a good laugh. How true it is.

blythe said...

I've honestly never had anyone approach me about breastfeeding in public, though I usually do it in such a way that no one would notice anyways. Sometimes I think the breastfeeding covers DRAW attention to the fact you're nursing. I've been able to discreetly nurse where it looks like he's just sleeping in my arms.

About the only public place I don't nurse in is at church because I don't want to cause some brother to get distracted. I mean breastfeeding does make guys think about breasts, even if they are dual-purpose organs. :)

Hope you guys are doing well with your pre-move stuff!

Eowyn's Heir said...

Thanks, folks! I am appreciating the perspectives & feedback!

Rebecca Elves said...

I love this post! I agree with Blythe about being considerate of your brothers. I would be more likely to nurse in public (with a cover - I have never been able to be discreet enough without) then to nurse in a small group or church service. I say be considerate of those around you but at the end of the day, your baby's gotta eat. Make it about feeding your baby, not about making a statement.

To the mom who made the comment about difficulty in breastfeeding... I feel ya. Our first month was like hell and the next couple months weren't easy. Good job sticking with it!

Flor Amaya said...

I breast fed my girl not for long, but while I did it I felt free to do it everywhere, no cover-ups It was to hot. There is nothing more intimate than that, just me and her, the rest of the world could fall apart at that moment. If I am confortable and my baby is confy and happy that is all that matters to me... who ever get bother can put a cover up over their head. freedom for boobies and babies!!!!
Love to you great mamas