Proud papa defends wife’s right to breastfeed in church

Here’s one half of an interesting exchange concerning breastfeeding in church – not whether it is legal (laws pretty uniformly protect a woman’s right to feed her child anywhere she is legally permitted to be), but whether it is morally acceptable to do so.


The ‘peaceful parenting’ blog has reprinted a letter from a Christian father responding to what was apparently a missive from another father on the subject of breastfeeding in church after the first man’s wife did so. Here are a few remarks from his carefully prepared response, exegesis and all.

The Bible clearly recognizes breastfeeding as a blessing. In Genesis 49:25, Jacob states a blessing unto Joseph, “Because of your father’s God, who helps you, because of the Almighty, who blesses you with blessings of the heavens above, blessings of the deep that lies below, blessings of the breast and womb.” The breast was created for the function of nurturing and nourishing the child in addition to be enjoyed by her husband intimately. The woman does not nurse her child for the enjoyment of other men, only for the functional use of caring for her baby. To correlate the two is taking it out of context, or to an extreme.

….

If I am an alcoholic and I go to the store to buy bread and I see a man buying beer, should I tell the man buying beer to use the next register over or cover up his beer and wait to make his purchase until I am done in the store so that I am not tempted to pick up boozing again and ruin my life? Do I avoid stores all together? Do I avoid restaurants altogether? A therapist would tell me that I need to cope with my own fear and temptations or I will be controlled by them and act irrationally – potentially damaging my life even more.

….

If your pastor has a big problem with women nursing in the sanctuary, what are his procedures for dealing with it? Does he follow Matthew 18? If a woman protested and asserted her right to feed her child in church, what would you do? Do you suggest other alternative locations for nursing women who are made to feel uncomfortable breastfeeding among others at church? Or do you MAKE women move to another location regardless of their comfort level because you yourself are uncomfortable? Would you call into question a woman’s faith for not submitting to a man’s wishes?

….

Our energies should not be put toward ‘correcting the behavior’ of nursing women because, as I stated before, breastfeeding in public is not a sinful act but a natural one. The breast may occasionally serve a dual function – both for pleasure and for a baby’s nourishment and comfort. But you cannot put limitations on nursing, and use God’s design of men and women’s sexual companionship to support your limitations. They are separate functions – one does not take precedence or dominance over the other.

Where do you come down on this?

The evidence from centuries of Christian art, for example, is indisputable; the child Jesus is often paired with the breast that feeds him. His mother Mary’s nurturing breast was, of course, not just a sexual organ. It was created primarily for food; and some of its sensitivities existed out of its need to create food for her baby. All of which is to say, Jesus was breastfed.

How much of this has to do with a culture that’s looking to its predominant religion for affirmation of a now-diminishing taboo – a culture that doesn’t want to see skin in the one place (a church sanctuary) where it seems showing it could be tantamount to moral turpitude? (The beach – heck, even the mall – these are apparently another matter.)

And then there’s simply the question of how we have learned to look at bodies. Perhaps those who would cry out “Is nothing holy?” should take another moral inventory.

Category : The Lead

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21 Comments
  1. The Rev. Richard E. Helmer

    I don’t think this is a moral question at all (hence Torey’s apt remark that another inventory of what is moral or holy is probably in order.) Not feeding a hungry infant is a much more relevant moral question!

    The real question, I suppose, is only one of propriety, which varies from place to place. Over many years women have discreetly breast-fed their child during worship in churches I’ve served or been a member without any fuss. How this would offend our God is beyond me!

  2. I know of an Episcopal parish in which the rector got in a heap of trouble for installing a rocking chair in the rear of the nave for breastfeeding (in an area with materials for kids). What was ironic is that — I am not making this up — just above this chair was a stained glass window of Mary breastfeeding Jesus. Apparently people think that it’s fine as long as it’s in pious-looking stained glass, but some Episcopalians cannot abide incarnate people being people. Sigh.

  3. paigeb

    I have noticed that those who are most vociferously opposed to the idea of women nursing in church are also the first ones to complain about crying babies.

    Make of that what you will…

    Paige Baker

    (who nursed both of her children in church)

  4. I wonder what an exploration of the offended man’s computer would find. He may have been thinking “unclean thoughts” if he was concentrating on something other than satisfying a baby’s need?

  5. tgflux

    Oy Vey. Anyone who would complain about a woman breast-feeding shows only themselves for a weirdo!

    JC Fisher

    [Before someone corrects me: I suppose it’s possible that one might have allergies to the smell? :-/ Other than that…]

  6. ncmama

    I object to the turn our culture has taken, where the feminine form has been conscripted for strictly sexual interpretation, and the coarser the better. Which is more offensive, males who turn every woman’s body into pornography, or females who display cleavage and thigh we never needed to see?

    None of that applies to nursing, which is not a sexual act, whatever prurient thoughts pop into someone’s head. It’s been awhile since I nursed (1986, maybe?) but I remember trying to nurse in womens’ rest rooms, places with arguably the dirtiest floors and least restful furniture, when any was available. After baby #2, I gave it up, threw a cloth diaper over my nursing shoulder, and let the baby have her dinner. (Mine was always hungry just as the food arrived, too.) I learned to be discreet and face down those who wanted to make an issue of it, although there were very few. At church I found sitting at the back allowed me to nurse without being observed.

    Cheryl Mack

  7. I sent this link to the newsteam today because as the parent of a 6 month old who’s hardly made it to church in the past few months because you could set a clock to Jesse getting hungry at 10:30 most Sunday mornings, I’ve wondered how it would go over if I were to nurse in church. The rector doesn’t mind, I know, and.. I’ll have to check on the placement of the rocking chair, window-wise!

    Anyhow, I’d love it if some of you clergy types would respond to the author of the post directly. She writes:

    If you attend a church or synagogue, we’d like to hear from you about how nursing is handled – encouraged, discouraged, etc. – during services. Are nursing mothers and their young welcome to participate in the service? Is there a room which separates breastfeeding mothers from the rest of the congregation? Are mothers supported in feeding their babies during a service? We’d love to know the experiences of others and brainstorm ways to make church more mother/baby friendly. Write to us at: peacefulparents@gmail.com

    And I think you all could probably give her some wonderful insights into your current practices, as clergy, as parents, and as Christians.

  8. Rev. Harry Allagree

    When I was a newly ordained priest, 46 years ago, in the mid-’60’s I was sent to an inner city parish for a few weeks that summer. I taught an inquiry class, and one day, near the front, sat an African-American woman holding an infant girl. When the child became restless, the woman, in a completely natural and unembarrassed gesture, put the child to her breast to suckle. It took me by surprise, but at the same time I have always considered it one of the most beautiful learning experiences I ever had as a young priest; in fact, even a sort of compliment in that she was self-confident enough in that setting to risk being somewhat vulnerable in front of me, a white, male religious authority figure. My feeling was that I was the stranger in her home territory, so why would she not feel free to nurture her child in that way. It seems to me that the objecting man in question may have some “issues”. I’m certain that God doesn’t mind – after all, it’s God’s house!

  9. you are so funny JC – I am chortling – I always tell people who are upset – they don’t have to look — but seems they have to – again and again !!

  10. Dä'ved Äyan

    I see women breastfeed in public in México almost whenever I go out, we are a country with a very young population, but they are not exposing their breast in public, they are doing it under something, a blanket or a scarf.

    So is this woman being discrete, or is she whipping it out and flashing everyone? Is that what we are speaking about, a discrete, private form of breastfeeding in public? Or are we speaking of a need for women to expose their bare breast in public for the world to see? Because if it the latter, I am baffled for the need. To me, if a woman feels a need to bare her breast publicly, to expose her breast publicly, in order to feed her baby, then there is something else going on with her. But if we are speaking of a woman discretely feeding her baby under the privacy of a cover of some sort, then I think that it is no one else’s business.

  11. paigeb

    To me, if a woman feels a need to bare her breast publicly, to expose her breast publicly, in order to feed her baby, then there is something else going on with her.

    Some babies will not feed under a hot, suffocating covering. And why should they have to? After all, would any of us want to eat our dinner under a burqa?

    I’m with Ann on this one. If (collective) you are offended by women nursing, just look the other way. If you can’t, then I humbly suggest that there is something else going on with YOU.

    Paige Baker

  12. Clint Davis

    Why would a mother want to breastfeed in the middle of church? Just asking….I realize those who have a problem with it are those with a problem, not the feeding mother. I also realize that mothers learn to be masters of multitasking. I just wonder why a mother wouldn’t want to find a discreet place in the nave or a side chapel to breastfeed? Maybe in a smaller parish where everyone knows everyone else, whip that thing out and feed that hungry baby, because there’s more of a family feeling and dynamic among the congregation, and such a homey intimacy is…appropriate. But in a large, urban parish? Help me to understand. Again, moral objections to such a thing are kinda ludicrous for a whole host of reasons. But there seems to be an intimacy factor here…am I too sentimental?

  13. Dä'ved Äyan

    Paige, I am a gay man. I am not offended by breasts, I am not attracted to breasts. If I realized that a woman was breastfeeding openly with her breast exposed to the congregation around her, I would feel no need to become a voyeur.

    But I would sure wonder what the hell was that about. And be mentally distracted from the real purpose for which I came. I think that it would be an unnecessary provocation by someone either oblivious to the possible discomfort she was purposely provoking in those around her or someone getting some sort of obscene pleasure in forcing the situation on her fellow congregants.

    I have quizzed my Mother, three sisters and a cousin about the issue. They all breastfed in public, with a covering of fabric appropriate to the season of the year. And they assured me your argument of a hot, suffocating covering was a red herring because an attentive mother would have the appropriate material for the job, and that a hungry baby is not so picky as you convey. They find it ludicrous that a woman would feel the need to be so crass. They assure me that their experience is the same as mine, they encounter women daily breastfeeding in public, never with her breast publicly exposed. Only in the USA was their closing refrain!

  14. Jenifer Gamber

    Breast feeding is good for babies. It boosts their immune systems, supports growth, and facilitates parental bonding. Setting women apart to nurse adds to society’s discomfort with the practice and suggests that it is even shameful. It confirms the unease that some mothers-yet-to-be have about breast feeding. Why would we want to discourage the practice? Nursing is normal and healthy.

    Regarding covering babies up, babies often want to look into their mother’s eyes while nursing. Try breathing under a sheet for 10 minutes. It’s not really that comfortable.

    For those interested in knowing about the law, look here: http://www.mothering.com/breastfeeding/public-breastfeeding-laws-map

    ~a mother who breastfed her children

  15. paigeb

    Why would a mother want to breastfeed in the middle of church?

    So she could hear the readings and the sermon? Participate in the prayers and the Eucharist? Be absolved of her sins?

    am I too sentimental?

    In a word…yes. ;-)

    And they assured me your argument of a hot, suffocating covering was a red herring because an attentive mother would have the appropriate material for the job, and that a hungry baby is not so picky as you convey.

    Daveed–with all due respect to your family members, five women in one family is a pretty small–and heterogeneous–“N.” I am reporting what other friends have told me, and I respect their knowledge of their own babies. Just because it doesn’t match what your family members have experienced doesn’t make it invalid. And implying that “attentive” mothers will behave in the way you define is guaranteed to get a rise out of those of us who fought long and hard to have the legal right to feed out children without having to be banished to another room–or, even worse, the bathroom.

    Women all over the world openly feed their babies and no one bats an eye–except in countries with European heritage. Then–HORRORS–women are “whipping that thing out” and using it to feed babies!!!!

    FTR, I never had to do that. I had the money to buy special nursing clothes, so my babies could feed without being covered by blankets so they wouldn’t offend the delicate sensibilities of the people around us. But not everyone is in that position. And not every baby is the same.

    Paige Baker

  16. Dä'ved Äyan

    You forget one thing about your unique culture in the US Paige. Churches can discriminate. A local congregation can determine that it will discriminate on race, on sexual orientation, on gender, on physical abilities, on gender orientation, etc. And I seriously doubt that a US court would weigh into a congregation determining that it was uncomfortable with naked breasts in the congregation during Divine Worship.

    As a Statesonian, you are duty bound to defend their freedom to discriminate because that is what your Bill of Rights is for, and a chink in its amour plating could bring down the whole celebrated stack of cards.

  17. tgflux

    Why would a mother want to breastfeed in the middle of church?

    Respectfully, Clint: it’s not the MOTHER who controls the “wanting to breastfeed”, it’s the young’un! [Curiously enough, it seems bubs don’t give a damn if it’s the middle of church, or the middle of Grand Central Station or wherever! The only thing relevant is now, Now, NOOOOOOWWW!!! }-O]

    JC Fisher

  18. paigeb

    As a Statesonian, you are duty bound to defend their freedom to discriminate because that is what your Bill of Rights is for, and a chink in its amour plating could bring down the whole celebrated stack of cards.

    When you can’t think of a decent counterargument, I guess the only recourse left it to bash the U.S. political system. I give that a big FAIL.

    And, FTR, I am not “duty bound” to defend ANYTHING that violates my conscience or the human rights of other people–including hungry babies.

    Paige Baker

  19. Dä'ved Äyan

    Paige, I apologize that any hyperbole I may have used in my comments has elicited an escalation of hyperbole from you.

    I did not bash the US political system. I stated legal fact as it exists in the USA under your present system of laws.

    This post is not about breastfeeding babies. This post is not about breastfeeding babies in public. This post is about breastfeeding babies publicly in a church service.

    What the post was not clear about to me was whether it referred to exposing breasts in the church service, to me a form of public nudity. And so I asked if that was what we were discussing as opposed to breastfeeding publicly in a church service with an appropriate covering.

    Simply, if the post is about a mother exposing her breast in a church service, then I am opposed to it. I think that the comportment is inappropriate. I do not think that it takes into consideration the feelings of fellow parishioners.

    So as my final point, since a few of you have pointed out that public breastfeeding is legal in many US jurisdictions, and since this post is about breastfeeding in a church service, I point out that it is legal in the USA for churches to discriminate. So I doubt that the laws allowing public breastfeeding apply to a church that wishes to make a compelling argument opposing such behavior on religious grounds.

  20. paigeb

    So I doubt that the laws allowing public breastfeeding apply to a church that wishes to make a compelling argument opposing such behavior on religious grounds.

    You are incorrect. As the link notes, 44 U.S. states, the District of Columbia, and the Virgin Islands have laws with language specifically allowing women to breastfeed in any public or private location.

    That’s not all 50, of course, but I would say that the preponderance of evidence is on my side, not yours.

    Simply, if the post is about a mother exposing her breast in a church service, then I am opposed to it. I think that the comportment is inappropriate. I do not think that it takes into consideration the feelings of fellow parishioners.

    And I think those fellow parishioners are not thinking about the hungry baby. Why should the sensitivities of grown-ups–who can, after all look the other way or sit somewhere else–trump the needs of a hungry baby? What is “Christian” about demanding that their desires should supersede the needs of an infant?

    In the general culture, opposition to nursing in public is generally rooted in objectification of women’s bodies. It is maddening to see that carried over into the church–especially, as several commenters here have noted, when visual depictions of the Blessed Virgin Mary nursing the infant Jesus are in evidence!

    Paige Baker

  21. Dä'ved Äyan

    There are public laws in many jurisdictions of the USA; federal, state and local, that make it illegal for any public or private entity to discriminate against race, age, gender, national origin, gender orientation, sexual orientation, physical ability, marital status, etc,. etc,. etc.

    They do not apply to churches. The SCOUSA has ruled that freedom of religious belief supersedes all of them. I think that a preponderance of the evidence regarding churches being allowed to discriminate is not in your favor. So again, I doubt that the laws allowing public breastfeeding apply to a church that wishes to make a compelling argument opposing such behavior on religious grounds. The only way to know for sure would be a court ruling on the matter.

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