Guest Post: Spiritual Insights from Breastfeeding

by Kaylee McElroy

Our ordinances are full of beautiful birth and breastfeeding imagery. I know that for a variety of historical and cultural reasons there are a number of people who are uncomfortable seeing a woman nurse her baby. This makes me sad because some of the most powerful symbols I see in our ordinances relate to breastfeeding. We don’t talk about this imagery at church often, perhaps in part because the men (whose voices dominate the doctrinal teaching at church) don’t have first hand experience with it, and perhaps in part because the topic causes embarrassment to some people. The way we view our ordinances is shaped by our experiences. Some women never experience giving birth, and some never experience breastfeeding, but everyone, men and women, can have a deep understanding of our ordinances. Thinking about the act of breastfeeding can add another layer to our comprehension of the sacrament, temple ordinances, and the atonement.

A few years ago I had a dream that gave me some fascinating insights about how breastfeeding relates to our ordinances. Some circumstances of my life that provide context for this dream: I was a Relief Society President who was struggling to figure out how to ‘do’ ward council, I was very stressed out about reviewing all the physics concepts I was expected to teach for my job, I was newly pregnant with my third child, and the Primary President had just had a baby (so babies were very much on my mind). In the dream, it’s ward council and I’m trying to teach the men in the meeting about why it’s so important to support breastfeeding mothers in the ward. Here’s some of what I said in the dream:

Did you know that breastfeeding a baby is a very Christlike thing to do? Not only is the mother feeding the hungry, she does it with her own flesh and blood! What do you think we are going to be doing in the chapel in an hour? Are the symbols of the sacrament so embarrassing that the men need to start covering their faces during the ordinance? How do you handle going through the veil of the temple? In the temple we are endowed with power. Power is work divided by time. Work is measured in units of energy. The calories in food is also a measurement of energy. A person’s body can use the energy of that food over some period of time. When a mother nurses her baby, she is literally enabling her baby to act from the power she gives it. Endowing her baby with power, if you will. You guys need to pay attention in church, because as far as I can tell, it’s the men who nurse the babies in the next life.

 Who knew memorizing physics equations would give insights to temple ceremonies!? One of the things that I particularly love about this dream is how it links motherhood both to the symbols of the sacrament and the process of going through the veil in the temple. In John 6, Jesus feeds the 5,000 and is then followed by Jews who want more food to eat. Jesus tells them “I am the bread of life” (v. 35) and the Jews struggle to understand, asking “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” (v. 52) I struggled to understand Jesus’ crazy-sounding cannibalistic ideas as well, until I realized that all those Jews ate the flesh of a woman when they were infants. It didn’t sound quite so crazy to me then, when Jesus said “He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him.” (v. 56) After all, a baby dwells inside the mother and drinks her blood through the umbilical cord.

When we take the sacrament, two things (the bread and your body, or the water and your body) are becoming one, just like we are trying to become one with God. Mothers do the opposite: one body becomes two. First the mother’s blood nourishes the baby through the umbilical cord. Second, the baby eats the mother’s flesh while nursing. Gradually, the mother-baby dyad grows into two independent beings.

This kind of yin yang interdependence of mothers and God is also illustrated by a thought experiment I did with Moses 1:39. The original text reads:

For behold, this is my work and my glory – to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.

I reversed the words in the second phrase so the verse reads

For behold, this is my work and my glory – to bring to pass the mortality and temporal life of man.

I expected that reversal to indicate Satan’s work, but instead I think it’s a better description of Eve’s work. She brought mortality to humankind by partaking of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and by bearing children she introduced other spirits to a temporal life. Without Eve’s work, God’s work could not be accomplished.

 

I ended up teaching this perspective during a first Sunday Relief Society lesson on the atonement, using a diagram similar to the one above. I was nervous about sharing it because it was my personal way of looking at it and because it was a bit different than anything I’d heard before. It wasn’t the center of the lesson, but I feel like it completed it. Throughout the lesson, we discussed imagery of the atonement found in the scriptures. Towards the end, I summarized the types of images we’d seen in a list:

The Atonement:

  • nourishment
  • rest
  • protection
  • hugs/love

It wasn’t until months later that I realized breastfeeding does all of those things too. Certainly breastfeeding is about nourishing the baby. It can also help the baby sleep, or calm an upset or hurt toddler. Breast milk is able to protect a baby against many diseases and infections. Snuggling a baby close to nurse also promotes bonding and love between the mother and baby. Breastfeeding can feel holy and sacred; it can be a time for the mother and baby to be at one with each other.

The bishop happened to be there for the portion of the lesson that discussed breastfeeding. As soon as I mentioned it, he asked if he should leave. I told him “No. This is important for men to learn too.” Men are often not comfortable with discussions of breastfeeding or birth, but a valuable perspective of our ordinances is lost if we cannot talk about it. So I want to talk about it.  How has giving birth or nursing a baby helped you grow spiritually? Has it changed how you understand church doctrines or ordinances? I have sometimes heard birth and breastfeeding described as ordinances (although not in the “saving ordinance” category), and this idea intrigues me. What insights have you had?

Kaylee only wears sensible shoes (if she has to wear shoes at all) and is passionate about pants with functional pockets (even her Sunday slacks). She has degrees in physics and electrical engineering, but has spent the last few years as a rather alarmingly domesticated mostly-stay-at-home mom.

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6 Responses

  1. Dani Addante says:

    I’ve heard similar things to this before, but the way you explain it is much better! Thanks for sharing!

  2. Caroline says:

    One thing I really like about what you’ve explained here is the gender-bending nature of Jesus, who offers us his flesh and bodily fluid, just like many moms do when they breastfeed. I like to think of Jesus as this figure that crosses over gender boundaries, though I understand that in another light, this might be seen as male cooptation of female roles and processes. Kaylee, you may be interested in reading an essay Janice Allred published on this theme. It’s in her book, God The Mother and other Theological Essays. I think it’s called “Jesus our Mother”(?). Thanks for the great post.

    • Kaylee says:

      Thanks! I put the book on my list. I have sometimes wondered how Jesus could possibly understand the unique experiences of women. (And I think this is not an uncommon experience for women.) Currently, the best way I can understand the atonement is that Jesus experienced something that allowed him to have perfect empathy with all humans.

      A new thought that’s been rattling around in my head today: Christ spent his life seeing the unseen and helping the vulnerable. Breastfeeding women are vulnerable. I want to see this symbol as a reminder to protect those I see in vulnerable situations.

  3. Lizzie says:

    There’s a chapter from Women in Eternity, Women of Zion by Valerie Hudson that provides a similar analogy: there are two doors — women hold the key to the first door, or mortality, and men, through the priesthood, hold the key to the second, or eternal life. Both are supposed to be complimentary and it’s supposed to be an explanation as to why women do not have the priesthood in this life. (Please please excuse my paraphrasing and any inaccuracies there in). I find this idea both radical and limiting. I think giving birth and breastfeeding are supposed some of the most sacred acts we can participate in, but to try and make them ordinances in the way that the sacrament is an ordinance seems to accept the motherhood/ priesthood dichotomy. Birth and breastfeeding are biological functions that many women can perform naturally, regardless of their righteousness, provided they have a male partner. By virtue of their biological makeup, only women have the ability to do them. Church ordinances are not biological functions. Theoretically, women could perform them, but they are prohibited from doing so by church policy/ doctrine. There is nothing special about men biologically that makes them uniquely able to officiate in these rites. On the other hand, both men and women participate in them and get blessings from them.

    I do think your post is beautiful. And I think pointing out the beauty and literal pertinence of the breastfeeding symbols in our scriptures and ordinances is a really great way to open more people’s eyes to the sacred within women.

    • Kaylee says:

      I haven’t read that book, but I’m familiar with the Two Trees/Two Veils idea. It sounds like we’ve had similar emotional reactions to it. Here’s a link to a presentation she gave on the topic:

      https://www.fairmormon.org/conference/august-2010/the-two-trees

      I agree with you that the big weak spot of this idea is that there is literally nothing other than policy/doctrine that prevents women from performing ordinances. I also don’t particularly like that it assumes a gender binary.

      I’m not sure that calling birth and breastfeeding ‘ordinances’ (or perhaps ‘sacraments’) necessarily forces a motherhood/priesthood dichotomy. Elder Holland called sexual intercourse a sacrament in Souls, Symbols, and Sacraments. He said “a sacrament could be any one of a number of gestures or acts or ordinances that unite us with God and his limitless powers”. Just because not all people can physically do something, doesn’t mean it can’t be a sacrament. I agree that saving ordinances and biological functions that can be holy are two separate things.

      Thank you for your kind words. I really like your phrase “the sacred within women”.

  4. Melody says:

    Well, this is incredible and beautiful! Thank you for articulating these concepts so eloquently. I’m saving this one in my favorites file.

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