The tale of my saggy middle-aged breasts
The recent blog post about a woman being refused a temple recommend because of her breastfeeding practice really hit a nerve in the Mormon online community. Some people have really pushed back. “Why can’t she leave the room?” “Why can’t she just cover?” are among the questions; “She should do what her bishop or stake president says!” is one of the reactions. I am not going to address any of these directly. I am going to share a bit from my breastfeeding journey. Not everyone has experience with this practice, and there are a wide variety of experiences as well. Perhaps if we all talk about it more, we can build tolerance and understanding.
When I was pregnant with my first child, I had a vivid nightmare that I had forgotten about the baby and left it somewhere. When I remembered and went to find it, it had shriveled up because I forgot to feed it. Apparently deep in my psyche, I was worried about the kind of mother I would be and my ability to care for and nourish the young life that was to be dependent on me.
Soon after my daughter’s birth, I set about to learn the art of breastfeeding. It was not as simple as holding the baby to my breast. At first, my nipples were flat and had to be coaxed out. Within a few days of birth my breasts were painfully swollen and engorged with milk. Looking down, they were larger than my baby’s head. I learned I had to support the breast or hold a finger against the breast to give the baby a pocket for air circulation so she wouldn’t smother against me. First daughter was a fiery nurser who latched on with gusto. Then my letdown reflex was hyperactive. Baby would pull away screaming as she drowned in milk. The milk shot across the room if I didn’t stick a burp cloth or baby blanket up there for a minute to soak up the initial letdown. Also, the letdown always happened simultaneously with both breasts gushing forth, so I had to have a burp cloth stuck in the other side of my bra as well, or else it would spill forth through multiple layers of clothing and drip down my front (yes, even with a nursing pad in there).
Not wanting to soak an innocent bystander, I usually retreated to another room to nurse during this early stage of mothering. Also, I knew this was expected of me due to both subtle and explicit comments I heard from other women. In time, I was out in the world with my infant in tow. At church, I hid away in the ‘mother’s room’ for feeding time. My daughter often filled her diaper once or twice during a feeding. So it was convenient for me to be able to change her there quickly. Often she would need a wet-wipe bath as well, because was a prodigious pooper. I had to bring at least 2 extra sets of clothes everywhere we went. But the downside to this was that the mother’s room smelled of dirty diapers. It was a tiny stuffy room, with the door closed for privacy, so no fresh air circulated. There were never enough chairs for all the nursing mothers in this young ward (several of us were BYU student families), so we had to sit on the floor occasionally.
The first time we went out to a family dinner at a restaurant with my husband’s relatives, I didn’t know what to do when it came time to nurse my hungry baby. I knew his sisters didn’t feel it was appropriate to nurse in public, and there was no private place to nurse. I ended up sitting on a toilet in a stall. Smelly and unsanitary, and very uncomfortable to sit there so long, but I didn’t even consider it an option to nurse out in the restaurant. I had internalized shame of my own breast, and the necessity of ‘not offending’ others.
I tried over and over again to nurse discreetly, and even to cover with a blanket. My daughter was having none of it. She pulled it off repeatedly. I had to hold her with one hand/arm, and hold my breast with the other hand, and pin the blanket between my back and the chair, so it did escape on occasion, much to my consternation. I was trying to be ‘modest’.
After several months, baby and I were getting used to this. I had been back to school within 2 weeks after she was born, and finding nooks on campus to nurse her. Unfortunately most of these were seats technically inside bathrooms (I hate to think of all the aerosolized feces inhaled by infants nursing in BYU bathrooms). I was able to switch off caring for baby, so I didn’t bring her to class, but I was solely responsible for feeding her. Then came my semester finals. 2-3 hours are needed for many of these tests. This particular day I had 2 finals back to back. My husband would need to care for the baby for 6 hours+. I didn’t have a breast pump, so I painstakingly hand expressed milk to make a bottle for my baby at the crack of dawn. She had taken water from a bottle, so I thought she would do okay. During the many hours away from baby, my milk let down more than once and I had to apply pressure to my chest to stop it, and go change breast pads in the bathroom. When I finally finished my exams and went home, my baby had been crying for hours, her eyes red and puffy, and she had sucked a blister onto her fist trying to comfort herself. I was furious with my husband, he never even offered her the bottle. He figured she could wait until I got back. This was my first peek into a man’s head, where he thought it was inherently a woman’s job to feed a baby and that an infant could ‘wait’ to be fed.
Baby #2 spent her early months in a foreign country. I continued to nurse with a blanket, but there were no mother’s rooms at church and I often found myself needing to feed the baby in public, generally sitting on a park bench, and even on the public transportation we depended on. Fortunately, there were no qualms about breastfeeding in this country. There was another mother who I regularly saw nursing openly in all church meetings, and a began to do this as well. This baby was a far easier baby to nurse, and I experienced much less anxiety about nursing than I had with my first. Unfortunately, my milk began to dry up and she had to be weaned early because I was pregnant with my third baby.
Right after baby #3 was born, my husband was called to serve in the bishopric. I had a 3 year old, a 1 year old, and a newborn. I was sitting by myself in sacrament meeting. Nursing in the mothers’ room meant dragging all 3 children and the diaper bag with me. I only had 2 arms, and both would be needed to feed the baby, so the other 2 children had free range of the mother’s room. When the 1 year old occasionally escaped, I had to run out into the hall with baby attached. My 1 year old was still too young to attend nursery, so 2 hours of church, I had at least 2 little ones with me, and my husband’s bishopric duties kept him busy all day Sunday. Gradually, I realized I would be more comfortable nursing in the meetings than dragging around all the children and their stuff and trying to resettle them.
When you’ve cared for as many babies as I have, your experiences as a mother begin to run together. I can tell you that in nursing 8 babies, I have had a lot of different experiences. I have had painful breast infections that caused a fever and nausea. I have had painfully sore nipples and clogged milk ducts. I have switched to bottle feeding for 2 of my children before the age of 1 because I had milk supply issues. I have nursed while pregnant. I have nursed in hot Texas summers. Some babies refuse to eat under a blanket, and some don’t mind. Sometimes nursing under a cover is fine and comfortable, sometimes it is hot and stuffy, suffocating for the child. Some babies did yoga on my lap while eating. Some babies eat faster, some slower. Breastfeeding takes a LOT of time. It is not realistic to expect babies to eat on a prescribed schedule. Older babies do develop a routine, but once you figure that out they will hit a growth spurt and it will change. You can not convince a baby to eat when it is not ready. And some babies are more distracted than others. Some won’t be able to nurse with any noise or distractions around because they are so curious, others are such foodies that they completely zone out while nursing.
I once saw another young mother nursing her baby while walking her other children to a park. The baby was in a sling, the mother’s shirt was pulled down for baby to access while she pushed another child in a stroller. Her breast was open to view of all. It was completely beautiful and natural. She was fulfilling the measure of her creation, caring for her family. She was not walking pornography, out to titillate all the weak men of the community. In reflection, I have a bit of holy envy about her complete sense of who she was and what she was doing. I spent most of my nursing life hidden away and trying to juggle the expectations and sensitivities of others while sacrificing my own and my child’s comfort and opportunities to engage with the world.
I hope the church will consider the needs of women and babies at least as important as the preferences of men. Many wards and branches the world over have not only tolerated nursing in church meetings, but welcomed nursing women and babies in all meetings they are invited to attend. I am concerned that some men feel it within their stewardship to insinuate that a nursing mother is out to tempt young men in the congregation. Surely, if that were her aim, there are far more exciting ways to go about it. The ‘high’ and ‘holy’ calling of motherhood is a sterile pedestal that ignores the bloody milky reality of bringing a child into the world and nurturing it. For women who know, the holiness is in the mess.
The United States is getting better and upholding women’s right to nourish their baby by passing laws supporting the right to breastfeed wherever she has the right to be. Feeding one’s child should not be considered a sexual advertisement. Mothers with babies have a lot to juggle. I would love to see the community reach out and help, rather than judge and shame for the choices she may make in trying to meet her family’s needs. If a woman makes a choice different from yours, do you feel threatened? If you see a woman breastfeeding in public, why not champion her? Speak up for her if others are shaming? If the sight of a woman feeding her child with her breast disturbs you, why? And do you think the mother and baby should be uncomfortable instead of you?