Do what comes naturally, say our spiritual leaders
We were admittedly a fairly crunchy granola couple, and we never thought it was going to be a problem. It was better for the children, and it was the natural thing to do, and the thing God intended, and a lot easier than the technological solutions, and a lot cheaper too, and our peers all did it.
There was no downside . . . except the number of people who acted as if we’d just urinated on their front lawn. There were times I suddenly thought, "There are really silly people in the world." (I thought “idiots,” actually, to be honest, but I was younger then, and had stronger reactions to human silliness.)
I’m talking about breastfeeding, or in the less graphic term used as a euphemism, nursing. (“Breastfeeding” has the word “breast” in it, which makes people think of breasts. So some people say “nursing.”) It’s not a live issue for us anymore, but I thought back to our years as young parents when a younger friend, a New Testament scholar you would not have pegged as a crunchy granola type, posted this hilarious video, Four Reasons Women Should Never Breastfeed in Public. (The speaker, Kristina Kuzmic, puts the point more colorfully than some readers may like.) My friend was surprised to find himself a “lactivist.”
Breastfeeding is a third rail subject, because people who disagree with you can go ballistic in about a tenth of a second. To be accurate, families whose mothers don’t breastfeed their children can go ballistic in about a tenth of a second. Families whose mothers do just get annoyed when challenged or, as sometimes happens, patronized. The default position for anyone speaking about the subject is to say that whether to do it is a personal decision, families differ so much no generalizations can be made, no one can say which way is better, etc.
Which isn’t, for the Catholic, true. It isn’t a subject on which much authoritative has been said, but what has been said speaks on the side of the parctice, at least as a strong urging if not a directive. As Pope Pius XII said back in 1941, “except where it is quite impossible, it is most desirable that the mother should feed her child at her own breast.” John Paul II cited this approvingly when speaking to a conference on breastfeeding at the Vatican. "In addition to [its] immunological and nutritional effects, he said,
this natural way of feeding can create a bond of love and security between mother and child, and enable the child to assert its presence as a person through interaction with the mother. . . . One hopes that your studies will serve to “heighten public awareness of how much this natural activity benefits the child and helps to create the closeness and maternal bonding” so necessary for healthy child development. So human and natural is this bond that the Psalms use the image of the infant at its mother’s breast as a picture of God’s care for man (cf. Ps 22:9).
And now Pope Francis has encouraged mothers to feed their children at Mass. (Which, somehow, his critics will hold against him because, well, he was speaking.)
This seems definitive but it is also counter-cultural. If the Catholic teaching isn’t enough reason to breastfeed for as long as is good for the child, there’s another reason, and one that explains why even those of us for whom it’s no longer a practical matter might find ourselves lactivists. That is, that the alternative is a prime and paradigmatic example of a deeply human practice being technologized and commodified and these we should resist. Starting in the 1950s, many natural human activities were treated as primitive and replaced with un-natural substitutes, because money could be made that way. Even doctors, who are far more malleable creatures of their society and economy than we’d like to think, colluded.
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